Monday, May 04, 2009

Being a Teenager

You never quite know what a particular week is going to throw up on you.

I don't know if my profession makes me more susceptible to the influence of television or a particular craze (be it yo-yos, playing rock paper scissors or links to obscure websites [ anyone?]) or if it's just my personality.

Perhaps I'm just hip and trendy. I've got my ear to the ground on what's 'in'. Maybe I could become a 'coolspotter' or even better a 'futurologist'.

Maybe I'm just 'down with the kids'.

Whatever it is, one particular part of being a teacher (I think) is understanding the world of a teenager. I don't mean trying to hold on to my youth (although being around young people undoubtedly keeps me young), I just mean an awareness. A willingness not to bury and forget what that world was like. Not because I particularly liked my teenage years, but more out of a commitment to be good teacher.

I'm not sure why else I bother.

Sometimes though, things happen outside the normal confines of a lesson in a classroom. Perhaps the syllabuses and the subjects can only take our young people so far. What can really prepare our youth for the world beyond school?

Just having a sensible conversation with a two of my year 12 boys seemed to have an effect. Well at least I think it did. It was just a straight authentic up-front conversation about life, how they feel things are going, their own hopes and ambitions for the future etc. etc.

I think those moments are rare.

There's a lot of pressure on people to behave a particular way in different situations. Part of the a-level psychology syllabus explores this: there's a whole section on social influence. The stuff that: keeps us in line, means people are more scared of public speaking that death, and stops us from questioning everything around us.

Sometimes I feel school beats the natural curiosity out of young people.

So when those rare moments of authentic conversation open up they need to be nurtured. They make the job of a teacher interesting. They rely on the humanity of the teacher.

They are real opportunities to effect some positive change.

Beyond the syllabus.

Outside the borders of a blank piece of paper.

Inevitably, they happen outside timetabled lessons.

So there I was on Thursday late afternoon/ early evening having such a conversation with two Year 12s. They were talking and sharing how hard it was to study; to choose a path for their future; to keep focused; to please everyone. It was an open and frank discussion about how to deal with their lives practically.

So I told them the secret to life (as I've read and heard everywhere since I first started questioning consciously when I was about 20-21): make promises and keep them, and if you're not going to keep a promise let the person know and recommit.

That's just the beginning because the next question is - how do I know what promises to make and keep? Sure enough that topic came up in the conversation.

So I told them to give themselves a future, a goal, a problem worth having.

They found this hard because they are afraid.

Afraid to dream and create and really go for something because they might fail. They don't want to commit themselves in case it all goes wrong - because that's all that's ever happened before.

I heard it expressed to me like this (and I use this analogy with my pupils).

Imagine a nice, warm, clean swimming pool. The water looks great, and it looks like it would be wonderful to swim in. That pool represents my classes at the beginning of the year. It's an open pool of clear dreams, ideas and creativity.

Each time one of them forgets a homework, doesn't come to a lesson properly dressed, or I don't mark a homework by when I said I would - that's like dropping a soft warm poo in the swimming pool.

Of course by the half-term the swimming pool has all sorts of poo in it: from new floaters, to turds that are caked onto the bottom that would require a bit of scraping off.

The two Year 12s I was talking to completely understood what I was talking about (one of them knew all about my 'poo-in-the-pool' analogy). I told them one of the best ways to get back in touch with the creativity and reasons for doing what they're doing is to start cleaning up their swimming pools by making a list of all the poo.

Again they got the idea pretty quick - and mentioned the concept of a Karma List...much like My Name is Earl (what a brilliant show to illustrate such a simple spiritual point...'love your neighbour as yourself').

Of course the swimming pool analogy can be used for the whole of one's life - not just school.

So one of them is going to do a Karma List...I'll be interested to see if he's done anything about it tomorrow...(the whole conversation had some effect because I found out from a Year 13 that one of them had changed his facebook status mentioning what we'd talked about...)

These conversations with one's teachers are rare. I don't think the rules of the playground have changed that much...have they? Was it really so different when I was their age? It can't have been. Did anyone know what they wanted to do when they were 17? (Apart from one of my friends who knew he wanted to be an accountant in Year 12, went on to study it at university, qualified and is now in middle management...please bear in mind this person did not see any Star Wars film until he was 21 - no I'm not joking).

And guess what - my questions were answered in true early-21st-century-popular-culture style.

By a television programme.

I found my answers by discovering The Inbetweeners this week.

Oh my gosh. A true revelation.

I'd heard rumblings about this programme from the boys and from a couple of teachers. I had the luck to manage to cram viewing of all the first season and all the second season in two days over the weekend (thanks to the my brother-in-law's subscription to cable and the internet).

I haven't ever seen such a well-observed, look at teenage life. Where Kidulthood and Skins are the edgy, risk-taking, art-imitating-life-imitating-art, serious look at the serious issues of being young, the Inbetweeners is just fucking hilarious (whilst also being edgy, risk-taking, and art-imitating-life-imitating-art).

There's no way the series could have been created without being grounded in some kind of reality. I get the distinct feeling the writers either directly experienced or built on their own experiences of being teenagers.



The world around us keeps changing - technology, crazes, what's 'in' and what's 'out', or whatever the fuck is being rammed down our throats by the establishment.

But being young and being human hasn't...