How I learned to be a teacher at dog school

It is true that pre-service teaching courses do not prepare you for the classroom. Not entirely, anyway. Universities generally seek to provide an intellectual framework that would help you carry out professional responsibilities (which is a very long list). Great for curriculum planning and post-unit reflection. Not really useful when you’re having an out-of-body experience while trying to shut down a spit-ball showdown.

During one such incident in my first year of teaching, I found myself using the voice I normally use when I’m trying to get my kelpie cross, Roger, to behave. It worked. Of course it worked. There is a reason why male PE and sport teachers seldom complain about behavioural problems in their class. They tend to not only be tall and fit; they are very good at vocally projecting their authority across the footy oval.

You should know at this point that I’m a female teacher of English, who is within a skerrick of being five-foot tall. It was no small revelation that, when used properly, my voice could be a very handy tool. Then I realised I had already learned this at puppy training.

When I first took Roger to his lessons, I had to learn to modulate my voice before I could teach him anything. It had to be loud and firm but not high-pitched, which can be a challenge for many women. Dogs find shrill notes agitating and so do kids. Thus, the worst thing a teacher can do in class (or even a parent at home) is shriek, however tempting and plentiful the reasons for doing so.

Over the years, I figured out that the trick to using The Voice is to use it very sparingly. My students learn to recognise it. And I do love the look on their faces when they recognise it because of the resulting rush of power through my brain. (It is no coincidence that many dictators in history are short).

At puppy training, we learned to supplement The Voice with rewards. Some people have moral objections to the use of “bribes” but these are the logical alternative to pressure and punishment – which have been found to have limited effectiveness in learning environments.

I certainly got more out of Roger while holding a cheese cube a few yards away. He was learning to ‘stay’ and I could see him visibly shaking from self-control for a full minute, which is really a miracle. Following the scientific method, I placed a bowl of Chupa Chups on my desk at the beginning of class and got roughly the same result from my Year 8s.

Another thing that I learned while training my dog is to repeat things until I go silly. Dogs and teenagers, if you haven’t already picked up by now, have quite a lot in common. This includes having a short attention span and sieve-like memory. It is called Teflon Brain Syndrome; nothing seems to stick.

After frying a number of things on it, though, some bits do stick. But you have to fry quite a lot. So instead of getting frustrated by a question to which the answer had only just been discussed two minutes ago, I have learned to close my eyes and take a deep breath. Then start over again.

These lessons from dog school have helped me survive the past four years of teaching at a state school. I am convinced that puppy training ought to be part of any pre-teaching course. If you can get a puppy to sit still, you ought to be able to keep a student in his seat.

But the main thing I learned from training my dog is that the depth of his learning started with me and depended on the quality of our relationship.

On the first day of dog school, the instructor told us very clearly that she was there to teach us, not our dogs. The teaching content was secondary. I first had to become the teacher that Roger needed – to have the voice of authority, the hand of encouragement, and the patience of Job. These qualities should not be foreign to teachers of young people, and will hold in good stead those who are starting their careers this term.

Categories: Education

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