One thing this Christmas

We closed the school year with our traditional Christmas dinner. Is was surrounded by a host of tasks that had to be completed. Obviously the dinner took some preparing but there was exams to invigilate (mind numbing) and mark (worse), reports to write, pupil recommendations and testimonials to send out, meetings to be held, carols to be sung, school magazine submissions and even preparations for the new school year. Tempers frayed and it wasn’t just the Christmas turkey that got carved up.

Family Together Christmas Celebration Concept

On a particular day in the village of Bethany some two millennia ago, another big meal was being prepared at the home of sisters, Mary and Martha. Of course that’s the day Jesus decided to show up (probably why he showed up). Martha was so busy preparing for the event that she was distracted, stressed and worried about a million and one details. Her sister meanwhile just sat around talking with their friend Jesus (we all know the sort). In the end Martha got so fed up she went to Jesus to complain that she was having to do all the work while Mary was doing virtually none. I’ve heard very similar conversations in schools.

Our schools and the children within them have schedules so crammed full of activities it would make ‘a CEO nervous’ and not just at the end of the year. Pressure from homework, test and exams can create a world of stress and pressure. Add to this expectations around performance in sport or other extracurricular activities and the very things that most people look to for rest and relaxation add to the burden. While teen bodies may be in shape, teen mental health is not. It’s not much better for the teachers who have to plan, execute, assess and then report on all this ensuring the term is an unremitting treadmill that can make us more hamster than human.

Teacher burnout

As a result teacher burnout and dropout are at unsustainably high levels. Worldwide, something like one in four teachers quit within a year of qualifying and in some countries it’s as high as 40%. In the UK 83% of teachers find teaching stressful and 67% say it has affected their physical or mental health. Burnout and breakdown happen when we think we are not performing to what we think other people’s expectations are of us. Perception is the key here, it’s not about how well we are doing rather how well we think we are doing in comparison to what we believe others expect of us. To feel we have come up short, to believe we have not met expectations creates feeling of shame, and the fear of shame is at the heart of all burnout. I’m pretty sure every teacher has felt like Martha at some (even most) stages of their career.

As social beings we will do almost anything to avoid being shown up and this creates anxiety and stress. While short term stress is normal and needed (try getting me on time for class without it) long term, chronic stress is harmful. As cholesterol, cortisol and adrenaline are released into our system we slowly poison ourselves. It’s like having an IV drip almost permanently pumping harmful toxins into our body. This will show up in headaches, stomach aches, respiratory problems or high blood pressure. It’s called somatization. If we get away with stress physically its unlikely we will be left unscathed mentally, emotionally and socially.

So what can you do? Chrono biologists tell we can do can do three things.

1. Exercise – Use your large muscle groups (swim, walk, run, ride) at least 3 times a week, for a minimum of 35 mins (this helps leach away that toxic build up in your body).

2. Take a break – Ten minute breaks every hour allow us to come to a screeching halt for a short time even in the midst of a hectic day (this sharp deceleration has a disproportionately positive effect in managing stress build up).

3. Engage in aesthetically pleasing paratelic activities – (waste time in a beautiful space) this involves doing an activity for no other reason than that you enjoy it.

But there’s something else. Back to Bethany. Jesus’s response to Martha’s complaint was that there’s only one thing worth being concerned about.

Have you discovered your ‘one thing’ yet?

In the midst of the craziness Mary had discovered the ‘one thing’ worth doing. A psychologist friend of mine tells me that rather than being distracted and multitasking we have to endeavour to focus on one thing at a time and treat even the mundane activities in our lives as sacred. If we are doing the washing up then focus on that, if we are listening to a child read then be fully present for that. Marking 110 exam scripts? Embrace it! Today what’s the one thing God is calling you to? Is there one thing this week that God wants you to focus on? Maybe it’s just one student, colleague, parent or family member? We too can sit with Jesus ‘as what we do for the least of these we do it for him’.

Acting on the one thing that God has called you to may, on the surface, seem to be a waste of time. Remember Mary of Bethany was likely the same Mary who wasted a years’ worth of money by pouring perfume over Jesus’ feet. Doing the ‘one thing’ can appear like a waste of time, effort and resources. Even if you don’t see it as a waste, your colleagues probably will and, if they’re anything like teachers I have worked with in the past, they will almost certainly let you know it as Martha did.

Recently the power of ‘one thing’ has come to the fore. MIT recently asked their applicants, rather than listing all of their high school achievements, to instead focus on ‘one thing’ that they have done well. Similarly a study of National Merit scholars in America by Harvard University showed that if you had to isolate all the variables that made these pupils successful the ‘one thing’ that stood out as being crucial was that these students got to sit down to dinner every night with their family. It appears that eating together as a family is more important to academic success than homework, reading, extra lessons and all the other time fillers we cram our lives with.

It turns out then that Christmas dinner might be one of the most important things I do this year. In the midst of the mania that’s a comforting thought.

The original version of this article first appeared in SU MAG

Read more about what teachers get up to in the Christmas holiday



The myth busters are coming…

When it comes to educational practice, schools and teachers need to spend time working out what actually works rather than relying on “folk” learning.

As I step off the 12:12 to London Paddington I am amazed again by the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The terminus of his Great Western Railway, Paddington Station is a magnificent monument to the architectural and engineering brilliance of the great man. Reassuring in its vast arches and pillared support it stands as testament to Newtonian certainties of physics and the confident certainty of the industrial age. An age grounded in invention and an ever-growing reliance on science and reason to make progress in this world.

London Paddington: Terminus of the Great Western Railway

I am here to meet with Tom Bennett in his capacity as Founder, Director and solitary full-time employee of researchED. Listed as one of the world’s top teachers in the 2015 GEMS Global Teacher Prize, he also became the UK government’s school ‘Behaviour Czar’, advising on behaviour policy. I am keen to talk with one of the UK’s most influential teachers and the man who has put research in education at the top of the agenda.

Unlike Paddington Station, the educational edifice is not necessarily built on such solid foundations, Tom explains as we order coffee. “One of the main problems in resolving this issue is the fact that educational theory, unlike the actual sciences, is very difficult to test. How do you find out if the assertion that ‘children learn best in groups’ is actually correct? How do you test the effectiveness of ‘homework’, when homework can consist of anything from essays to artwork?” 

Tom Bennett
Tom Bennett: Creator and Director of researchED

Indeed Tom asserts that much educational theory stands simply because some important people say it does and enough people believe them. When unquestioned, this self-referring bubble can look impressive but children are simply not learning when pedagogical practice loses touch with what actually works. “The idea of researchED is to engage teachers in educational research – what it means, and how it can or can’t make a difference in the classroom.”, says Tom. As far as I can glean it exists to pop the bubbles or bust the myths and replace them with something more grounded.

I know that Learning Styles (with its visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners) has been slayed already by researchED and others like them, but what are some of the other theories and fads that have held children and teachers captive in the past?  When I put this to Tom he pauses for a moment, but not I suspect due to a shortage of answers. “Group Work” he says is one, “Project Work” another. According to Tom neither of these have been found to enhance children’s learning despite the significant evangelism that has surrounded them. Tom clarifies that it’s not that researchED is against these teaching methods per se’,

“Group work is like any strategy in the classroom – a tool. A hammer is a tool: would you use a hammer for every job? Absolutely not. Sometimes group work is essential, but it’s got enormous challenges and difficulties.” 

Tom goes on to add that one of the current debates, or myths, is around skills, as opposed to knowledge, based education. It’s a false dichotomy. “You need a critical mass of knowledge before you can start learning to apply skills to it.” It seems that it’s sometimes good to cut through the smoke and mirrors and simply tell children what they need to know. “Teaching anything beyond folk learning takes instruction, usually in the form of a teacher.”

The simple truth is, as Dylan Wiliam said in his opening address at the 2016 Washington researchED day, “Everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere.” So what is the current research saying is effective in helping pupils learn?  I get a sense that Tom could talk about this for hours, (certainly longer than my regular cappuccino will allow) but as we discuss this question three areas of exciting research based on neuroscience become clear:

  1. Retrieval Practice – Asking pupils to re-access information they have learned in order to imbed it further. It includes plenty of low stakes testing (such as quizzes), but only dealing with a little material at a time.
  2. Spaced Learning – Involving carefully managed intervals of intensive learning but paying attention to the space between them to increase their effectiveness.
  3. Cognitive Load Theory – Based on John Sweller’s work that we learn what we think about and you can’t think about too much at any one time. By reducing cognitive load we can help learners impact their long-term memory.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to go through these concepts in more detail (OK also because I don’t fully understand them yet) but it strikes me such a streamlined and uncluttered approach to teaching, grounded in research not educational or even political ideology, could have a significant impact in South Africa.


The good news is that Tom and his team are going to be visiting Pretoria in 2018 to hold a ‘trademark’ researchED day. “The networking and conversations I see at these days is like nothing on earth; by packing eight fast sessions into a conference we (notionally) try to guarantee at least one day-shaking idea will hit you by sunset, and in some cases, half a dozen.” says Tom.  If you are a teacher and like me you want to find out what really works in education then watch this space.

I say my goodbyes and pay for the coffees (thanks Tom) making my way back to the station. Just before I head back into Isambard’s magnum opus, a plane overhead catches my eye, reminding me of my imminent flight home.  I am glad that transport and science has moved on since Brunel’s time. When my plane hurtles down the runway I will be grateful that its designers and makers have built their work on tried and tested evidence and research, not on popular or abstract theory.

If we can do the same in the educational context of South Africa, perhaps our children will also have a chance to fly.

Further Reading and Sources

  1. It’s time to tackle the myths in education.
  2. If teachers want children to succeed, they have to look at the evidence of what works
  3. Will they behave better with Bennett?
  4. Play is essential, but it takes work for children to succeed in the real world


Imperfect Prefects – Part 2

When it comes to 17 and 18 year old boys, can they cope with the disappointment that comes with not being made a prefect? Can they really manage the responsibility if they are? This post is a continuation of  Imperfect Prefects – Part 1

One weekend I found myself watching ‘Spud’ on television. Not out of choice but as the father of three boys these things can happen. For those of you unaware of the books and movies that bear the name Spud, these are the diaries of a fictional John Milton while at boarding school in South Africa. This particular movie was now the third in the series and along with the usual fare of farting, alcohol, fascination with body parts and obsession with sex, a good portion of the film focused on the fact that John Milton and his peers are up for prefect selection.

Tom Brown Intiation
Illustration from Tom Brown’s Schooldays

On the following Monday morning I popped into our school library to pick up the book. The idea of PFP or ‘Pushing for Prefect’ is preeminent throughout and refers to the lengths boys will go to impress staff and other boys in order to make a convincing case that they should be prefects. It also alludes to the damage done to the relationships of the boys as they compete and jostle for a limited number of positions. At one point near the end of the book, one of Milton’s friends gives his reasons for wanting to be a prefect:

  • Nobody can boss you around
  • Tea and snackwiches are made for you whenever you want
  • You can tell people that you are a prefect and not be lying
  • You never have to make your bed or pick up your laundry
  • The prefects room is like having your own private lounge
  • Everyone respects you
  • You can punish anyone you want whenever you feel like it
  • You don’t feel like a loser
  • You get a prefect’s tie, which you can wear to a job interview to impress bosses
  • You’re guaranteed to score more chicks
  • People take you seriously
  • You rule the world.

In the diary when Milton hears his friend recite this list he records, “And then it sank in. I do want to be a prefect. I do want all these things. I also want to be taken seriously and be respected by the other boys…I want to walk around the house like I own the place. I want it all desperately!”

This excerpt from the book and the feelings associated with it ring eerily true even today. While times have changed in some ways there are always problems and issues when it comes to selecting some boys over others in such a value laden arena. A 17 year old boy wants to be someone, they want respect and to feel that they are taken seriously. It is quite a devastating blow when, in their minds, they miss out on the one vehicle that they feel can help them achieve this.file1

For those that are chosen, many grapple to understand what is truly required of leaders. We are expecting a lot from a 17 year old who is quite naturally only just learning to lead themselves, let alone others. Private and personal leadership must come before public leadership and most boys haven’t got there yet. There are some exceptional boys who can manage this, but they are just that: the exception.

So what do we do about it?

  1. Be realistic. A 17 year old boy is not allowed to vote, buy alcohol or drive on their own (for good reason) and yet we give them that most difficult and complex of tasks: leadership. Many are simply not ready for this and revert to the list above or model themselves on previous prefects (revert to the list above). Any leadership model in school must support and clearly guide these apprentice leaders and put in place scaffolding and boundaries to limit the consequences of mistakes that will be made.
  2. We have to remember what a big deal this is for the boys in our care and that the precarious self-esteem and confidence of a 17 year old boy is a precious and fragile thing. The process of choosing leaders must recognise both the dignity and emotional capacity of all boys.
  3. We must remove the link between leadership and privilege. Specifically privilege that comes at the expense of others. Having the right to demand tea and toasted sandwiches for example, bears no or little resemblance to leadership, at least not the kind the world needs today.
  4. We need to create or reinforce the link between leadership and service. And not the one where people serve you as the leader. Rather we should require a relationship where the leader seeks to encourage, support, empower, grow and develop those around him.
  5. Finally we have to try to bring perspective into the lives of these young men. Whether they are prefects or not is insignificant once they leave school and so, either way, it should not define their experience at school. For parents this means not being overly invested in whether your son is or isn’t a prefect. For staff it means the onus is on us to ensure that boys chosen for leadership are not put on a pedestal.

Spud was based on the author’s experience of his school days around a quarter of a century ago. Tell me we have moved on since then? Please.

Imperfect Prefects – Part 1

It is that time of year in our own school when, as the boys in the senior year head off to write their final examinations, we appoint a new round of pupils to leadership positions.

I am not looking forward to it.

I picked up John Cleese’s autobiography ‘So Anyway’ the other day. Cleese was at our school some years back when it was used as a film location for the movie ‘Spud’ which he was acting in. I also played alongside Cleese in the movie. When I say played alongside him, I mean I was one of about thirty extras in a scene that he was in. If you look carefully you can just make out the back of my head in the film. Actually I was surprised I was in it at all given what happened during the filming of the scene, that is perhaps a story for another time, suffice to say that it involved my malfunctioning iPod, an irritated sound technician, an irate director, several takes and an impatient cast including Mr Cleese.

Here in a ‘Chums’ Annual from 1934 prefects are clearly distinguishable by their blazers.

Anyway I wanted to see if Cleese’s book was worth my time reading and if Cleese mentioned the time he was at our school and perhaps even the aforementioned scene. It wasn’t and he doesn’t, but while I was flicking through it I came across a passage about his final year at Clifton College when he was up for selection to be a prefect. He writes, “I walked into North Town (his school house) and strolled up to the notice board to confirm that Mr Williams, my housemaster, had finally made me a house prefect. This was not an unreasonable assumption: in the summer, I’d been in the School XI, captained the House XI, passed three A levels, completely reorganised the house library, played the lead in the house play, and stolen more cricket equipment from the other houses than had ever been nicked before. Besides all my other friends were not merely house prefects, but school praeposters, official Big Cheeses and none of them seemed so vastly superior to me as the discrepancy in our social status would suggest…It never occurred to me that ‘Billy’ Williams would withhold this trial act of recognition any longer.

“But, as you have guessed, he had. I stood there, staring at the blank space where my name should have been, as I experienced first utter disbelief, then hurt, and then contempt”

It is that time of year in our own school when, as the boys in the senior year head off to write their final examinations, we appoint a new round of pupils to leadership positions.

I am not looking forward to it.

Over the years I have sat with countless boys trying to come to terms with the fact that they have not been made prefects. Like Cleese there has been disbelief and hurt, but also tears, frustration, anger and confusion. Like Cleese, many of them cannot see how their friends and peers who are really not that much different to themselves suddenly seem to have so much more social status that comes with being a prefect.

As John Cleese says, “The hurt was not that I had wanted so much to be a house prefect, that hardly mattered at all. What wounded me was the put down, the undeserved insult. The dull ache of this stab in the ego began to throb, but was suddenly engulfed in an extraordinary upsurge of high minded contempt.”

I think part of the problem is that it is such an either or, winner takes all system. You are either a prefect, or you’re not, with all the privileges and status, or not, that it entails. For many boys it feels like stamp of approval on them, or not. Validating who they are or seemingly ignoring them. Of course we know that being a prefect makes no material difference to your later life, but it does not seem that way to a seventeen year old boy at the time.

For Cleese it was a seminal moment, “I believe this moment changed my pperspective on the world’. He explains that up until that time he understood that those in authorfileity were basically fair, but with his frustration around this event he says, “I started to become sceptical of authority as a whole…I responded rather splendidly, throwing away my North Town cap that very day and borrowing one from Wiseman’s House… and wearing it defiantly throughout my last year at Clifton.” He also started to hate his Housemaster, “Up to that point I had tolerated Williams but now I realised that I really disliked him.

All Housemasters I suspect have seen this sort of behaviour to a greater or lesser extent from disenfranchised boys and with a bit of imagination it is not hard to see why. I think it is important to recognise that a prefect system:

  1. can cause resentment and hurt
  2. creates at least as many losers as winners
  3. has the potential to divide peer groups

Then when it comes to 17 and 18 year old boys, can they ever be equipped for the disappointment that comes with not being selected? Can they really manage the responsibility if they are? More on that in Part 2.

It is noteworthy that John Cleese can remember and write about these experiences and emotions so vividly over 50 years after the fact. We take this matter lightly at our peril.

I don’t like cricket…

“Now I’m the first to admit I’m no A.B., if truth be told some days I struggle just to get from A to B”. In this blog, with the cricket season upon us, Tim Jarvis runs through his application to make his school staff team and reflects on the contribution schools make to the sport.

The Michaelmas term is behind us which means it’s cricket season. Many school coaches love this time. For some of them it’s because they have an intense passion and love for the game. For others it’s because the weather is invariably glorious all week, before giving way to pouring rain on Saturday creating a free weekend.


Last year, our Master in Charge of cricket organised a 1st XI v Staff match and sent out an e-mail asking which teachers would like to be considered for the staff team. “Now I’m the first to admit I’m no A.B., if truth be told some days I struggle just to get from A to B”, let alone from wicket to wicket, but I am an enthusiast. I know my Arsenal from my Edgebaston, so to speak, and my Duminy from my de Kock.  So nothing daunted I sent in my reply. It went something like this:

Dear Sir,

I would like to make application to be considered for this team. I have included below some of the highlights of my sporting and cricketing CV.

All round ability:

  • In my high school I once ran the 100m in a wind assisted time of 16,97s. Although I don’t have the same turn of pace today I can still cover good ground when tea is taken.
  • I consider myself an all-rounder but not only because of my aforementioned enthusiasm for tea. 


  • It should be clear from the above that my work in the field needs to be seen to be believed.
  • In terms of catching, my last Captain remarked that I have the uncanny ability to always be in the right place for catches as the ball unerringly finds me.  He adds that it’s a pity that I have not actually caught any of them, but as I always say you have to be in it to win it.
  • I do struggle to get the ball into the keeper but the same Captain now insists on placing me right on the boundary (sometimes even over it if we have enough for a 12th man). 


  • I bowl right arm around the wicket, although I can bowl over it and, on a couple of memorable occasions have even bowled through it.
  • I have a very good slower ball. I don’t agree with my Captain that I need more variety as I believe in playing to one’s strengths.file-1
  • Due to my high levels of energy conservation I have the ability to bowl for long periods of time to hold up one end. I have been known to bowl for as long as three and even four over spells when in peak condition.
  • Although in limited overs cricket I go for an average of 14.1 runs an over I feel that this is a misleading statistic. Batsmen actually find it very hard to score off me, as a lot of these runs are in the form of extras.


  • This is where I really come into my own. From an early age I have occupied the Number 11 position on the rare occasions that I have been promoted up the order from Number 12.
  • My career best score was achieved back in 1999 where I built an almost chanceless innings to get to triple digits. (By triple digits, I mean three singles.)
  • I once faced a full over of slow to medium pace as effectively as an opening batsman, in that I did not score but saw off the bowler (Despite my Captain’s protestations, I feel that the fact that it was the last over of a T20 game is not relevant).
  • My batting average is statistically 0.72 but I believe this is artificially low due the fact that I once got 5 golden ducks in a row (itself a Herefordshire County schools record).
  • I can play the pull shot very effectively. In fact I can only play the pull shot, this make for clear, unambiguous shot selection.

As you can see I have much to offer your team. I hope you will consider me for selection and I look forward to your reply.

Needless to say I was not invited to play (my intention all along of course), so an enthusiast as opposed to an exponent I remain. Cricket is not an easy sport to take up or maintain. It demands lots of time (from both coaches and players), requires lots of technical skill, needs lots of space, the right playing surface and equipment. Schools, it would seem uniquely positioned, to provide just that.

Sean Gilson in nets
Sean Gilson (Dolphins U19) batting in the nets

According to Paul Guthrie, schools representative of Cricket South Africa, “Schools in New Zealand, Australia and England are envious of the South African Schools’ set-up due to its competitiveness and solid structures in place. Many Protea players have come through this structure over the years and it continues to serve South African Cricket well. Players such as Kagiso Rabada , and the recent inclusion of Lungi Ngidi are a good indication that the schools system is producing top cricketers for our national team.”

Long may this situation last. For all the coaches out there this term, I hope you get enough good weather for plenty of play, along with the odd rain induced free weekend to keep you sane.

We don’t like cricket, we love it.



5 MORE tips on working with teenagers

In this post Tim Jarvis follows up on his previous blog ‘5 TOP tips on working with teenagers.’

It sometimes feels that teens live in different world. We know that the teen years are when young people are most likely to experiment, whether sexually or with substances, or with both and possibly at the same time.  We know that risk taking is an important feature of adolescence but it does mean they can end up in lots of trouble. Daniel J. Siegel in his book ‘Brainstorm’ talks about the phenomenon of hyper rationality. This trait of many teens will lead them to overestimate the positives and downplay the negatives when assessing a potentially risky situation. For a teen there is usually far more to gain by taking a risk than there is to lose. It’s quite refreshing really but it can also get them in trouble.

Risk 3 (002)

For me, at my age, risk taking is not an issue. The only substance I am likely to abuse is caffeine and if you hear that I am sleeping around it’s safe to take that literally, as I am likely to be dozing off in a variety of places other than just my own bed. Risk taking is only just one feature of adolescence though that marks the experience as so different from other life stages. However despite the gap between adults and adolescents they really do need us. It may seem that our boys aspire to be like Floyd Mayweather or Connor McGregor and our girls like Taylor Swift or Beyoncé but in reality the truth is much closer to home.

A survey of 13-17 year olds by Barna Research asked teens who their role models were. The most commonly mentioned role model is a family member, 37% of teens named a relation other than their parents. After family it was teachers and coaches (11%), friends (9%) and pastors and other religious leaders they know personally (6%). It’s is fairly obvious that teens admire those with whom they have a personal connection.

“Teens may pay attention to the Lady Gagas of the world, but who they really admire, who they really want to be like – are those they’re around every day.” Dr Jeff Myers.  Given this is the case how do we enhance and maintain this personal connection and bridge the generational divide so that we can effectively mentor and guide the young people in our lives?

  1. Waste Time

A teenager will need to see that you have the time and the inclination to be with them. When I first started counselling a boy appeared at my office door to talk. I was busy with something on my lap top (I don’t remember what) and asked him to pop back later. He never did (I do remember that). As adults we need to be both available and invitational. Teenagers have to know that we want to talk with them and that we have time to do so. They will pick up on our micro actions that reveal if we are too busy or stressed and then stay away. Plan to waste some time around teenagers and see what happens.  I bet they start talking to you.

  1. Give everyone an ‘A’

AOK, let’s make this very clear. Teenagers need boundaries and they need to be clear, firm and enforced but when a teen is in trouble don’t shame them, or let them know you’re disappointed, they know that already. Rather let them know that from you, they already have an ‘A’, that your regard for them is unconditional. In their world of continual evaluation and assessment they need to know that your interaction with them is not about judgement but helping them grow and develop. For this to happen they have to believe you like them and from this starting point you can help them reflect.

  1. Be wrong (some of the time)

There is nothing worse than being in a relationship with someone who is always right. For adolescents this annoyance will be amplified. It simply doesn’t allow them the space to work out their identity. “Parents who have taken up all the space of moral rightness should not be surprised when their sons find their only space by living in immorality” say John & Paula Sandford. Our children need to assert their independence from us in the teen years, we have to give them room to do this otherwise we force them into behaviours and relationships that may not be good for them. We also have to be wrong because sometimes we are wrong. If a great white can detect even tiny amounts of blood in the water up to 5 km distant, an adolescent can sniff out hypocrisy entire continents away.

  1. You don’t have to finish the project

I think new parents have the idea that they will perfectly raise their children in order to gift them to world when they come of age. The reality is that from a certain point (probably when the child starts walking and talking) the parenting process is one of gradual disappointment as our offspring seem hell bent on frustrating that aim. We may cling to the delusion that we are in control of our children during the primary years but at some point after 13 years of age, the fruit of our loins will shatter that myth (and probably enjoy doing it). The good news? How your children turn out is not actually your responsibility. When your teen turns 18 the chances are there will be quite a few things that they still need to work on (My family tell me this is the case for me and I am over 40) and that’s OK. For teachers and others working with teens not your own, you will have an opportunity for vital and important interactions maybe over several years. You will make a contribution to the development of that person but you probably won’t get to see the finished project. Don’t be disheartened by that, we’re all works in progress.

  1. Get a life20620827_718155115056632_5477158916623587649_n

Seriously, you need to. If we are going to be seen as relevant by teenagers we need to be taking some risks, trying new things, staying alive emotionally and connecting with other. These qualities, says Dan Siegel, are the essence of adolescence and as such we can learn from the young people in our lives. Teens are not going to want to learn about life from us unless they see we actually have one. It will also be good for us. A few weeks ago my wife and I went to a poetry evening at the local coffee shop, which among other things involved listening to and reciting poetry. Given that neither of us has won the Nobel Prize for Literature (or any other Nobel Prize) just yet it pushed us out of our comfort zone. My eldest son seemed genuinely surprised and then impressed (this does not happen often) when we told him. This led me to reflect that this activity met all of the above criteria. For this reason I think we should go again, well that and the fact that they serve free coffee.

On that note I am taking myself away from my lap top to go and get a life. No doubt it will exhaust me so I will prepare myself by abusing a popular substance and then follow it up with copious amounts of sleeping around.


13 reasons why not

In the light of a recent Netflix series, Tim Jarvis examines the issues of teen suicide and depression and covers some important points that all adolescents need to hear.

The recent streaming of ‘13 REASONS WHY’  documents 13 reasons, or more precisely 13 people, that contribute to the suicide of a teenage girl. In many way the series captivatingly and accurately captures the pressures that high school students live in and under. As one 15 year old reviewer writes on Common Sense Media, “TO ALL PARENTS OF TEENS: this type of thing happens all the time in high school! The profanity, the sex, the alcohol, and the smoking are things that teens are experiencing and taking part in every day!” That said, the show has faced criticism that it glamorises suicide and suggests that it can be used as a form of high school revenge. That may be so but in my view the most concerning shortcoming of the series is that it fails to map the full range of options that are open to young people who contemplate suicide.

I am somewhat nervous as I write this post as I really don’t want to minimize the reality of the dark places that many young people find themselves in. As humans our primal instinct is to survive, so one only has to imagine what state of mind someone has to be in to intend being an active agent in their own demise. Yet according to a study by the Medical Research Council in 2009, an astonishing 7000 people commit suicide in South Africa each year. The World Health organisation report on suicide documents how suicide rates in low and middle income African countries has risen by 38% over a twelve year period up until 2012.

This post, ‘13 reasons why not’ is meant as an alternative perspective to the series while still recognising the reality of where a young people may find themselves. These reasons also acknowledge that suicide is almost always linked to severe depression not actual circumstances. In addition many of these points are important for all teenagers to understand either about themselves or others.

  1. Significant strengths

It may not be apparent to you but you have significant strengths. You may not be aware of your gifts or abilities or you may just think they are strange, weird, or irrelevant. High school is an environment where only certain abilities get a chance to shine and only certain of them validated. As you get older the chances are good that you’ll learn more about your strengths, get a chance to develop them and ultimately use them in a meaningful way.

  1. Unique contribution

Given the blend of your DNA, personality, character traits, environment, experience, strengths (and weaknesses) you will be in a position to make a positive impact on your peers, family and wider community as you emerge from the restrictions of high school.  You can, and will be able to, offer yourself in a unique way in order to contribute to your workplace, family and friends.

  1. Depression makes you blind

When depression has you in its grip it blinds you. You will fail to see much that is good about you and the world. Its true there may be much about your situation that is bleak and negative. I am often amazed by what some young people have to put up with and go through, sometimes the world really can be crap. However be aware that depression will rob you of the light that does exist.

  1. Work in progress

This is a big one. Many teenagers are extremely self-critical. That inner voice that just won’t let up on how useless and worthless you are is strong at this time.  In the next 5-10 years you are going to change, grow and develop so much. You are not going to stay the same. I often fail to recognize past students at my school when I see them later in life, they have changed beyond recognition and in every way since they were in high school. It can be that way for you too. 

  1. You are being lied to

Just as depression blinds you, it also lies to you. It tells you some pretty horrible things about yourself and makes you feel worthless. That inner self-criticism, and enduring late night fretting (what psychologists call rumination), are sure signs of depression. If you do this, you aren’t solving problems, you are in the depression spiral. “This is what makes depression so dangerous – it feels like common sense. It feels like a true reading of the environment – that no-one likes me, that I’m useless at everything.” so says Counselling Psychologist, Rob Pluke. You need to know this is not real, it’s depression or anxiety talking.

  1. You are not a freak

There are other young people who also have these struggles. One lie depression will also tell you is that you are on your own.  Recent data from the WHO highlights that suicide is the second leading cause of death worldwide among 15-29 years olds. Research shows that issues such as depression and anxiety among young people are on the rise. It is estimated that one out of every five young people will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder by the time they are 18. You are not alone.

  1. There are adults to help you.

Part of the teenage journey is a separation from the adult world and an increased secretiveness around adults. This is natural, normal and even helpful to some extent. However, there comes a time when it is important to involve adults. An ongoing issue that schools face is teenagers trying to sort out fairly major issues on their own without a more mature perspective or input. After a certain point you need to turn to someone with a bit more life experience. This was a significant issue in the series as when the protagonist did turn to the school authorities the counsellor was portrayed as ineffective. Feeling isolated and that there is no one to turn to is one of the biggest factors of depression and suicide.

  1. There is more than one adult to help you

I am aware than many teens feel they have been let down by adults and therefore do not trust them. Sometimes these adults are in positions of major responsibility such as parents, counsellors and pastors and in some cases they have not only let a young person down but may indeed be a significant factor in the teen’s state of mind. Such a breach of trust is tragic but it is not the only story. If someone in the adult world has let you down it does not mean that others will. Look around you and speak to someone you trust.

  1. Your depression can get better.

There are many effective treatments for different mood disorders. Things do not have to stay the way they are. There are many different types of depression and anxiety disorders and talking to a psychologist who understands this and knows how to help you can make a massive difference in your life. Those feelings of anger, isolation and hopelessness can be alleviated.

  1. Medicine is an option

Some types of depression are what we call endogenous depression. This means they are rooted in your body, they are biological. In turn this means that you may need medicine to help you deal with it just as you would for any other illness. The synaptic connections in your brain and the neurotransmitters that help regulate these are complicated and particularly fragile during teenage years. Sometimes a little medication is what is needed to get things back in balance.

  1. Suicide is not romantic

It really isn’t. The Netflix series was fairly graphic in how it depicted an actual suicidal event. According to an article by  Jacqueline Aitchison in ‘Thought Leadership’, “The producers of the series knew what they were doing (they had 3 mental health consultants on set during filming).” According to showrunner Brian Yorkey they deliberately filmed the suicide scene, “to present suicide as something that’s painful and horrific – and certainly never an easy way out.”  Perhaps where the show was lacking was in how it dealt with the aftermath of such a tragedy. Terminating your own life would be terrifying, lonely and lay waste to those you love. A friend of mine lost his brother to suicide when he was younger, it’s not something that you get over.

  1. Suicide is not an effective form of revenge

When young people fantasise around suicide (suicidal ideation) it can include enjoying thoughts of ‘that will show them’. It really won’t. Unlike in Netflix, people won’t be running around beating themselves up about how they treated you (except those who really love you). People have a remarkably good way of deflecting blame elsewhere. Even if they are responsible for making your life difficult it is unlikely they will acknowledge it, even to themselves. However everyone else’s life will be carrying on, but yours won’t.


  1. High school will end

Not just high school but also university or whatever the situation is that you find yourself in. How you feel now won’t always be the way you feel. Your current circumstances won’t always be there. It won’t always be this way. High school won’t continue forever, or even for very much longer. Far better to let high school come to an end than your life.

For more information read Vanity Fair’s full article on the shooting of the suicide scene