Night School – Film Review

Tiffany Haddish’s character is a high school teacher earning an extra buck running the night school classes for grown-ups trying to pass their leaving exams. Kevin Hart, one of her adult students, storms in on her at one point, when she is in the middle of giving additional help to a struggling young student.

It is not an uncommon situation to find the giving teacher providing additional support, homework or counsel to a young child. Sure, teachers can clock on and clock off when the bell tolls, but many don’t. They are thinking about their young proteges most of the time.

That’s not to say Haddish is playing a self-sacrificing  character like Hilary Swank in Freedom Boys. She’s not that type of teacher. In fact, despite the broader slapstick elements of Night School, Haddish embodies a more balanced approach with a matter-of-fact approach to education. She’s not overly invested. If she sees a problem, she fixes it. When Hart’s character thinks she’s emotionally invested, she cuts him down a few pegs and tells him to get over himself.

She sees teaching as a job, and she does a good job. She goes beyond the call of duty, where there is a need, but she doesn’t let it tangle up with her personal life.

If we could all take a piece of pedagogical style from this film, we’d have injected a well needed counter-weight to the molly-coddling sentiment of some of the currently fashionable teaching trends, without of course losing our humanity.

Kid #32 – Guitar Virtuoso

The thirty-second kid I hated thought he could play the guitar.

Thought he was a real-life juvenile Jimi Hendrix, a snotty-nosed Slava Grigoryan, a tiny Tommy Emmanuel.

‘Thought’ was the operative word. ‘Play’ was a lofty dream of what he wanted to do with the guitar. ‘Owned’ was a more apt description of his relationship with the guitar.

The thirty-third kid owned a guitar.

He owned it in the sense that a person experiencing a midlife crisis owns a guitar, because they listened to too many Santana songs so thought they’d give it a good old-fashioned go themselves. They watch a few YouTube videos, pay half their live-savings towards private lessons and, when they get to the advanced stages of Deep Purple’s insidious Smoke on the Water guitar riff (the Chopsticks of the guitar), give up to instead frame the instrument for hanging in the pool room, while pursuing a macramé course.

The difficulty with this child was the YouTube videos he had watched were of Piano Cat, he had only paid £2 to be taught in a group of twenty children and, most problematically, he hadn’t given up. He just kept coming back. Every time we had guitar club, there he would be flapping his sticky flapjack-crumb-covered fingers on the fret board, massacring the chords to Michael Row the Boat Ashore.

Now, to put the ‘guitar club’ into perspective, the British education system has in the past many years hatched a half-cocked hairbrained scheme to have extra-curricular clubs outside of school hours. Clubs are usually hosted by staff working overtime, who are being compensated with time in lieu, a fistful of coins or a pat on the back. Meanwhile, the school can smugly show off to parents, top up the petty cash tin and earn a little tick in a box from the inspectors.

The reality for parents is their child will be baby sat for a cheaper rate than the normal after-school childcare services or the cost of a nanny.

In the case of this child, it was probably just to keep him out of the house for an extra hour. He was extremely hyperactive and the additional time away from home was most likely sweet relief for his folks. His parents were always very adamant that he held a deep passion for guitar, but then he also attended Lego club, cooking club, football club and origami club. Maybe he was an all-rounder.

“He just loves guitar club,” his mother would gush.

“He waits all week for guitar club.”

“He’s always practising at home.”

“He wants to be able to play like his uncle.”

Not to cast aspersions, but the way this student treated his guitar left one to think his uncle was some type of Antonia Banderas character toting a guitar-case loaded with weaponry. The child was prone to tantrums and aggressions. In contrast to my own upbringing where I was told to wash my hands before handling musical instruments, this child would have used the six-stringed song-maker as a dinner plate, given the opportunity.

We’d barely get through the first chord of Twinkle Twinkle and he’d be setting upon one of the children a few years younger. One lesson, we barely got to the end of the SpongeBob SquarePants Theme song, because of the disruption he caused. He’d be giving funny looks to the kids, speaking over the top of others and running in and out of the room. He was a complete nuisance and when you’ve got a room full of novice guitarists under the age of ten, the last thing you need is any distraction. Then when he’d finally settle, we’d still be waylaid by a plectrum falling into another child’s guitar or a string falling out of tune on the bright pink guitar one girl had purchased from Poundland – this is what she claimed, despite my scepticism that you’d even manufacture one tuning peg for less than five pounds. A group setting was not the place for guitar lessons, and it was not the place for this menace.

The school itself was not doing itself any favours. The headteacher at the time appeared confused as to the concept of reward and consequence. On one occasion after throwing a temper tantrum in class, we wandered past the headteacher’s office to see this belligerent pest eating ice-cream. On another occasion, after throwing a shoe at a student, we walked past to find said child being asked his opinion on the proposed plans for a proposed new half-million-dollar playground. It was at that point I figured we could forgo the weekly £2 club fee by getting rid of him altogether – the school was clearly saving money on consultancy fees so wouldn’t miss a couple of pounds.

I politely suggested to the mother that guitar wasn’t for this child. She seemed surprised. She mentioned something about how he was practicing a lot with uncle. I wondered quietly to myself whether she’d confused the guitar with the guns, because they both started with the letter ‘G’. Either way it seemed he was going nowhere. So instead he remained. My sanity did not. Neither did several of the other children who became fed up and left.

It seemed a case of ‘he who plays discordantly the loudest shall be heard’. And upon reflection, the purpose of much rock ‘n’ roll music is to manically release stress by banging membranophones, shouting into a microphone and slapping your hand across some nylon strings. It was probably good relief for this child to have an outlet.

I found my relief on the bus home listening to James Taylor.

Kid #21 – You can guide a kid to textbooks, but you can’t make them think

The twenty-first kid I hated had a real ‘make me!’ attitude.

By ‘make me!’, I am referring to the following sorts of interactions:

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you tuck your shirt in?

Kid: Make me!

Or

Teacher/Parent/Adult/Authority figure: Please, can you sit down?

Kid: Make me!

And so on and so forth.

For argument’s sake, let’s say kid number 21 was called ‘Tarquin’. He had become so notorious around the school for his defiance that students and staff alike would say, “Have you met Tarquin yet?”, “Is Tarquin in your class?” or “Such and such student couldn’t be worse than Tarquin”.

Who was this child? And did I really want to meet him?

I was covering classes in this school for a number of months. The school was situated in an area of London prone to a certain amount of gang warfare. The gangs were usually made up of vulnerable teenagers and misguided young adults involving themselves in forcing young female members to be involved in various sexual acts, general theft and a bit of knife crime.

My gut feeling was the majority of students in the school were not part of such gangs, but some of those who weren’t continuing beyond Year 10 were probably on the cusp of joining such groups. The school was very active in bringing to the attention of students, the pitfalls of gang culture. Ex-gang members were often brought in as guest speakers; extra-curricular clubs and activities were organised as distractions; and the issue of knife crime was debated as a topic in English classes, using the institutionalised racism of the Stephen Lawrence case as a backdrop (albeit some of the children seemed more interested in the knife side of ‘knife crime’ and less concerned about the crime).

One film studies class was even making a mockumentary about the 2011 London riots, documenting a gang who had resorted to raiding stationery shops for highlighters.

With such a demographic and a number of already lippy students, I was prepared for the worst upon meeting the twenty first kid. Would he be part of such a gang? Is that why he was so well-known?

Apprehensive at every turn, when covering year nine classes, I expected the child to storm in at any moment. Then one day covering a woodwork class it happened…

In stormed ‘Tarquin’. He did not fit the gangster mould at all. I was expecting a much more vicious and streetwise child from a struggling background. Instead he appeared to be a well-spoken middle-class lad born into a good home. So initially I relaxed.

However, he had turned up five minutes late to class and seemed rather unapologetic. I should have been more cautious.

When asked to sit down in a seat, he declared that he was fine and continued to wander around the room. He began picking up tools; saws, chisels and other sharp construction implements, which I had been explicitly instructed to make sure students did not handle. The students were only supposed to work on their written booklet explaining how they were going to construct their wooden pencil box for next lesson.

The rest of the year nines seemed to be enjoying the show. Here was their class-clown ready to spoil the day. He was no Krusty, but if it meant they didn’t need to complete their written element of work, they’d settle for his second rate cousin.

The child continued to ignore me completely, despite every polite attempt to get his attention and encourage him to sit in a chair. There is nothing ruder or more defiant than being ignored completely by a student. Yet there is also an element of knowing with such a child. They’ve realised the limitations of the adults to ‘make’ them do things. Beyond my words I had nothing. I could call a senior staff member in, and soon enough I did, but he treated them the same way. It would have been easier if he’d smashed a window or something, because then we’d have been able to call the police who may have been able to force him to do something. Something like sitting in a cell, instead of the chair I’d originally asked him to rest upon.

But even force with not lead to learning.

And there-in lay the dilemma when later in the lesson he was asked to do his work and responded with, “make me!”.

There is in fact no way to make someone learn. They can only be cajoled, encouraged, persuaded and threatened with consequence, to complete a task.

Instead this child was happy to enjoy his minute status as a celebrity. He wandered the room greeting all his pals, as though he was some sort of politician working a room. He sat at his table like a chairman of an important board meeting, leading discussions in everything but the topic at hand. When the lesson finally ended he swanned (or perhaps even minced) out of the room with an air of contempt towards those he had just spent time with; he obviously had more important places to be.

It’s hard to know with some of these children whether the bravado comes from a place of insecurity or, as stated early, the knowledge that rules can be pushed to their limit (or even ignored) to get what you want.

The problem with this character was he’d only realised half the picture. He knew there were limited short term consequences to his blatant disregard for authority. He was reaping the rewards of his popularity within the safety net of his school environment. But left out to float in the ocean of the real world, he’d be swallowed up by the shark that is society and torn limb from limb like an malnourished walrus – I feel this is an apt metaphor considering his body type.

Luckily I only taught that class until the end of the week and moved to another part of the school, where again the name Tarquin became merely a quasi-outlaw rumoured about in the corridors. A god among pupils and fool among teachers. His destiny was tied up in failure due the size of his ego and belt strap.

So although the child may have suffered from some social autism, if we met again I doubt I’d invite him in for coffee. He’d have to ‘make me!’.

How we should speak with children

Sitting on the bus this morning, I could overhear a mother jabbering away to her young daughter of about three. The daughter didn’t have much to say, but the mother kept on.

She asked questions about how long their bus ride would take; where she thought all the people lining the streets were going (they were going to the Chelsea Flower Show); what flowers she liked the most; what she would like to do when they got to the Science Museum; whether she could remember when the Science Museum opened.

She told her daughter about what the girl’s sister and father would be spending their day doing; her own conversation with a taxi driver, the day before; what she thought would be happening at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The mother spoke with her offspring as an intellectual equal.

The daughter sat quietly most of the time, gazing intently out the window to her city, then providing simple one word answers to most of the questioning. Her answers were plain, but she was being exposed to a world of language, thoughts and most importantly engaging with the world around her.

To provide our children with access to their world is tantamount. That they can provide answers to adults’ complex questions, gives them confidence. Interacting with space and time in a real world sense gives children solid grounding for their understanding of numbers when they attend school.

Sure the young girl’s main priority was arriving at the museum to learn about science and blow bubbles.

Yet the mother’s priority was to make every minute count; every moment an experience; every thought special.

Love your children. Love Learning. Love Life.