Teaching: The road to Christmas

As a high school teacher of over two decades I think I’m qualified enough to say that we’ve just entered our toughest half term of the academic year. I think we’ll all agree that the 7 weeks from the start of November until nearing the end of December is like swimming in sand at the best of times!

We started our half term this week and although nothing major has gone wrong and none of the so-called ‘red flags’ have been raised, it’s still falling into a familiar pattern.

For a start, the weather has been predictably dreary. As we blink our way into Wednesday, I can safely say it’s the first time I’ve viewed a blue sky all week. And even that is being flanked by ominous clouds. So although the blue sky is a welcome sight, I’m aware that the weather could break at any given second and bring with it that predictable grey that bleeds into a charcoal, so often found in the UK. It does nothing for morale!

On top of the clouds we have the wind; there never seems to be a still day at this time of year. Unless of course we get a bright autumn day where I might get some washing out to dry and then the gale becomes a breeze, becomes a veritable vacuum where literally nothing moves! It’s the time of year when sometimes you feel like nothing will ever go right for you. And that’s a feeling that can quickly multiply as a teacher.

The wind, the rain and the general feeling of an almost permanent mist hanging over the season can be a terrible combination for your classes. I’ve certainly learnt over the years that if it’s windy and raining I’ll get at least one class who are completely off the wall for the hour. They come in, soaked because they didn’t feel the need to get undercover, and then complain about the weather. This will often then morph into complaints about whatever it is we might be doing and however we attempt to do it. And it would seem that once they’ve been knocked about by a windy day, kids can’t help shouting out and making daft noises, which will inevitably lead to fits of giggles. Not ideal for the flow of a lesson!

Sitting at a desk going through what should be a familiar routine can prove impossible. You might as well present them with a pair of mittens and a Rubiks cube each. And all this because it was blowing a gale, the rain was travelling sideways and my students didn’t have the common sense to stay out of it as much as they could.

The dark mornings and dark evenings also make the winter term a real pain. It shouldn’t make a great deal of difference really. But it does. It’s no fun leaving the house in the dark and it’s even less fun getting to the end of your day and driving home to find, light wise, it’s night time! It does strange things to your state of mind. Being greeted by a dark classroom that resembles the inside of a walk-in freezer doesn’t help either. I imagine it’s a bit like living in the far north of the planet near the Arctic in Sweden or Finland and having either almost permanent daylight or long, dark days, depending on the time year. Probably an over-the-top comparison, I know, but please feel my pain. Sometimes, the only daylight I see is through a window and it can start to get you down. Add in the weather and how that can disrupt the commute and it’s quite the pain in the rear end!

Speaking of the commute brings to mind the simple fact that it can be awful at this time of year. A few parts of my journey into work are prone to flooding and we get more than our fair share of rain here in West Yorkshire. I think our monsoon season is between January and December. There are a couple of places where it can be a real hazard and times when I wonder if some sort of amphibious vehicle might be a better option.

And then there’s the snow. Now, I’ll preface this with the fact that the UK can come to a complete halt if there’s a centimetre of snow and that looking at other countries who cope admirably with far more, we’re a bit rubbish really. However, it doesn’t change the fact that snow always makes me shudder about my commute. Over the years I’ve had multiple journeys to and from work that have involved sliding around roads and spending what have felt like endless hours getting to the end of my journey. Last year, I managed to get into work on a snow day only to find out that the school was being closed and that I faced a long journey home. Little did I know however, that it would take me over 6 hours to drive home! So any snow this year will be approached with dread!

As I write, we’re a week into the new half term. Just 6 more to go until it’s almost Christmas and a blissful two weeks off! In the meantime though, I’m hoping for less of the wind, rain and snow that will lead to the inevitable terrible in school behaviour from some of our students. I’m hoping for less moans and groans about the temperature in my room. Amazingly, there are many times where I have students complaining that it’s cold while others are asking to take their blazers off and claiming they can’t work because it’s too hot!

There are other daunting features of the next six weeks to come too. These include marking mock exams, data collections, avoiding secret santas, avoiding having to take part in our department production of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and avoiding colds, flu and COVID!

One thing’s for sure…this next 6 weeks will feel like years!

Poetry Blog: Assessment

This is a poem I wrote on a whim. It came from boredom, if the truth be told. I’m sure I was suitably inspired by the company I was keeping at the time, but essentially it was the boredom that made me start scrawling on a piece of paper.

My Year 11 class were completing an assessment. I’d done about an hour’s input, fielding questions, giving reminders, making notes and then when the time was write set them off writing. After about 10 minutes of enduring the silence and trying to keep busy I realised that I just wanted to sit down. I couldn’t sit at the computer and do work because the screen that it was linked up to would show everything I was doing and I didn’t want my group getting distracted. So, I kept the title of the assessment on the screen and thought about what I could do.

It was a Thursday afternoon and we’re based in a fairly cramped room on a Thursday, so space and social distancing meant that I couldn’t just wander. I couldn’t really just stand either as the only place to stand would have been by the door and I felt sure that it wouldn’t be long before someone absent-mindedly opened the door and knocked me into next week. Hilarious for my class, I’m sure and not the fault of the door opener, as who would expect someone to be stupid enough to stand right in front of the door. So, a quick scan of the rom told me to sit at the one spare desk available.

After a whole five minutes I was bored, so I grabbed a sheet of paper. Perhaps I could practice my autograph? Instead, having sketched for a few moments – my current favourite is to draw myself as a Charlie Brown character – I found myself thinking about the group. And what started as a few rough lines of a potential poem about an assessment became something of a poem about how much they mean to me.

Assessment

In an unusually silent room the creaking desks are a constant source of annoyance.
Every so often a stare is accompanied by a sigh as another realises that there's nothing to be done about the noise.
The dimming of the lights adds an eeriness to the tension and I am helpless; the pigeon fancier who opens the loft to the flutter of wings that he can really only hope he'll hear again.
He can only pray they stay safe.
This is our first race. A journey that we have trained for and will repeat again until the future beckons
and I can no longer help, cajole or comfort, but still make time to worry, 
despite the reality that I may never see you or hear of you again.
We are left to count down the coming weeks and spread our wings a few last times, turn circles in the air, swoop, arc dive then return to the loft each time until it's time to fly the rest of the journey alone.

I’ve mentiond this group before. I’ve taught many of them for the majority of their school lives. I remember most as fresh faced, quite naughty Year 7s. In short – and not to insult them in any way – they’re a bottom set. My bottom set. Their language skills are at best, weak even at the top end and their knowledge of the world often leaves a lot to be desired. Sample fact to prove this? When I taught them for intervention English in Year 9 it took more than a few minutes of an hour lesson to convince at least one of them that Roald Dahl’s The BFG was not a real person. He wasn’t dead. He wasn’t alive. Roald Dahl had just made him up.

Studying Shakespeare, Dickens etc can be a challenge, both for them and me. But then one of them will offer an opinion or just remember something obtuse about the text and it feels like a huge win for all of us.

The group are currently enduring a series of assessments put in place to enable me to award them a GCSE grade in lieu of not being able to do the real exams due to Covid-19. I never really let on to groups how much I care, but as I sat and watched them write, witnessing every grimace, every pause for thought and every tongue slipped out of the side of the mouth in concentration, I couldn’t help but think about them in previous years throughout their time at our school. Of course I care. I care deeply, especially about my weaker groups and I found that I was just hit by how little I can now do for them. I genuinely worry about what some of them will end up doing once high school is finished and I desperately want them to get some kind of English GCSE to help them along the way.

As for the poem, I’m not really sure where the image of the pigeon fancier came from. But I was struck by how wondrous it is that these pigeons come ‘home’ to their loft after every race.

I was aware of pigeons and their owners from an early age. I was brought up in the North East of England where racing pigeons can attract some quite fanatical people. I have memories of several ‘uncles’ (not real family, probably family friends or neighbours, but always called uncles or aunties) who kept racing pigeons when I lived at home. They’d spend ridiculous amounts of money and time making their birds as comfortable as possible in the hope of winning races and it always held a bit of a fascination for me. On the afternoon of the assessment that was how I felt. Like I’d lavished time and energy on my group and that soon it would be time to let them go. In truth, I don’t want to.

As ever, I hope you enjoyed the poem. I think the subject matter might inspire more in the weeks and months to come! Feel free to let me know what you thought in the comments.

It’s time for a new teaching year…and I’m stressed out already!

backtoschool

From next week thousands of people will be returning to a place that they most likely have a love hate relationship with. A place that, while it brings them fantastic highs and untold joy, will also land upon them terrible amounts of stress and enough moments of disbelief in a typical couple of months to last a lifetime. Sounds like a cross between a crack den and a soft play centre, doesn’t it? Well in fact, I’m talking about school.

After 6 weeks of summer holidaying – or if you’re British, dodging downpours – us teachers (and other school staff) are set to return to work. Most, for any number of reasons, will be dreading it, which is something that lots of non teaching folk and those who don’t work in education simply refuse to understand. Well, allow me to explain.

You’d expect that after six weeks worth of holidays that we’d be fully relaxed, re-invigorated and enthusiastic to go back to work. And I’ve no doubt that some staff are exactly like that. These people are not to be trusted in my humble opinion. Wrong ‘uns, the lot of them.

This next academic year will be my twentieth in teaching. It’s a job I love – no two days are the same, there are highs and lows aplenty, there are some great people – we’ll leave the not-so-great ones for later – and working with kids will always make you smile. But I’m not one of the teachers who don’t mention the pull of the holidays. Thirteen weeks a year and I can honestly say I genuinely think that it’s still not quite enough. Every half term will leave me exhausted and so any time off is largely spent recuperating, rather than enjoying myself. I’ve never spent 6 hedonistic weeks in Ibiza or somewhere partaking in copious amounts of drugs and free love. More likely, I’ll watch a bit more telly and try in vain to do jobs around the house. For me, the holidays are vital.

So conversely, I find the going back to work bit quite the ballache. Now teacher or not teacher, I know what you’re thinking. Or at least the kind of thing you’re thinking. It’ll be within a ball park that contains outrage, a feeling of negativity towards my perceived ingratitude and probably the odd utterance of that strange phrase ‘Man up‘. I don’t care. And furthermore, I have plenty of colleagues and friends who don’t care either.

An old Head of mine used to compare teaching to being on an oil rig. The feeling being that mentally, we’d be completely out of reach for our families during term time, as if we were offshore, almost. It was a particularly challenging school, by the way. As each term ended she’d tell us to switch off, go back to our families and loved ones and spend precious time with them. So if you don’t like my trepidation about going back to work then you’re heartless; I’m off to a bloody oil rig, for Christs’s sakes.

Psychologically, the problems with going back to work can start at any time during the six weeks holidays. And we’ll all have suffered with it. I’m talking of course about the anxiety dreams. You’re sitting in front of a class who just won’t listen. They’re all laughing hysterically at you, even the nice kids. Especially the nice kids! Whatever you try, fails. And try as you might these kids just won’t listen or do what you ask. You might even end up in tears in front of them, pathetically calling out things like, ‘Guys?‘ (always as a question). Inevitably you’ll wake up in a cold sweat, heart racing and possibly in need of a parent. But that parent can’t help. You’re going to repeat that dream – possibly exactly the same dream – a good few times before stepping back over the threshold of your school again in September.

As a rule, I don’t suffer too badly with the anxiety dream and the out of control class. In fact, I usually save mine up for one big nightmare on the eve of my return to work, resulting in me going back looking worse and more exhausted than when we broke up for the six weeks! This year though, has been different. I’ve had a number of these dreams and every last one has left me sat in our bathroom, sweating and trying to yoga-breathe my way to some kind of tranquil mindset that will enable me to sleep again.

The worst one actually started quite well. I’m in control of the class, cracking the odd joke, everyone enjoying their learning and Mr Crosby is kind of a big deal around these parts. And then, slowly but surely, things fall apart. The odd bit of calling out, some general low level disruption. And just when it looks like I’m about to wrestle back control, a boy the height of a giraffe gets up and wanders into my cupboard before emerging again wearing a lampshade as a hat and wandering aimlessly around my room. Every time I try to get to him, he appears back in the cupboard. Try as I might, Giraffe-Boy Lampshade Head just will not listen. And you don’t get that in your council office, your accountancy practice or your supermarket. It’s not you sitting naked – sorry, fight that image, think of giraffe boy – sweating on the edge of a bath considering doing warrior pose or downward dog in order to get back to sleep.

The next thing that can contribute to a dread of going back to work seems like a nice thing, but in fact, it’s not. As an adult, I thought that those signs telling me that it’s ‘Back to School’ soon were no longer applicable. And then I went into teaching and found that every summer the lure of those Back to School signs and their promise of stationery was to prove all too much. Stationery is a huge part of life as a teacher. At least I hope it is and that it’s not just me clinging on to shiny notebooks and refusing to grow up! Even now, after nearly twenty years in the job, I still get a little bit excited at the thought of new pens, highlighters, markers and the like come September. And I still enter Asda with a spring in my step at the prospect of a rollback on notebooks and plastic wallets.

However, while the acquisition of such things is a delight it will quickly lead to stress. Now I’m aware that this is probably just a particular foible of mine, but there is a possibility that somewhere, within the educational community there are more of us. So let’s see how many people find themselves nodding along to this. The fact is I get ridiculously precious about my new stationery and as a result I tend to stockpile it. I become like a stationery squirrel, with drawers of pens, pencils, notebooks, folders and files that are so lovely I’ll allow no one to us them; including me. Sometimes the teacher in the adjoining room to mine – a friend I’ve known for years – will pop in searching for a pen and I reluctantly agree to get one, slowly ripping opening the packet with a rictus smile spread across my chops as I attempt to hide the fact that this is killing me! Lately pupils have started to ask if they can have a plastic wallet, something I have hundreds of. They need them to carry certain notes around and I then have to pretend that it’s no problem and that of course they can have a plastic wallet, when really, hidden just beneath the surface the real Mr Crosby is screaming, ‘GET YOUR OWN PLASTIC BLOODY WALLETS!’ But of course I look forward to going back to work and of course I’m sure that my behaviour is fairly normal. Whichever way we look at it though, the pursuit of the perfect stationery can be a particularly stressful thing for us educators.

Another one of the stresses, one of the painful adjustments that needs to be made by people in education returning to work can be found with clothing. Imagine that, for a 6 week period almost everything you wore was casual. You got up in the morning, and dependent on the weather, you slung on a crumpled pair of jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. If you had to go out, you wore trainers, almost exclusively. And sometimes, just sometimes, you didn’t even bother to give your hair – and maybe even your make-up, although I personally like to spend at least a week in summer dressed as Ziggy Stardust, just for kicks – a second glance. Now you may not admit it, but this would be a world of bliss. Except for the Ziggy themed days, which frankly can be a pain in the arse. Go on, give it some thought…

Nice, isn’t it?

I haven’t ironed a shirt for over 6 weeks. And, let me tell you, when I do iron a shirt I’m pretty damn precise. No corners are cut and each one can take quite some time. So my break away from this is absolutely fantastic. The same can be said for polishing shoes. I haven’t even looked at my work shoes for the entire summer. I’ve slobbed around in Stan Smiths, Nike runners and even flip flops without a care in the world. I’ve worn t-shirts and shorts for days on end – different ones, I’m not an animal. I’ve gone sockless, like some kind of ageing surfer. And now, within hours, I’ll be back in a routine of wearing a suit, shirt, tie and brogues five days a week. All of this formality – and I love to look smart – weighs me down. I don’t miss the days of suddenly remembering, I need to iron a shirt. But I’ll miss not putting a great deal of thought into what I wear. I know, that as an adult – almost a fully functioning one as well – I shouldn’t find any stress in this, but I do. And you would too if you were annually given a massive break from it.

Lots of people don’t realise something really, vitally important about the summer break. And when they find out the truth, it can prove difficult to handle. But, for the uninitiated, here it is. We get paid for the time off. It’s a question I’m quite often asked and when I answer that yes, of course we get paid it can lead to meltdown for some. And while I won’t go into the rights and wrongs of this fact here, I would ask this. If you got paid to take 6 weeks off work, every year and do anything you liked, or even nothing at all, would you miss that when it was gone? It’s simplistic and almost boastful, but I really, really like getting paid for not going to work. It’s not just what gets taken away that makes returning to work for those in education a stressful and sometimes even miserable time. Undoubtedly, what happens when you get there can grind you down as well.

After 6 weeks away from work we inevitably return to what’s referred to as a ‘training day’. Now without swearing it’s hard to express my negativity about these days adequately. But, suffice to say, I’m not a fan. Training days used to be relaxed affairs. You’d have an initial all staff meeting, a department meeting and then be left to your own devices to get organised. This meant that the pay-off for sitting through two mind numbing meetings was the joy of pottering. Bliss. And it meant that I had time to sort out everything I needed in order to be ready for the new term. But not anymore.

Nowadays, with education it would seem moving in a far more corporate direction, training days are…what’s the phrase? Oh yes…’a massive pain in the arse’. An all staff meeting can last hours while various people tell you about things like ‘vision’ and ‘missions’ while referring to you all as ‘guys’. So lots of my favourite words then. The schedule that you’re given might as well come with a match to destroy it as time and again people talk beyond their slot, so to speak. And that’s not necessarily a criticism – when talking in class or conducting an assembly or a staff briefing I inevitable run over time while getting carried away at the thought of just bunging in another joke or better still, talking about myself. But after 6 weeks away from the job, I’m not in the mood – or headspace if you’re under thirty – to be talked at. In fact, I’m probably not listening. And I’m not the only one. You, dear colleague, are probably not listening either, so that later when we get together in another meeting, none of us has the first clue about where we work anymore, let alone our ‘vision’.

On the first day back at work I will almost certainly be given a schedule of where I have to be at any given moment during the day. And, when I read said schedule, I’d bet my mortgage that I will whine like a small child something along the lines of ‘Why do I have to go to that?’ And this is because, after 6 weeks gone rogue, I have regressed to kidult. And now this kidult is being forced to behave like a proper adult once more. Three days previously I was playing Scalectrix with a ten year old or burying my face in a chocolate muffin while watching ‘A Place in the Sun’ or ‘Homes Under The Hammer’ and now someone far more skilled at adulthood is banging on about their mission. Don’t tell me that 6 weeks off is long enough!

It gets worse. At some point you will be faced with a mad scramble to gather together things like exercise books, a diary, a planner, pens etc. Bloody stationery again! Inevitably, you will get to a store cupboard to find it’s already been ransacked by the dreaded young, enthusiastic colleagues who were ticking it all off their desk planner while you stared at your classroom walls for a moment that turned into 20 minutes! But it’s OK, because you will rise above this stress and have the last laugh by entering their classrooms once they’ve gone home, to pilfer the books that you missed out on, while telling yourself that your 20 years service to the teaching profession allows you such privilege! Little do you know, that you’ve forgotten to pick up any of the set texts you’re meant to be teaching, because year in year out, you don’t actually look at your desk planner.

More stress will come in the shape of things that others have planned for you. For instance, I dread the Duty Rota email like no other email across the year. Even writing about it makes my blood run cold. Will I get outside duties again? Because believe me, winter in deepest Dewsbury is like, well…summer in Dewsbury really. Rain, wind and more rain. And then there’s the issue of who else is on duty. Will I share a duty, will I know this person, will I have to actually speak to them? This year I’ve been blessed in that although I’ve been outside I’ve had good company. Someone of a similar cynical mindset to me (cheers Paul). But what awaits me this year? In terms of conversation I only really do subjects like football, music, football and moaning. And so if I’m lumped together with someone, what do I talk about? I mean perish the thought that someone wants to talk about education. And what if it’s one of those younger members of staff, someone in their twenties? I can’t escape the fact that I may well have to stand on duty with someone who I’m old enough to be the dad of. What can I talk about? These people are off living a life, going out, travelling, seeing bands, while I’m inevitably battling for control of the telly with a teenager at home. It may well be easier to just see the doctor and get signed off with stress at this rate! (If you work in HR, that’s a joke. I’ll explain jokes at a later date, but I’m not going to get signed off work with stress).

And there may well be other surprise bits of responsibility. Because while I know that the Duty Rota is coming, it’s not beyond a more senior colleague to have a surprise up their sleeves with my name on it. In the past for instance I’ve been assigned as a ‘buddy’ for newer members of staff. That’s right, me, a buddy. Imagine being so shit at life that you got me as a buddy. I think I managed to catch up with this person twice across the year, partly because I’m fairly useless, but also because they had already been assigned a mentor. And so I spent far too much of the year worrying that I wasn’t really helping, while simultaneously wondering what my job might be as a buddy. If it happens again I truly feel for the poor thing that’s landed with me. I’m not exactly sociable or talkative, I’m fairly certain I can’t solve your crisis and I have a tendency to furtively leave the room when colleagues cry. I’m genuinely shy and don’t actually like meeting new people. Clearly someone sees something in me that I simply haven’t got. Some buddy! But this is the kind of thing that we face in those first days back.

Once the initial training day is over we’re then left with facing new classes. And this truly is a battle of wills. Pupils are trying things out to see how much they can get away with while I’m, as usual, maintaining a heavily sarcastic streak and well, seeing how much I can get away with, really. If I have a Year 7 class I always feel that I have to appear ever so slightly cheery and friendly, which again is quite the battle due to the fact that I’m not in the least bit cheery or friendly, but I have to make the effort in their early days at ‘big school’. After all, by the time they reach Year 8 I’ll simply be a familiar grizzled and sarcastic figure for them so the odd smile at this point probably isn’t going to harm any of us. It does add to the stress of the return to work though.

Further worry will arrive in the form of new seating plans and trying to work out just the right mix of pupils in order to keep classes stable. This is complicated by the need to have certain types of pupil sat in certain areas in order to keep any observers happy when they look at data. Ridiculous really. And another time consuming exercise that for at least one of my classes will be inevitable forgotten about for far too long, resulting in chaos every time they walk in and find that there’s still no seating plan. Later, I’ll kid them that it was a deliberate ploy, designed to allow me to observe behaviour, friendship groups etc in order to create the perfect seating plan…eventually.

So there you have it. Having had 6 weeks off work many of us will feel nothing like going back, however much we love what we do. And many more people will not understand the stress. But this time next week, I for one, will be back to being Scrooge, although I mot likely won’t have collected the texts.

Is it too early to start counting down the week until October half-term?

 

 

 

 

Parenthood: the dread of living with a teen!

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Once upon a time it was Hello Kitty and Barbie. Now? Make up…just make up. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a teenager.

At the end of June another chapter of my parenting journey came to a close. The baby years have gone and the toddler times flew by. Then we tackled life at primary school and all of the hurdles that would bring. Next, double figures happened and the end of the primary years, which was all too quickly followed by the challenges of high school. And now, it seems we’re to be in possession of one of those teenagers.

In the most stereotypical kind of truth, my daughter has been a teenager for years. Or at least she’s acted like one. And I know that not all teenagers are the same…but for the sake of a good read let’s stick to the stereotypes. I’ll write this with a caveat though. For all of her faults, my daughter is a sweet, caring and loveable kid. I’m very proud of what she is and what she’s becoming and, despite the fact that we clash and no doubt find each other equally irritating, I adore her. That said, if what’s gone in the previous 12 years is any kind of guide, then these teenage years promise to be interesting to say the least.

As the teenage years begin I guess I have to face up to the fact that my little girl – for that’s what she always will be –  is going to turn into a woman. This is a tough reality for me, as I’m sure it will be for the majority of fathers. But it’s a reality that begins with those dreaded teen years. As many girls of her age will, she’s already moving on with her interests. She’s never been particularly interested in boys, viewing them as some kind of necessary irritant. However, just a few weeks ago I was present when she declared that a boy was ‘fit’ and a little bit of my heart broke, never to be repaired. The words were enough, but the delighted smile that spread across her face was the killer. The boy in question happened to be Zac Effron, so at least I can comfort myself with the fact that they’re very unlikely to meet and thus she can’t begin to explore what ‘fitness’ means and leads to.* Big sigh of relief. But it confirmed to me that my little girl is, in many ways, well and truly gone. And I feel sure that this side of things will go rapidly downhill now that the age of thirteen has been reached.

She confided in my wife that in Year 7 she’d had a boyfriend, but this had only lasted for a day! So there’s good and bad in that – bad = boy, while good = her boredom at him following her around like a lap dog. However, her choice of ‘boyfriend’ had been appalling – a ridiculous name, seemingly always in trouble at school etc. The kind of choice that was never going to impress her school teacher father, hence confiding in her mother!

I fear that this is the kind of choice that she’ll continue to make though. As teenhood – have I just invented a phrase – approaches she seems to label any boy who does any actual work or shows any sign of intelligence as a ‘geek’ and therefore untouchable, which for now is fine, but in the long term I’d rather she was going for the hard-working geeks than the ridiculous, half-witted bad boys that she seems to be attracted to. For now though, she seems a little behind the times in terms of her interest in boys. I teach kids of the same age and lots of them appear far more advanced than my own darling daughter, – goodness me I hope so – especially the girls. You only have to be on a corridor with them and you’re sure to overhear something that you really didn’t want to hear and that means you can never look them in the eye again. I sincerely hope that my nearly teen daughter isn’t thinking along the same lines for quite some time to come!

One thing that she is definitely advanced with is make-up. This is one that is very much against our wishes as well. I say ‘our’ wishes, but I suspect that my wife is ever so slightly in cahoots with my daughter on this one. I’ve been there when one of them has unintentionally mentioned some make-up that my daughter was going to get or had been promised, so the rules have definitely been relaxed without me knowing anything about it! My daughter also went through what can only be described as an out of character phase where she was regularly making her bed, hoovering her room, putting washing away etc, in order to gain pocket money. Now despite the incentive of money, she’s never been particularly interested in this before. But then, all of a sudden she’d be pointing out that her bed was made, or leaving the hoover outside her room to indicate that she’d been busy ridding her carpet of small animal carcasses or whatever disease had festered there in the years since the last time she’d hoovered. (And if you think this is unkind there’s an open invite to pop round and have a look at her room – enter at your peril).

It turned out that what she was doing was earning just enough money to go out and buy the odd bit of make-up in order to supplement the small amount that she already had. And as a result of this she’d also decided that she could walk all over the rules – a much more regular occurrence for her – and come down plastered in make up for no apparent reason. We’ve managed to curtail this to a point, by repeating the message that she looks so much better without it, and image being so important to a girl of her age, she’s listened to an extent. Still though, if we’re going out she tends to disappear for much of the afternoon, before emerging early evening looking like she’s wearing some kind of tribal mask. I expect this very much to continue as she moves through her teen years and the mask to get more and more colourful!

For as long as my daughter has been able to express an opinion she has done so, forcefully. Now, as she enters her teen years, I fear that her level of perceived expertise is going to see her opinions go into a potentially dangerous overdrive. Don’t get me wrong, on important issues like race, sexuality etc she has formed good, liberal, accepting opinions. She’s against no one (well apart from the aforementioned geeks and me) which is not only good, but a lot less time consuming than if she was forming dangerous opinions. In fact, she’s more likely, if we have an opinion against anyone or anything, to defend them, however unreasonable. As a staunch Newcastle fan I’ve found it quite disheartening and disturbing when she’s routinely defended Sunderland fans. Maybe she’s just incredibly chilled out – she’s really not – or maybe she’s just wrong.

As she enters her teenage years though, the one thing she has strong opinions on seems to be style. Now given her formative years, this is quite the surprise – many’s the time she’s come downstairs in a variety of colours and styles that simply didn’t match – reds, yellows, pinks, spots, stripes, you name it. But now my daughter has developed some kind of style. She likes nice clothes and is constantly telling us how she’s ‘planning an outfit’. I suppose that this is to be expected, especially when she’s not paying for said outfits! But the worrying thing seems to be that she has installed herself as some kind of fashion expert. And this is where her opinions come in.

Recently she’s decided that she must have her bedroom decorated. Grey and pinks, dahling, don’t you know. And such is her sure and certain belief in her status as some kind of style guru that she literally won’t listen to anyone else’s opinion. The fact that she currently resides in a room that look like squatters must have invaded years ago doesn’t seem to occur to her at all. She simply cannot keep it tidy. And I won’t embarrass her here by detailing the levels of untidiness, but suffice to say, you need to take your own ideas and multiply them by around a million to even get close.

We recently went on a shopping trip – a speculative one where we were more looking for ideas than actually buying anything. We found countless grey items, probably in even more than fifty shades, and yet she rejected them time after time. And this is understandable for a short while, but when it becomes clear that this is just because she is adamant that she knows better than you do on every subject ever, it gets a little frustrating. And again, I can only see this getting worse as the teen years advance. I imagine we’re leaving behind the years of buying her clothes from George at Asda that’s for sure, which will leave me as the only one in our house still wearing stuff from that particular designer!

Which brings me nicely onto clothes. As a self identified style guru my teen daughter has also decided that it’s perfectly within her remit to be openly critical of what her family are wearing. In fact, she seems to be making it her business to pass judgement on the style decisions of almost anyone and everyone, family or not. The ‘wrong’ t-shirt will instantly – and loudly – be deemed ’embarrassing’, while she herself is wearing something like a crop top with a coat over it…on the hottest day of the year. But it gets worse. She sees no problem, no lack of simple manners even, in declaring an item of clothing ‘ugly’. And why? Well, because teen wisdom seems to dictate that she must know so much better than anyone else.

Worse than the loudly proclaimed opinions is the choices that she wants to now be making. As a toddler and even as a primary school kid, we could get away with sticking to a budget and to an extent dressing her head to toe in clothes from a supermarket. But then she began to grow out of this. And we tried to accommodate it, but it’s quite a balance trying to buy your kid the ‘right’ clothes while also attempting not to bring up a spoilt brat. So now we’re told (and she really does tell as opposed to asking), ‘I need a Tommy Hilfiger top’ or ‘We have to get me a pair of Adidas leggings’. And this becomes a problem for me, personally. I was brought up in a household where the things that I wanted were often out of reach of my parents’ pockets, so to speak. So I became used to not getting most of what I wanted and I quickly realised that there wasn’t much point in asking, but also that it was a bit unfair on my parents to ask anyway.

As such, my daughter’s demands cut no ice with me. I want her to have the types of things that I didn’t have, but I also want her to appreciate them. And her teenage way of demanding stuff can be quite difficult to live with. So again, it’s going to feel like an eternity seeing her through these next 6 or 7 years!

I hope that seeing my daughter through her teenage years will be a largely enjoyable and ultimately rewarding experience. I know that there will undoubtedly be trials and tribulations along the way. But I hope that she begins to see that we’re not the enemy and that she simply doesn’t have all of the answers. That way harmony lies. Let’s wait and see!

 

  • Just in case your reading this, Zac Effron, should you ever turn up on my doorstep, asking for my daughter, you’ll be given very short shrift indeed. Take your fame, your Hollywood riches and even your impressive pecs, and nick off.

 

Bling. Watch the point of it all?

 

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Four buttons, some circles and a light = instant respect from the kids, innit.

I work in a job that is a minefield of contrasts. I mean, the fact that I can have days, hours, minutes even where I will absolutely love it and still end up hating it (and vice-versa), sums up the contrast nicely. But that’s teaching for you. For all the fun of showing off in front of a room full of kids – because that’s really all it comes down to – there’s the sheer hell of marking thirty essays, or worse still, pieces of creative writing. For every moment of breakthrough you have with a fantastic, thoughtful answer from a student there’s a terrible moment of realisation that there’s yet another meeting to go to.

And yet, as I’ve gotten older my job has revealed another area of contrast that is both a delight and a curse. I’m finding that working with young people both keeps me young – not literally, we’d all be flocking to the profession if that was actually the case – and makes me feel old. Very, very old. Because the older you get, the more detached you get from younger people and what’s actually current.

‘Meanwhile you’ve been attending foam parties…and accruing a debt so monumental that it would rival that of some Pacific Islands.’

I’m not sure that this is the case for every teacher. I feel sure that there are entire swathes of my profession that were middle-aged when they started out as teachers and always will be middle aged. Again, not literally. Some people are just old at heart. In many ways it’s the nature of the teacher. I mean, you can’t tell me that at 22 and fresh out of university you have a great deal more life experience than the teenagers in front of you. In your early twenties, having only just emerged blinking from the cocoon that it higher education, it could be argued that you know absolutely nothing. Some of your peers have been to war, held down steady jobs, are married, have children, pay bills and have genuinely struggled through the years since their own education ended. And boy have they learned a lot. Meanwhile, you’ve been attending foam parties, sleeping through lectures that you turned up late for and accruing a debt so monumental that it would rival that of some Pacific islands. And you most likely won’t pay it back. And still, often in my job, people at that age are stood in front of classes of teenagers lecturing them on life experience. And in many cases it’s because they’re almost born to the profession. They’ve little experience, but are often old before their time.

The thing that prompted this blog was a recent in class conversation. I was asked what watch I had. Now, I’m used to being asked what car I drive or even what label my suit is. But what watch? Who cares! Well, it turns out that boys care, that’s who. It’s vital if you’re going to carry off the right image. The boy in question was wearing a big watch. You know the kind; buttons everywhere, oversized face, more hands than it knows what to do with and the odd (fake) jewel or two attached. I’m describing the watch, by the way, not the boy.

The boy clearly saw having the right kind of watch as some kind of status symbol. I think the young folk still refer to it as ‘bling’. But what status can a watch give a 15-year-old boy? The answer is, I don’t know. Does it scream fake designer label? Does it say nice Christmas present? Does it say show me respect? Or does it really just say, I can tell the time? I still don’t know. Needless to say though, he wasn’t very impressed by my spanking new Casio digital watch. I pointed out that they made great calculators. He didn’t get the irony. Or the joke. I told him it had a stopwatch. He wasn’t impressed. I told him it had little circles on it and I was yet to figure out what they were for. He was blank-faced. In fact, when I played my trump card and told him – while also demonstrating – that it had a light on it – he still wasn’t at all impressed. In fact, he seemed almost personally affronted. And he still hadn’t got the joke.

‘He still wasn’t impressed.’

I pointed out that my watch (Casio, £10, reduced from £20, Argos) was purely functional, that I had a nice watch, but that for now I wanted one with a stopwatch and that wasn’t valuable to wear for when I was coaching football. He still wasn’t impressed. And this got me thinking about how middle age has made me quite comfortable in my own skin. I no longer feel the need to rely on a designer label or the right pair of trainers to make me feel good about myself. Yet I do worry about getting a beer belly or a double chin.

Meanwhile, on Planet Youth, what you wear on your legs, body, face and even your wrist still says something about you. And the more I hear about it the more confused I become. As I mentioned previously, it has the power to make me feel young and old all at the same time. Young, because in a way, I can still kid myself that I’ve got my finger on the pulse but also because sometimes it’s just quite amusing to be kept up to date with all that’s trendy in the world. Imagine my 12 year-old daughter’s confusion as dad is able to regale her with tales of Stormzy, high-waisted jeans or better still, tell her that I too love that track on Capital, because it’s “sick”.

‘…Stormzy makes no sense to me.’

Yet I also get to feel old, because I want to tell my students that it doesn’t matter what watch you’ve got or who your clothes are made by; there’s a lot more to being a well-rounded, respectable human being than any of that! The constant talk of which watch to wear, which music I should listen to, which shoes I should wear can grind you down and wear you out at my age! There’s also the fact that Stormzy makes no sense to me – I mean you can’t even hear the words – I’d look daft in high-waisted jeans and that I really, really can’t stand Capital radio.

Recently though, I’ve heard and discussed what we’ll refer to as image issues (because they’re not strictly ‘bling’ and I can’t believe that people still refer to ‘bling’) that have disturbed me greatly and led me to wonder what on Earth could be going on with our younger generation.

The first instance came during a lesson that I was teaching. I say teaching; I wasn’t. Once a week classes have access to laptops and some vocabulary building software, so they work while I ‘supervise’. This mainly takes the form of asking them to stop getting the laptop to say the names of their peers in its ‘hilarious’ voice and making sure that they’re actually doing what it is they’re supposed to be doing.

It was while I was doing the latter and policing the screens that I caught sight of something deeply unsavoury on the screen of a boy at the front of the room. And no, it’s not what you think…it’s worse. I had gone to the back of the room – you’d be surprised how much this will flummox even the brightest of classes – so that I could get a better view of the screens. All of a sudden my attention was grabbed by the fact that one screen was clearly on Google. Google Images, in fact. And what was he Googling? Rudey ladies? Naked men (it’s an LGBeeGeesandTs friendly classroom, after all)? The kinds of fast cars that he dreams of? No. No, he was in fact Googling pictures of Crocs. Crocs, innit?

Now Crocs have had a bad press. And you know what? It’s fully deserved. There can be absolutely no defence of this type of footwear. Don’t give me the line about comfort, either. Crocs are ugly…fugly in fact. And when did comfort come into things for young people? My dad – 79, corduroy and checked shirt wearer, keen gardener, grower of prize-winning leeks and other vegetables – wears Crocs. Argument over. He’s not channelling some young rapper, he’s just got no shame anymore. No offence internetless dad who has literally 1% chance of ever reading this.

The Crocs thing got worse. I drew attention to it, hoping to shame my young friend into realising that when we’re meant to be learning new vocabulary, we should do just that. But he felt no shame. Don’t get me wrong, he quickly shut the page down and returned to what he should have been doing, but rather than turning a particular shade of crimson, he actually tried to justify his Croc-search. Apparently, Post Malone wears them. Well that’s alright then.

‘Here we have a man at the cutting edge of popular culture…’

I’ve never felt so old and confused in a long time. Now, I’ve heard of Post Malone. My daughter informs me that he’s ‘sick’ on a regular basis. I wish he was. Might shut him up. Post – I’m imagining not the name he was christened with – is launching a new range of Crocs. And this is what I simply don’t understand. I’m sure that money comes into it, but really…Crocs? Here we have – so I’m led to believe – a man at the cutting edge of popular culture – setting the trends, providing the soundtracks for thousands walking to and from school, making memories for his generation who years from now will listen to him being played on a Friday night, after work on Absolute 10s and think, ‘Wow, I loved that track’. And then he spoilt it all by teaming up with Crocs for a chunk of money.

However, while feeling old about Post, with his ludicrous name and endorsements for ridiculous footwear for gardeners, I also realised that it made me feel young at the same time. Because while I feel entirely negatively about Crocs and, however much thought I give to it, will never understand their attractiveness, I can see why the herd are following. This kind of thing makes me feel young simply because it takes me back to my own youth and some of the ridiculous trends that were followed then too.

I was born in the 1970s. This meant that adolescence and early adulthood, and all of the bonkers decisions that one makes at that time, hit in the late 80′ and early 90s. And to borrow a phrase that used to be popular, ‘what a time to be alive’! In terms of what we’ll loosely call style, here are some of the major influences of the time.

‘…granddad shirts, batwing jumpers, Ra-Ra skirts, mullets and perms.’

In the 1980s we had the back end of punk and the start of the New Romantics, as well as Ska, Mod and, as the decade ended, the first real seeds of dance music. Among other things this influenced fashion trends like day-glo socks (often worn odd – and orange and a green one, for example), drain pipe jeans, baggy jeans, baggy trousers, granddad shirts, batwing jumpers, Ra-Ra skirts, mullets and perms. Then the 90s brought us indie music and bands like Oasis and Blur, as well as grunge and dance music and the emergence of the superstar DJ. And again, this influenced our style, bringing with it more neon, check shirts, loose fit jeans, leggings, Global Hypercolour t-shirts and anything that a Gallagher wore.

As terrible as it all might have looked, we all wore it. Me, with two hairy pipe cleaners for legs, wearing baggy jeans. Why? Because of fashion, that’s why. Same with loose fit jeans in the 90s, because after all, The Happy Mondays told us that it had to be a loose fit. I’m sure I still looked like a right tw*t though. I had a wedge haircut in the 80s and thought I looked amazing. And if you’re laughing, imagining me with a wedge, just wait. It gets worse. When the footballer Chris Waddle, who was at my beloved Newcastle at the time, had the back of his hair permed, I very quickly followed suit. That’s right; a back perm, as it was known. In my head I looked just like Chris Waddle. On my head, once again, I looked like a right tw*t.

‘…someone else told him they’re fashion/bling/peng…’

So my point is, that I kind of understand why a 14-year-old boy might be pricing up Crocs on the internet in my lesson. It’s because someone told him that they’re fashion/bling/peng and, bless him, he’s young and doesn’t realise how ridiculous he’s going to look if he actually buys and wears them. I do feel like I should have a word though, because in ten years time when he looks at photos of himself wearing them, he’s going to think he looked like a…well you must know what comes next.

The final style subject that made me feel old, young, happy and sad all at the same time happened in another of my lessons. We do actually work, by the way, it’s just that sometimes kids talk. Anyway, a student was discussing hair. Not exactly a shock, right? I mean when you’re young hair and its varied and often experimental styles are one of the main things that make you stand out. However, this wasn’t any old chat about hair. The boy concerned is the type who likes to feel popular. He hangs around with what are probably the wrong crowd and the right crowd all at the same time. And he’s very image conscious. But he wasn’t concerned with hair styles, as such. Here we had a 16 year-old boy asking about the availability, price, risks and everything else to do with hair transplants! Already, so early on in life, the worry of looking just right had stopped him in his tracks. No doubt he has the watch, the shoes, the trainers and everything else that he feels he needs to feel comfortable with himself and his image, but, such is the importance of the way we look these days, that this lad is already so concerned about losing his hair that he’s making plans to stop the rot. Unbelievable.

Needless to say, I didn’t really come out in sympathy. In fact, I told him that in order to have a hair transplant a surgeon had to slice open your scalp, like one would open a tin, before sewing the bits of hair in from underneath and then putting said flap of scalp back complete with new hair. It’s amazing what kids will believe if you keep a straight face.

‘Just for beards alone, there were 38 products available…’

I decided to conduct a little research to help understand the problem of image these days. I was astounded by what I found. Whilst doing some Christmas shopping online I was struck by the sheer amount of products available. I decided to investigate male grooming on the Boots website. Now, I haven’t got one, but I believe having a beard – and looking rather like a Geography teacher from 1982 – is de rigueur these days amongst young men. I even teach kids with beards, something that years ago, when I entered the profession, I would’ve never imagined possible. Just for beards alone, there were 38 products available, including stubble cleanser, beard balm, brush-in colour gel and a beard starter kit, which I thought we were all born with anyway. It’s just that some take longer to start than others.

If you then look at the category of male grooming in its entirety things become staggeringly complex. Unbelievably there are over 1500 products available on the Boots website alone! 1500 things for men to groom themselves. I still feel a little bit camp on the rare occasions I apply moisturizer, but imagine having that many things to choose form with which to make yourself like just right, imagewise. It beggars belief. Now I understand that some of these products will be in several different categories, but even allowing for a lot of that there are still probably well over 1000 male grooming products available on one website! These included 101 washing & bathing products, 162 men’s hair products, 54 male hair loss products, 497 aftershaves (497!) and even 115 male incontinence products, which frankly, made me want to wet myself a bit. This is all before you get to looking at things like Crocs and watches.

So while I can sit here, all rugged and handsome with my Casio watch on and possible wearing a t-shirt bought in a supermarket, it’s actually not that hard to understand why today’s young men can get so concerned with looking just right. I mean we haven’t all got my natural pizzazz, right? But still, the idea of sifting through over 1000 products to groom oneself before you even get dressed or are able to tell the time makes me feel like we might have gone a bit too far with this whole image thing. The right timepiece, the right car, the right shoes, the right tattoos – seriously, watch the point?

 

 

 

 

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