Thursday, July 21, 2016

Are there patterns to male friendships?

Being friends with other men has been something with which I've struggled. I've been more at home in the company of women. Maybe it's because there's only eighteen months between myself and my sister; maybe it's because my mother has three sisters; maybe it' s because both my grandmothers are strong characters. I don't know what it is, but it has affected by experience of finding, building and keeping male friends. Like most of these things, the formative experiences are at school. There are three that stick in my mind.

The first is at nursery where we're playing a game. Someone would put one of their hands in the middle of the table. The person next to them would put one of their hands on top of the first person’s. The third person would put their hand on top of the hands on the table, and so on until everyone had one hand in the middle. Then the first person would then put their other hand on top of the growing pile of hands. Everyone else would follow. By this time there were a pile of hands in the middle of the table. The person who had initiated the hand-placing would now have to pull their hand out from the bottom of the pile and put it at the top. The next person would follow, as would the next. From there it would descend into childish screams. This went on repeatedly.

I remember one time putting my hand down on the cold blue plastic of the table. And then I realised my hand was brown and everyone else's wasn't.

The second is wanting to be good at football. Desperately. It was the most important sport in my primary school (and therefore the battleground) - and I just wasn't any good - just small and round. I remember being inspired by the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. I practised in the back garden after school. I set up obstacles indoors with a smaller ball to improve my skills. I would time myself and attempt to get quicker. It didn't work. Being good at football dictated one's place in the primary school hierarchy.

The third is sitting in my first class at secondary school. We were sitting in alphabetical order; my surname beginning with 'D' meant I was nearer the front. I looked around at all the faces. Then it dawned on me that I was the *only* person from my primary school to go to my secondary school. I knew nobody. I *had* to make friends. No pressure. Although, in this all-boys grammar school, I intuitively I realised we were all in the same nervous, oversized-blazered boat. Phew, some relief.

Combine this with regular family gatherings of grandparents, aunties and cousins; multiple conversations with people talking across each other; separated grandparents requiring separate family gatherings (a fact which was lost on me until my teenage years) and there's a good recipe for a socially-able young man. And yet always on the outside, quietly desperate to fit in with everyone else.

Not that I mind much now. In any social gathering, I'm quite happy. I'll find some connection. But it's made me think a lot about all my groups of male friends. There is something distinctive that happens when a bunch of guys gets together. At least in my opinion. There seem to be roles in which we are comfortable. When I look back to my friends at school, there was a definite hierarchy. I found it weird when I went to uni, there were similar roles that people took. And now - as a teacher - I see it with the groups of young men in my school.

From my observations and experience there are different roles within a group of male friends. The rules of the playground change little as we get older. I think there there are seven roles in any group of male friends. Some may be taken by more than one person, and they may be interchangeable, but there is one we gravitate towards.

I was best man recently for my best friend. He's one of the only people from school with whom I'm in regular contact. Even though he lives on the South Coast whereas I live in London Suburbia - about 100 miles away - it hasn't impacted our friendship (he was best man at my 2007 wedding). However, it does mean that I'm not familiar with his group of friends where he lives. After some discussion, my friend settled on a simple stag do.

We bought meat, party food and alcohol, went to the beach and built a fire.

It was a great evening - and not the stereotypical gathering of this type. We spent the evening talking, drinking, eating and getting to know each other. My friend has a very disparate group of friends. As best man (and being in the familiar situation of not knowing anyone) I introduced myself, moved between groups, collected stories about the groom-to-be, and linked everyone together. It was clear why we were all there. I am grateful that my friend has such a supportive and generous group of people living near him.

Not knowing anyone also made it much easier for me to observe. Naturally, I found myself thinking about my stag-do, and my groups of male friends. I noticed patterns.

1) Alpha: Usually physically imposing therefore De facto leader. Occasionally a bully.
2) Second: Hangs onto/ backs up the Alpha.
3) Bantered/ Bullied: Usually the butt of the jokes. Occupies an important space in hierarchy. Leveller - in the sense that it brings everyone together.
4) Weirdo: The creative, out there one. Witty and subversive.
5) Joker: verbally locquacious, another leveller, makes others laugh. Can be a second. Occasionally an Alpha.
6) Nice Guy: He's there. Reliably. If something needs doing - he'll do it - but he'll need asking. There may be more than one in a group.
7) Thinker/ Romantic: Has a tendency theorise/ over romanticise.

Some time in the last year, I read King, Warrior, Magician, Lover : Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine. It describes the archetypes of masculinity - in their young and more mature states. I can see how my characterisations are essentially derived from those - although I didn't notice until the second draft of this post! This suggests that there probably are patterns to male friendships in groups. We are social animals. And a  group needs structure to function.

For men - I think we enjoy putting order to things. Perhaps as you read my patterns or those archetypes you could identify yourself amongst them. That's really the point of writing this.  I like patterns because it makes things easier to understand, connect, replicate and grow. I certainly started to think of my place amongst all this. Where are you? Where do you want to be? I see my preferred role in a group - which you may have guessed is

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Disruption To The Educational System

Yes my writing is illegible...
I’m a teacher. This is a fact I mostly say with pride. I was inspired by the adverts when I was 25 (I’m 39 now) to change careers. More frequently now though, I find myself wondering what I would be doing if I’d stayed in my previous career.*

It’s not that schools mean to spoil the learning experience. It’s just that they make it difficult to really enjoy learning.

And I think there are two main reasons for it.

Along with one solution.

Reason One: As teachers, we think we're unique

I teach in a really nice school. No it really is! It’s a private school (which doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to be nice - every school - and in fact every institution has its issues) that’s unique. Unique because we don’t have a high percentage of students going on to Oxbridge. Unique because even though we have an entrance exam, we have pupils who are going to find GCSEs difficult. Unique because we’re relatively cheap for the area.

Unique because we really think we are doing the best for the pupils. And for the most part we are. It’s just…there’s something I find it difficult to articulate. It’s more of a vague unease.

Not because of the school. Not because of the parents. Not even because of the exams and exam boards.

I think it might be deeper and more systemic than that.

I feel it might be that we think we’re doing a good job with unique pupils. Or a unique job with good pupils. Perhaps even setting up good pupils with unique jobs. Either way, it’s all circular.

In truth though, every school is attempting to do the same thing we are: give everyone the best start to their working life.

As a teacher I think I’m unique. But actually I’m not.

Reason Two: We think we’re preparing young people for the real world

I teach GCSEs and A-Levels. I use books. I set homework. I get them to write according to mark schemes. I set up the hoops, then they jump through them. Or attempt to do so.

Some learn the game - they know it’s about grades, using particular phrases, organising themselves and doing what the exam boards want. So much so, I get asked “What do I need to do to get an A?"

This inevitably means my teaching isn’t about inspiration, learning, deep understanding or any real world experience.

It’s actually about the syllabus. The past paper. The next past paper. The model answer. The examiners’ report. The practice question. Culminating in: the exam paper.

Forget engaging, debating, finding, analysing, questioning or judging.

Sometimes I feel: forget truly learning and thinking.

I’m supposed to be preparing my pupils for a world that is changing more quickly with every passing generation - by doing exam papers?

I think I’m preparing young people for the real world.

Solution: Tell The Truth

I appreciate that this post is somewhat cynical. I do feel that teachers are amongst the most cynical people on the planet. On a daily basis, we’re exposed to the future of humanity. It’s not always pretty.

The solution to this, is to start telling the truth about what’s happening in schools.

Instead of this, teachers are subject to constant debate about pedagogic methods, arguing about the use of data, attempting to find the best way to quantify attainment, or even justifying progress according to the latest set of qualification levels.

Equally, the parental solution is currently not less teaching. It's more teaching - in the form of tutoring. By throwing money at tutors, parents feel they are supporting their children in getting the grade they need to enter the school or university of their (the parents and the children’s) aspirations.

The doorway to a better life.

It’s a simple thing to tell the truth. But a remarkably difficult thing to accomplish.

The time may be right for a disruption to the educational system.

*I was a Data Planning Analyst. Don't ask.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

We are the perfect match

Valentine 2016
My strengths complement,
your not-strengths,
in every way.
You magically,
compensate for where,
I'm not quite able,
To get it one-hundred percent.
Only together,
we are the perfect match.