Tuesday, 2 November 2004

Public Speaking

Something I have always hated is public speaking. Not even in front of a large crowd, but anything falling under the classification of "speech" used to reduce me to a twitchy paraplegic. In school, my speeches would be garbled and rushed recitations of a pre-prepared script. This barely improved for university, which mercifully only gave me a handful of speeches to present, although as these were always about something completely incoherent like beta-endocrine systems and the Krebs citric cycle they would just be nervy and hurried affairs that fortunately no-one listened to anyway. At no point would I ever improvise, for that could only bring about total collapse.

This lack of speech-making ability continued after university. Last year I hosted a dinner party for friends at my castle, about thirty in all. Before the meal (and subsequent ghoulish debauchery) commenced, I was asked to make a short speech, impromptu. The moment I stood up, all English vanished from my head and all I could manage was something along the lines of "Thanks for coming, enjoy the meal." Even in front of friends, I froze. No matter the size or nature of the audience, it seemed, all public speaking reduced me to an imbecile.

Which was one of my concerns before I started teaching. Although teaching a class is somewhat different from standing up and delivering a formal speech, some key components remained. That is, all attention is on me, I am in charge of proceedings and thus am doing a lot of speaking. Given my previous track record at public speaking I had a twinge of anxiety that I might freeze.

Fortunately, that didn't happen, and I have just about exactly zero nerves in a class. Initially there were a few classes that I would worry "How will I drag out a 40 minute lesson with them," but by now I'm so into my stride that I'm pretty confident I could walk into most classes of non-English speaking children below 12 without any teaching material and spin out a 40 minute lesson without breaking sweat. Public speaking and teaching are, the reality quickly became clear, very different beasts. It's pretty difficult to get nervous in a class of eight 4 year olds. Tired, bored, weary, annoyed, exasperated, hoarse, violent, desperate yes, but never nervous.

As a result of this, I now think that should I ever have to do public speaking, I would probably be a lot better. I can't imagine my speeches ever winning me a seat in government, but I think I'd be a little more relaxed and coherent. Hence, today, yesterday and the next couple of days have been interesting, with regard to the Open House lessons, whereby the parents (all mothers so far) can sit in through the classes.

You see, teaching kids I don't give a damn what the kids think. I want them to be quiet, listen, and answer when asked, but as they as they do those three things they can think I'm the biggest tosser on Earth for all I care. Really, these kids opinions mean very little to me. They are just children and, of course, I don't want them to be murdered or have limbs severed in industrial accidents, but at that age a kid's opinion is just a mish-mash of parroted parental opinions, pure gut emotion and whatever cartoon they've watched that day.

However, with an army of mothers sitting in through a class, there is a little more pressure. These are the women who influence the men who pay for my students to go to this school. They want to see my (specially rehearsed) lesson as a professional one, both educational but entertaining for their small joys. "Edutainment" is the wonderful thing I am meant to provide. I hope that every member of the committee (for it could only have been a committee) that thought of the word "edutainment" have since been murdered, or at least lost a few limbs in industrial accidents.

So, before each Open House class - two so far at one a day - I've had a little pre-stage nerves. Not quivering like a wretched vomitting baby, but just a little on edge. Like public speaking, I'm again expected to present before judgement adults, I'm on show to more than just brainless children. A child has no idea if I'm teaching well or not, but the parents are very much hoping and expecting that I am.

But it's all gone well so far. Certainly, in each class with over twenty adult eyes on me I've not been as "loose" as I might often be. I feel more rigid and less the very relaxed teacher I usually am. The kids are far more rigid than normal - far better behaved too. If the parents sat in through every class these kids would learn twice as fast. But nonetheless, my rehearsed lessons have gone to plan, they've been received pretty well, the kids have done as I've asked them and, to these watching parents, I think I've made a good job of appearing like a real teacher.

Tomorrow, though, is the dreaded Forest class, and their gym lesson. I am not looking forward to this, as a bundle of chaotic children way too young to understand anything systemically fail to do anything I want them to. Let's just hope the parents appreciate some very ultimate means of discipline because after 20 minutes with these dwarf idiots I will not be fully responsible for any potential murders or, indeed, limbs lost in some form of industrial accident re-enaction.

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