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Education: Adolescents? Don’t panic

06 February 2015

How do teachers cope with a class full of them? It's not that bad, says Dennis Richards


SOMETHING cataclysmic has happened. Your children have reached . . . adolescence.

Tabitha, who used to hang on your every word, sought your advice, and regarded you as the fount of all wisdom, now sees you as a never-ending source of embarrassment. The dreadful thought that you might give her a hug in front of her friends is enough to make her recoil with horror.

Where once she was prone to a trembling bottom lip, she has moved on to raising her eyebrows, rolling her eyes with disdain, and the Incredible Sulk. The visits to museums, the fact-finding trips to the library, and board games are over. Tabitha announces she is having "a duvet day". She spends enough time in the bathroom to decorate it twice over. Inseparable from her mobile, she moves expertly through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Forget the anxious search for the right birthday present. Hard cash will do nicely, thank you.

At school, Tabitha's skirt has shrunk alarmingly. There is a perpetual argument over which bits of her can have metalwork piercings. Such is her make-up, she might as well be wearing a mask.

Is it any easier with boys? Not really. Danny's trousers have speeded in the opposite direction to Tabitha's skirt. It is apparently a fashion statement to allow us a glimpse of his Jack Wills undergarments. He communicates in a mixture of monosyllables and grunts. His bedroom is a no-go area. What is he doing in there?

Danny evinces no interest in the mechanical genius of the vacuum cleaner, the dishwasher, or the lawnmower, but is animated beyond belief by the car. He hates French. Your credibility was shot when you suggested he should join the school choir.

Imagine 30 of them together in a class. Truth be told, teachers love them, really. True, eliciting any kind of response in class is like an auctioneer vainly looking for a twitch or eyebrow movement that may indicate the vague possibility of an answer.

Experienced teachers have seen it all before. They are also wise enough to know that being an adolescent today is not the same as it was just a few short years ago. The pressure on them now is wholly different. Nevertheless, they remain partly children, and, in one sense, the most important part of growing up has not changed. Adolescents never did like themselves very much. Self-esteem is invariably fragile at this age.

Social media, so wonderful in so many respects, but so very dangerous when insidious bullying takes over, have made life nigh on impossible for schools and parents. Having to deal with self-harming children has been a horrible consequence for too many families.

So, what to do? Easier to say what not to do. Danny's mum has sent him for private tuition in French. It's beyond hopeless. Arriving for his first lesson, he asks, "Will it be long?" Halfway through the lesson, he expresses a need to use the facilities. He is in there so long, his digestive system is clearly in chaos. It's not fair to Danny, and, once you've heard his French, you'll conclude it's not fair to the French, either.

Above all, try to avoid nagging and conveying the idea that nothing is ever good enough. Children can pass a piano exam with Merit, only to be told that if they had practised a bit harder they could have had a distinction.

Do attend those sixth-form information evenings. Teachers are skilled professionals. The prospects for sixth-formers are now very different. Tuition fees have seen to that. Wise heads and wise counsel are needed to make the right subject choices for the right outcome. Tabitha will also have a question that is causing her more stress than anything else. What is she supposed to wear?

And remember that adolescence is nature's way of preparing parents to welcome an empty nest.

Dennis Richards is a former head teacher of St Aidan's C of E High School, Harrogate.

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