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'Old and young are the same'

29/03/17

 

By working as a long term supply teacher, I am able to help my local Alzheimer and Dementia unit; fortnightly I teach art and assess the progress of the residents. You could ask 'What has this to do with teaching a student? How does this relate to me?'

My main observation of the two groups is firstly, the limited attention span followed by the, all too familiar, lack of memory retention. Although there can be up to 70 -80 years difference in their lives the frustrations and difficult can be very similar. One resident complained 'they told me there would be dancing and music. I don’t want to do art', the nurse/carer then intervened 'We will be listening to music and dancing this afternoon. Do you remember, I said we would do some art first?', this is when I switch to my SEN teacher mode, I ask if they like to draw and often I get the same reply from both 'I’m not very good at it. I can’t draw'; this response reminds me so much of many students who lack the confidence and have low self-esteem as a result. Re assurance is so often all that is needed to get them to attempt some basic art, I have developed a couple of sure fire starters that not only produce stunning and effective results but can be drawn simply by following a few steps. Once these 'ice breakers' have been employed and the recipients are impressed by their own results, they wanted to learn more.

Boredom is the next enemy of both audiences and in order to maintain this newly found enthusiasm, I need to keep them interested; with a ridged scheme of work it can be difficult especially if the topic is dull. I will always try to engage the student/ resident on a one to one basis, even when addressing a class of 32, by that I mean I will make the 'talk' part of the lesson seem as if I am addressing only the listener; for instance I might say 'You know when you sometimes see a painting and you think, that looks a bit weird..' or 'I’m sure some of you have thought, how do you get an effect like that?…'

Once a lesson has moved on to the practical aspects of the task, I can then individually ask students and residents more about their general interests in order to link it to the subject and where possible tailor their learning to suit; this way they already have an invested interest in the subject and the art is another way for them to express their passion for it. For instance, one elderly gentleman has an interest in steam engine trains and another in naval ships; both were show how to paint using a colour wash technique over pencil sketches, two very different forms of transport but both reaching the same destination.

I did not think that poor behaviour would be an issue in a nursing home or the need for discipline and on one level it is not; however there are strategies that I have used there, that are gentler and more persuasive because they have had to be. I initially used classroom strategies and the tone did not suit the environment, so I adapted it and it has been this new approach that I have reintroduced into the classroom, with success.

For example, with my elderly students they might simply get up and wander off, fall asleep, burst into song or announce with gusto that they have done enough art now. All of this has happened during lessons in my school classroom but because of the different environment my response is different. In the care home I would find myself saying phrases such as

that’s fine, Mary if you want to try something else’,


‘Mabel, it’s best you don’t wander because …stay here until I can get somebody...’


or ‘Somebody’s tired. Look at that amazing work Bert has done before he fell asleep’.

 
In a way I am still maintaining order and guarding the well-being of the residents as I would my students, by offering:

Mary to try something else is an extension task or a task more suited to her ability,


Mabel is safely contained until I can enlist a carer to escort her


and a young Bert’s sleeping problem would also be investigated (elderly Bert, not so much).

 
It has been known for a while that a gentler and more persuasive approach can have a more effective result on classroom management and discipline but how often do we as teachers get 'locked in' in one mode? The 'strict, no compromise' approach and with the lesson objective as the only goal; in fact it would be unsettling for both the teacher and students if he or she fluctuated rapidly between these two states of 'good cop'/'bad cop' but I have found it far more successful to be the 'elderly' ('good cop')teacher, caring, advising and allowing for slight deviation of topic, so as to keep students engaged but still on task; then to give over to the 'no compromise' teacher when the student has not been prepared to compromise.

There are students who will refuse point blank to be, in their eyes, swayed or cajoled and their goal is to get maximum attention but strangely it can be the 'full on' engagement of the class that now neutralises his or her behaviour. In the same way that I praised Bert for his artwork and acknowledge that he was now disengaged from the group, it was my choice of positive words that still included him and others felt less inclined to 'drift'; my younger students who were actively engaged also chose not to become disengaged because one of them did not want to participate.

The disruptive student does one of two things in my experience, they either become bored with not getting attention (this is assuming there is no underlying behavioural disorder and that he/she is in control of their actions) and then attempts to do what the class is doing or ratchets up the bad behaviour to get himself/herself excluded from the class.

My elderly students are always praising one another and swapping tips and suggestions so that they can improve their own work. I learnt that you can orchestrate a similar reaction in the younger students to assist with their learning; for example I might praise a piece of art to the class and then ask each table to select their best piece, then I would suggest that the student who's artwork they liked could show the others how they achieved it and the next task would be created jointly by all students on their table using their newly acquired skills. This way they've sought peer support, worked as a team with little or no input from myself; we could then analyse the new techniques learnt and evaluate the results collectively.

I am often thanked for a good lesson by the learners of both generations; one elderly gentleman said that for the two hours he did not feel the pain in his leg and a boy in care said he wished he could 'live in my lessons forever'.

It is therefore no surprise that thank you letters I receive are also similar despite there being such an age gap between the two sets of learners.

'Thank you for your continued support and your wonderful classes which have really made a difference to the residents.' - Activities Manager

'I thank you for everything you have done for the school during your time here. I know your commitment to the students has made a difference to the lives of many. I wish you well and hope you will stay in touch.' - Head Teacher

For me it is all about making a difference (however old you are).


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