Peeling Potatoes: The Peculiar Challenge of Teaching Teachers


A One-Armed Man in a Juggling Contest

I used to think that teaching kids under the age of ten was the most difficult thing a teacher could do. It isn’t. Or else that it was teaching chimps sign language. It isn’t that either. Teaching adults is more challenging by far. And teaching other teachers is the most difficult thing any trainer can possibly do.

Mainly, this is because teaching some teachers is like teaching the most disruptive / most demanding children – except that you’ll find that you can help these kids… if you really work at it. Too often, teaching teachers feels like being a one-armed man in a juggling contest: you can be as entertaining as you like but it usually feels like you haven’t actually achieved anything – simply because of the limits of what you’ve got to work with.

Why Teaching Teachers Is So Tough

Teachers behave like the kids they teach. And kids behave like the teachers who teach them. This can be a vicious cycle. I’ve had bad times where I seemed to run out of energy too soon, was overly cynical, or allowed myself to be bored with the syllabus and reacted in anger too quickly, and my poor students started to emulate me. Which in turn made my bad times worse.

But this cycle can also be positive: there are so many bubbly, enthusiastic teachers out there (and I’m sure their classes must be wonderful places to be) – and there are the slightly wacky, non-conformists who encourage curiosity and questioning – or the gentle, loving and graceful English teachers whose classes always seem to be more urbane and elegant when they leave.

It’s a bit of a cliché: give teachers the smallest opportunity, like being in a play, and they will go for a classroom scene where they get to behave badly… supposedly to show kids ‘what it feels like’. Put them in a real learning situation, where they are more literally the students, and it often seems as though their first instinct is to act up. They just can’t help themselves.

The Potatoes and the Peppers

For me, how teachers behave during staff training provides a clear insight into what it must be like to be a student in their classes. I have mainly spoken about the reluctant, disruptive and bored teacher so far (let’s call them the Potatoes). But you do get the enthusiastic, curious, eager and involved ones too (the Peppers). And I love the Peppers. I like to think I am one myself. It’s just that there always seems to be too many Potatoes and too few Peppers in any training session. And because they’re adults, it’s so difficult to get them to change.

More specifically, teaching Potatoes is fraught with many of the following problems – which, perhaps aptly, sound very much like the self-same issues these Potatoes probably face with some of their own students:

  • Many Potatoes only want to learn what they need at a particular moment in time. Their long-term curiosity and desire to learn about things that are not of immediate importance seem stunted. They seem unable to make connections and to find relevance. Often, they will simply tune out what they think is not very important to them right here, right now.
  • It seems to be a common Potato habit to prioritize so many other things over their own learning. Make a session voluntary and you’ll hear the most amazing range of excuses. It’s amazing how often marking / prepping / personal maintenance / tax returns and the like seem to need doing when a training session looms. If these were students, we’d have to have a little talk about procrastination and time management.
  • Potatoes very often can’t remember what you’ve just taught them – mostly because they don’t practice. These tubers seem to think that listening and / or applying a new skill once, at training, is enough. They seem unwilling to investigate, discover independently and experiment for themselves. (Or to make an idea real for themselves and their classes.) Often, these are the same teachers who themselves assign tons of homework in the name of ‘practice’.
  • I often get the feeling that learning something new once a month seems too much for too many Potatoes. And this has to happen as part of a structured development program because so many Potatoes seem unaware of informal, self-driven, independent learning opportunities.
  • Like so many of their students, Potatoes suffer from the illusion of competence: they believe that they know enough simply because they’ve attended a class or read a handout.
  • You get those Potatoes who seem to think its acceptable to interrupt and disrupt training any time they feel the need to do so.
  • Potatoes give up too quickly. If something doesn’t work right the first time it is dismissed and if a new method or technology could potentially be used badly in some situations, and without proper guidance, then it is waved away. Think about the Potato who says that tablet devices have no use in a classroom because kids have to write paper exams at the end of the year – and because students could use it to play games on when they’re supposed to be learning. [Heavy sigh.]
  • Too many Potatoes would rather you do it for them than learn to do it themselves. Instead of trying, they will wait around passively for you to show them. And then call training a waste of time.
  • Potatoes seem to respond best to tacky, hackneyed self-help / ‘motivational’ talks more than those involving real skills. Mostly, I suspect this because canned ‘inspirational’ speeches don’t actually require any real work or following up on.

The moral of the story: Try to be a Pepper, not a Potato. If you leave a potato in the dark long enough, it becomes stale and poisonous, but even a dry old chilli-pepper still has the power to light a fire and make you sit up and pay attention. Peppers spread their seeds easily and grow quickly. Potatoes prefer to rot. And Peppers are so much more enjoyable to work with because they stay with you longer and have a far greater impact. Potatoes are just damp and bland.


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