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Beyond the imperfections

Charles Robinson | 01.09.2008

From speaking in court to speaking in class. Charles Robinson talks about being a trainee teacher with a stammer.

Charles RobinsonI knew I could be a teacher when I took an assembly at my daughter's school. I spoke about stammering.

I have stammered all my life and it is a regular part of the way I speak. I spent 15 years as a solicitor, advising clients, leading negotiations and putting cases in court. Stammering wasn't exactly helpful, but I learnt to live with it. I'm not always fluent, but I'm not lost for words either.

Now I've changed careers, and I'm on a PGCE course in primary education. I've taken my first clumsy lessons, and I'm more worried about timing, planning and using the interactive whiteboard than the way I speak. I have also realised that for once my stammer can help me.

When I introduce myself to a class for the first time, I like to explain my stammer. I like to show children what it is like when I want to say something but the word won't leave my mouth, when my lips feel like they're glued together. I show that sometimes I backtrack - start again in the hope that this time the words will come out right - or slip in unnecessary "starter" words or sounds. Children are fascinated. First they watch and listen, and then they start to try blocking for themselves. After I gave the assembly at my daughter's school, stammering was talked about in many classrooms and homes, too.

In the summer term I had my first teaching placement. I was worried because I still didn't know how it would feel when I had to teach children every day. My first lesson was about classroom rules, especially the importance of respecting each other. I began by talking about my stammer, but I soon realised that I had moved on. I didn't want to make this a lesson about me. What the children had to say was far more interesting. From then on, stammering wasn't much of an issue. I'm sure I blocked, but I didn't think about it much. There was a bit of smirking early on, but I ignored it. One boy seemed to find my stammer a problem throughout, and I need to make sure I have strategies to meet reactions like his. Most of the children just accepted me and the way that I talk.

Children have said to me that it helps them knowing that they aren't the only ones with problems.

Like any other trainee teacher, I must learn how to help children communicate, but I feel that I have a head start. I know what it feels like when I can't get through. In dealing with my stammer, I've learnt a lot about communicating properly. Perhaps by being an imperfect speaker, I am saying that imperfection is acceptable in my classroom, and in the world outside. Children have said to me that it helps them knowing that they aren't the only ones with problems.

I'll need strategies in the classroom for dealing with difficult speaking situations - for example a quickfire maths exercise or a short sharp question that kick-starts a lesson. Mainly children are open and tolerant, but I'm prepared for negative comments and suspicion, particularly from children who don't know me. I must remember not to say that I speak in a "funny way" - the last time I did that one little boy spent the next 20 minutes laughing at me.

From the Autumn 2008 issue of Speaking Out, page 6.

Adapted from an article published in the Times Educational Supplement on 11th April 2008