Reorienting

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Image courtesy of Jonas Maaløe Jespersen

Shortly after my 11th birthday, my parents and I visited Disneyland for the first time with some of my cousins. It was a beautiful December morning in California and we spent most of day getting on as many rides as we could. It was late afternoon before my cousin Rick and myself decided we wanted to go on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride by ourselves. We got into the little ‘boat’ (a glorified rail car on a track sitting in water) and took off with an elderly couple joining us in our 4-seat ‘watercraft’. The ride was okay for the most part and we were reaching the end of our journey when the power flickered and then went off. Nothing. A complete blackout. Since we were sitting in a boat running on a track, we came to a complete stop and were surrounded by shallow water. The biggest problem was that there wasn’t a single light source in the entire room. There we sat for over an hour before a rescue canoe came to take us and our companions to the emergency tunnel where our parents waited for us anxiously. We thought it was fun and ended up getting a single-day pass to come back any time we wanted. It was the first time in Disneyland history that the park had to close due to a power failure. The one thing I remember quite clearly from that time in the dark was how disorienting it was. I remember feeling paralysed, unable to do much to fix our situation. We just had to sit there and wait for help to arrive.

Now imagine you are in a gymnasium, shooting hoops, running, or whatever else you might do on your own when the power goes out. Your first instinct is probably to stop moving. It is our minds way of protecting our body from doing itself and harm. After a short moment, you would probably start moving again, but at a much slower pace. Your purpose is likely to find a light source, such as an outside door or a flashlight. On your own, the chances of something going wrong such as tripping on something or walking into a wall and hurting yourself are pretty low.

Let’s change things up a bit. Imagine you are in that same gymnasium, but this time you are playing a game of basketball with your friends when the power goes out. Once again, you all stop, but this time, you are less likely to start moving again for fear that you will run into someone. Each one of you start to talk so the others know where you are. One person, likely the one on the outside of the group, starts to make their way to the outside door. The chances this time of something going wrong have increased dramatically since the variables have increased.

For my last scenario, let’s change the venue to an indoor paintball or laser tag centre. This time, there are a number of height changes and obstacles. You have now increased your chances of something going wrong to closer to a certainty. Someone will either fall on their face, run into someone, or bash their head on an obstacle. Your best hope is that someone was near an emergency exit and is able to open it to provide some light.

In any of those situations, even the smallest light source can be a significant help. Once your eyes adjust to the darkness, those small cracks under the door or dim light coming through a dark curtain can make the scene more manageable. You wouldn’t want to continue your game of basketball, but you could probably start looking for the breaker box in hopes of getting the power back on.

So what does this have to do with teaching? Most likely, most of you were not given a great deal of help right out of your TESL training and were thrown directly into your first classroom. How did that feel? You probably felt a little disoriented, like someone just turned off the lights on you. All of the guidance you received during your teacher training course was now gone and you were expected to make a difference from the start. Add to that, student expectations and numerous other variables and now you are almost certainly going to end up getting hurt in the process. If you only had to deal with yourself, that would be one thing, but schools depend on so many things going well, moving together as a unit. Throw in a teacher who is essentially blindfolded and expected to keep up with the rest and things can start to fall like dominos. So why do we continue this practice of not supporting new teachers during their initial stages of teaching.

I have blogged about this subject before, so there really isn’t much to add except for a few tips for more experienced teachers and administrators to provide guidance to those who are still waiting for their eyes to adjust to the dim light. Here are some ideas:

  • Provide PD training on a regular basis.
  • Have the new teachers journal about their experiences and then share them with a mentor.
  • Team teaching.
  • Regular observations.
  • Encouraging all teachers to read, listen to, or watch other material related to teaching.
  • Make provisions for them to go to seminars and conferences.
There are likely a number of other things that you can do, but all I wanted to do with this post was remind those who hire teachers that there are things beyond bringing a new teacher and setting them loose on unsuspecting students. Also, I want to encourage new teachers that they are not alone. If you can’t see what to do, yell out like those in the crowded gymnasium so that we can find one another instead of crashing into one another. Remember, some time in the future, the power will come back on and you will be free to move around normally once again. In the mean time, just like those who have lost their sight, start trusting your other senses. They will serve you well even when the lights come back on.
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