Teacher training: a battle in the sandpit

Yesterday taught me another precious lesson. I don't know exactly what the most valuable part of the lesson was, and I'm hoping to find out by the end of this post. By writing this up I want to dissect and decode the whole situation and come up with a plausible explanation. 

Some of my colleagues and I have enrolled in a course that is a part of an EU funded project called Modern Educator. The aim of this training is to help teachers to become familiar with modern technologies and use them in education. One of the perks of this project is the fact that all the participants get tablets for free (formally the are owned by the institution I work for but in reality we can use them for personal purposes as well). An external trainer is supposed to come to our school on a regular basis to present, but part of this training is going to place in an e-learning form.

The very first f-2-f session took place at our school yesterday. It was in the afternoon, after our regular teaching schedule. We had been told that the session will last four hours. Thus we (rather reluctantly) gathered in the ICT laboratory and waited for the trainer to start.

The trainer was a good-looking guy in his late thirties (maybe early forties), who spoke with a clear, strong voice, and I sensed immediately that he was pretty confident. At least I thought so. Anyway, we sat down behind the desktop computers and we were asked to enter the e-learning programme. While logging in, we signed some paper documents, posed for the camera (the photos presumably serving as a proof that the training did take place) and listened to the guy and his jovial discourse. I must admit I didn't really pay attention because I had trouble logging in, so I was trying to fix my problem. But although my attention was not 100% focused on the guy in front of me (actually I had to turn my back on him in order to be able to work on my PC), I could feel there was something wrong with the way he spoke. Maybe it was his somewhat aggressive tone that worried me a little. A feeble red light started blinking when he uttered: "You know, we can make this in 20 minutes if you wish or we may well stay here for 4 hours". I read it as an implicit threat which I couldn't be bothered to take seriously because I knew this doesn't work. 

Anyway, during his speech, some of my colleagues kept chatting and interrupting (I think they talked about something related to the lecture, though). I didn’t even notice their disruptive behaviour until the trainer lost his temper and asked them, to my taste in a somewhat harsh way, to stop talking. To make things worse, an IT guy entered the room and talked to one of the administrators about a problem which had nothing to do with the session. When this happened for the second time, the trainer got really impatient and scolded the IT guy, too. From this moment on, nobody dared to say a word. I kept working on my problem, half oblivious to what was brewing in the room. I remember that at some stage it occurred to me that I was worried that the trainer might tell me off for not paying attention, but my problem seemed a priority to me so I carried on fixing it anyway. 

When he was about to finish his mini lecture, he made an attempt to apologize for having been harsh on us but all of a sudden, one of my colleagues, the one who had been scolded most, uttered a very dismissive remark. It was actually not a remark at all but a very sarcastic "Ha-ha". This was the last drop before the huge explosion. The trainer got terribly offended and started ranting: "Oh, yeah! You teachers are not used to being scolded, right? However you do scold your students every day when they are disruptive. Unfortunately, unlike you, I don't have the tools to make you pay attention. You can threaten your students and fail them if you wish, which I obviously can't." 

This started an avalanche of defensive remarks on the participants' part, who began to throw stones. It got very nasty in the end; it turned into a battle in the sandpit: one of my colleagues even maliciously pointed to a grammatical error in the trainer's PowerPoint presentation, and another teacher triumphantly corrected his pronunciation mistake (in 'slides', a word which we use in Czech but some people pronounce it as 'sleids'). 

I felt very uncomfortable. I wanted to leave the room and slam the door behind me, but I tried to make myself as compact and invisible as possible instead. I wasn't scared of the trainer anymore; I was terribly ashamed, even though I was convinced I wasn't entitled to the slightest credit for this embarrassing situation. At some point I was even imagining myself in the trainer's shoes and I eventually felt sorry for him ....

There's no doubt that mistakes were made on both sides of the barricade and there's no point in blaming either party for inciting the trouble. What went wrong then? 

What surprised me most was how I felt during the incident. I felt paralyzed but emotionally detached. I felt I didn't favour either side because I knew that any other remark or attempt to calm the people down would be a stab in the dark. I knew that every word in this 'dialogue' was absolutely redundant - the whole thing was actually totally redundant. I was a silent observer with no thoughts and judgements - only a sense of physical discomfort. 

In spite of the deadlock situation that emerged in the room, I think everybody finally took something valuable away. I'm sure some of us realized that this is how we sometimes make our students feel. The dialogue between the judge (a teacher) and the defendant (a naughty student) never takes place just between the two of them; everybody present in the room gets involved in one way or another, and it may become very embarrassing because words are said and can't be taken back...