Rac, Roids & Rage – The 3 R’s of boys’ schools

I still vividly remember the day twelve years ago. I stood transfixed near the side of a field watching (at a safe distance) as seemingly fully grown men launched into each other at what I later learnt was the 1st XV rugby trials. It was my first immersive experience of a largely all-male environment and I recall thinking what possible need could these boys have of a school counsellor. As I observed they appeared strong, confident (even dominant) and in control.

At a safe distance.

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Three lies of Masculinity

Joe Ehrman, a defensive lineman with the Baltimore Colts for much of the ’70s, gave a well-known TED talk in 2013 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVI1Xutc_Ws in which he says that as a child, he was taught that being a man meant dominating people and circumstances — a lesson that served him well on the football field, but less so in real life. In his TED talk Joe identifies three lies of masculinity that all boys and young men learn about what how to be a man. They are:

  1. Athletic Ability: You have to be big and strong or at least athletically capable. It is very clear to boys, from magazines, movies and adverts aimed at men, that size matters. Take the cover of any issue of Men’s Health magazine as an example.
  1. Sexual Conquest: Being attractive to, and successful with, girls (having game) is seen as important. Today this may also include sexting (digital sharing of sexual images and words), sort of virtual conquest if you like.
  1. Economic Success: It is seen as a mark of masculinity that a man must provide for his family. Provide and protect is the mantra of many men through the ages.

The three R’s

These three lies are very much alive today. Place these myths though in the fertile ground of an all boys’ boarding school and they can easily become intensified. Just think of an almost all male environment without the leavening effect of females. Then take that and place it in the pressure cooker of a twenty four hour, seven days a week and it is easy to see how things can get out of hand. The term given is ‘hyper-masculinity’ where genuine male traits are exaggerated, distorted and even celebrated. Without awareness and intentionality in confronting these issues we can easily end up with the traditional 3 R’s of Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmatic being unintentionally supplemented by three very different R’s.

Rac

Today it appears that it is more important for boys and men to look good compared to 30 years ago. Taking the anti-acne drug Rac, or Roaccutane, is an essential ingredient today for looking good and makes the ‘spotty teenager’ a thing of the past in certain circles. Concerns about over-prescription have been reported but it is hard to say no to a teenager ridden with both angst and acne. In terms of sexual conquest, appearance and image (both body and branding) are important. Dental work is also de-rigour, a key component in an image conscious society, where face value means different things to different people.  Leaving your appearance to the influence of genetics and hormones is simply not enough.

Roids

Where size is impimg_1348ortant, steroids are always going to be a temptation. Boys these days gym, some even claim it is their official sport. This goes hand in hand with a focus on healthy eating. Many will happily skip desert at a formal dinner in order to preserve that ‘shredded’ body and a good definition these days is far more likely to be a topic of conversation in the gym class than the English lesson. It is not surprising with this focus on body image that anorexia and problems related to body image such as body dysmorphic disorder make their presence felt even in a boy’s school.  There is an ongoing pressure for young men to be physically strong. Of course beyond the physical this translates into being strong emotionally, in this case not having (or at least not showing) emotional needs or weakness.

Rage

Rage, of course, is the term given to the big end of school party that Matrics flock to after they have written their last school exam. Gathering at various centres around South Africa, this is the party to end all parties. In this context I am using the term to cover partying generally and in particular the consumption of alcohol.  Every event, be it a Matric Dance or a formal dinner, has to be accompanied by pre-drinks (prees) and an after-party. The common factor is alcohol. It sometimes appears that the youth seemed determined to cram in as many opportunities for drinking as is humanly possible around just one event.

Alcohol consumption is not just an issue amongst boys of course, in fact research tells us that binge drinking for young girls is a significant and growing problem.  Nor is drinking specifically a problem with the youth. However drinking alcohol is somehow associated with being or becoming a man. I watched a ridiculous advert the other night where a group of men recapture a horse that has escaped its attractive female owner and gone charging down the high street. With the damsel in distress looking on, the men complete the task and then reward themselves to some beer while the sound track pumps out, “I’m a Man, I’m a Man, I’m a Man.”

Gender straight jackets

The media and even society gives our boys limited options as to what type of men they can become. Dr. Caroline Heldman in ‘The Mask You Live In’ explains that there are four ‘predominant male archetypes that we see in film and television and other forms of popular culture’.

  1. Strong Silent guy – This man is always in  control and is not emotional (James Bond)
  2. Superhero – This character engages in high levels of violence to maintain control or achieve a goal (Batman, Captain America, Iron Man e.t.c)
  3. Thug – In the media these are predominantly men of colour, pigeonholed into violent roles. (Officer Frank Tenpenny in ‘Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’, reminiscent of Detective Alonzo Harris in the movie ‘Training Day’)
  4. ‘Manchild’ – A male who’s in perpetual adolescence. “His body doesn’t typically have a lot of muscle, but he tends to project masculinity in other ways, through the degradation of women and engaging in high-risk activities”. (Most of the characters in ‘The Hangover’).

This one dimensional view of masculinity is extremely restrictive and limiting. For many of our young men, it is like being forced to wear a straight jacket that prevents a full range of emotional expression and oversimplifies the glorious complexities of being fully male.

What do we do?img_1345-copy

What are we doing as a school, as a community, as educators and as parents, to provide boys with access to a healthier range of masculinity? What
does healthy masculinity look like anyway? I was once asked by a psychologist when discussing these issues, “In what way is a good man different to a good woman?” When you go beyond the surface, that question is very hard to answer. Grappling with questions like this as an educational community is vital. If you work in an all boys’ school or have a son in one, here are some things to consider as a way forward.

  1. Redefine strength – Boys want to be strong, there’s absolutely no point in telling boys that they don’t need to be strong. It’s built into their psyche that they want to be seen as strong. The message just won’t compute. What you need to do is redefine what strength is.” Martin Seagar. We need engagement and conversations with boys that create a definition of strength that includes emotional expression and vulnerability.
  1. Redefine masculinity – At the end of his TED talk Joe Ehrman posts that being a man is actually about relationships and making a positive difference to the world around you. With reference to being a man he says, “One, it’s your capacity to love and to be loved. Masculinity ought to be defined in terms of relationships. Second thing, it ought to be defined by commitment to a cause. All of us have a responsibility to give back, to make the world more fair, more just, more hospitable for every human being. So I think it’s about relationships and commitments to a cause. That’s the underline of all humanity — men and women.”
  1. Provide a range of healthy male role models – Boys need to see there are many ways to be a man. As psychologist Michael Thompson says, not every boys wants to be ‘…like Mike…’ This means school staff and visitors to the schools need to reflect a diverse and varied spectrum of men. In addition, while male role models in boy’s schools are vital, it is also important that female staff make up a significant proportion of the faculty.

Don’t stay on the sidelines

Thinking back to all those capable boys I watched on the rugby field twelve years ago I now know that all is not what it seems. I have learnt that you take boys at face value, at your peril and possibly theirs. Young men will often put up a convincing mask of anger or disinterest that discourage us from getting close to them. Another memory I have is that of my youngest son, less than two years old, wandering away from my wife one afternoon down at the school sports fields. It was not too long before he was howling with a thorn in his foot. Before my wife could get to him though, a young man had detached himself from his scrum of peers, sat down next to my son, put his arm around him and gently pulled the thorn from his foot.

It’s all there, emotions, feelings, kindness, strength, thought, care, compassion, gentleness, vulnerability. But the thing is, you can’t stay watching at a safe distance, as I was that day on the side of a rugby field. You have to get involved and be willing to be immersed to some level of discomfort, yours and theirs. These last twelve years have taught me that these young men have fears, vulnerabilities, anxieties and weaknesses as do we all. There is still plenty, for me, all staff working with boys, and parents to be engaged with. We just have to be willing to dig a little deeper, look a little longer and create the space for these boys to become the young men they were created to be.

If you work with boys, don’t stay at a safe distance, have the courage to get involved.

Better out than in?

It’s that time of year again when many students head off on their outdoor education experience and trade the walls of the classroom for something a little less predictable…

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

Three days are spent in the Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack The High Berg. Photo: Paul Fleischack

I am not the most athletic of people. OK I am not at all athletic, the less charitable of my colleagues might go so far as to say that I am a trifle overweight. In addition my bush craft is somewhat lacking, while I can navigate round the mall with the best of them and triangulate with unerring and pinpoint precision the nearest coffee shop, my sense of direction deserts me the second the words outdoors and, great, meet up together. In short I would much rather be inside than out. So it was with a sinking feeling (a sensation that I was to experience again too soon) that I caught my lift to take me out to join a group for the second week of our school 13 day ‘Journey’ experience.

Involving six full days of hiking including the ‘barrier of spears’ of…

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Can’t stop loving you

On a cold, drizzly Friday my son and I set off for a fathers and sons weekend. Turning off the freeway we found ourselves faced by red and slippery district roads, far better suited to farm trucks that the city sedan I was driving. With some slipping and sliding we eventually found ourselves at the entrance to the camp: a steep, slick tongue of red clay. “Ok, ok. Here we go boy”. But no go, the car slid off to the side of the road, and settled itself in the thick, wet, grassy ridge. “Maybe we should just go home Dad?”

In this guest blog, psychologist Dr. Rob Pluke recounts his experience of a seemingly disastrous father and son experience and discovers that all is not what it seems when it comes to building relationships with our boys.

Truth be told, my son wasn’t that keen on the camp, and he’d said that he felt a bit sick on the way. But I had wanted to go. I had planned for it – damn it, even paid for it, and we were going! Anyway, soon some of the other dads made their way down towards us, and one used a big 4×4 to tow me out of the mud. If this weekend was about showing our sons how to be men, then I was off to a rather poor start.

Two failed men

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“…we were quickly directed on to our first assignment – an ominously angled zip line.”

Gathering our bags and pieces of my dignity, we picked our way up towards the lodge. As late arrivals we were quickly directed on to our first assignment – an ominously angled zip line. As we trekked up the  path to the platform, my son grabbed my trouser leg, looked up at me with pale face and big eyes, then turned towards a bush and vomited. Half an hour later we were back in our car, bags repacked, and creeping ever closer towards the comforting familiarity of tar. We had a Phil Collins CD playing at the time. Maybe you know the song “Cos’ I can’t stooop loving you! No I can’t stoooop loving you!” Two failed men, singing at the tops of their lungs. Later that night we made supper together, and then my son introduced me to the latest ‘Transformers’ movie. He told me it had been a great day.

I don’t know. By my expectations, we hadn’t managed to fulfill one of the requirements of a fathers and sons camp. No blood-letting, solemn pacts, or weird chants – gee man, not even a single obstacle course was conquered. But strangely enough, the weekend stands out for me as a highlight time with my son. On reflection I now see, that without awareness or intention, my boy and I ended up checking some very important boxes.

Ticking the boxes

First simply by being together we were able to enjoy moments that are impossible to script. I’m going to try to remember this.

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Masculinity is what happens when men come together

Second, we knew in a beyond words kind of way, that because we were in something together, partners in crime if you like, we were busy being men. So I guess what this tells me is that masculinity isn’t something out there – an essence we need to achieve. Instead, masculinity is what happens when men come together. It’s a relational experience – an acknowledgement of ‘us-ness. This is one reason why dads are so important to their sons. When we stand alongside our sons, they experience themselves as men.

Third, something very powerful happens when we stand alongside our sons during moments of weakness and vulnerability. When we can do this, we show our sons that they really can be themselves. So whether they’re sick, scared or uncertain, they’re still ‘man enough’. Did I wish that my son would charge up the hill and swoop daringly down the zip line? Sure, a part of me did. But I think I’ll always be glad that I stayed with him, walked with him, and loved him as he was.

Finally, one of the great benefits of staying at my son’s side was that he invited me into his world. I know that he and I will always have Transformers. But more personally, I will always have that song. Whenever I hear it, a fierce love seeps from my cells and rises up and into my throat.

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Something very powerful happens when we stand alongside our sons

Going off road

On that day my son took me off-road, and away from pre-navigated routes to masculinity. He helped me to chart territory of the heart that I had never before encountered – territory that exists far beyond the prescriptions of status and peer approval.

So I don’t give a damn what the real-man’s manual says. Because I can’t stop loving you.

Rob Pluke is a Counselling Psychologist and author. His latest book is called ‘Are you disappointed in me Dad?’ and will be available from November 2016.

Want to learn more about connecting with your son? Then have a look at this clip from ‘The Representation Project’. Whether throwing a around a ball or serving up breakfast, Steven and Mike model healthy masculinity and support their kids in being their true selves.

 


 

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If  you and your son are interested in a fathers and sons experience with a difference then check out the Courage 2 Connect website at: www.courage2connect.co.za

 

 

Putting out fires

With the land turning brown and fire breaks being burnt, I was reminded of this blog I wrote last year…

There's a Hadeda in my Garden

Health and safety has not yet reached the epidemic proportions here in South Africa that it undoubtedly has in the United Kingdom. However it is making its well-meaning but sometimes counterproductive presence slowly felt, to the point where we recently had a whole school fire drill. Not that we don’t have these but this time in order to ensure we maintained our safety rating we had the full Monty, complete with ambulances, fire engines and simulated injuries.

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In order to receive the necessary accreditation the whole community of more than five hundred students, teachers, staff from the laundry, kitchen and grounds had to be present and accounted for within fifteen minutes from the initial sounding of the alarm. A time was set, a managed fire lit and five ‘bodies’ to be rescued placed randomly around the school premises. All was ready.

It did not go well.

To start with the…

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A day in the life of a House Master

Our head recently received a letter from a gentleman who had attended the school as far back as 1933. In the letter he said, “Each school day started with The Plunge, a shallow unheated indoor pool in each house which had to be traversed by each of us before gaining access to a warm shower. Teaching filled the morning, while sports filled all the afternoons except Fridays when we had Cadets. Rugby and Cricket were compulsory while Swimming and Squash

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Things were different in 1933

were voluntary. When sport was impossible because of the invading mists the whole school went on a Cross-Country run”. 

It seems there was no escape from physical exercise. While sports on a Saturday were a given, even on a Sunday boys were expected to be outside, “Every Sunday after attending Chapel the whole school was issued with substantial sandwiches and sent out on “Free Bounds”. We spread out over the surrounding countryside, mostly in small gangs, where we established our territories and built our huts in the vicinity of friendly streams.

The letter went on to say.  “Things were different then because the only time we met our House Master was at the beginning and end of the term”. Who could say that about a House Master today (except maybe his wife)?  It seems the one pastoral role Housemasters had, and perhaps took to with relish, was that of discipline. According to our letter writer, other than the beginning and end of term the only other visits to the House Master were “to bend over in his office while we were given four strokes of the cane, and occasionally six, for some misdemeanour”.

Things today of course are very different. In this blog Peter Huntley, with pastoral experience in two different schools, shares a typical day in the life of the modern House Master.


Around 06h35 every week day morning an ear-splitting blast of “whistle music” reverberates around the St Michael’s quad – it is said that the sleeping inmates of more than just the intended House are roused from their slumbers by this rude noise! And so begins the day of the Housemaster: The first round of pill dispensing, roll call some 5 minutes later, remembering specific messages for certain boys, checking hair growth, dress code and the fact that “Bloggs” has vanished to the san having being “caught short” by a mystery gastro virus! Despite all the distractions, the all-important “Blue slip” or attendance record, is filled in and despatched with an eager runner.

IMG_3443Next up is the breakfast “watch’ – junior dining hall is no place for the faint-hearted, as the hungry hordes descend en-masse for their early morning sustenance (especially if the toxic pink cereal is on offer). This can become a “dog show” of sorts, primarily if a certain Housemaster’s hounds arrive to add to the melee…Inspection follows shortly after, and it almost requires a miracle worker to juggle this, the second round of pill dispensing and the releasing of cell phones, tablets and laptops from the locked cupboard in the office! Enough to fit into a whole morning perhaps, but for us, just the first 50 minutes of the day – now off to impart knowledge to the expectant “sponges” in the classroom…

The academic day passes in a blur mostly, as in between, or during lessons, one fields calls from concerned parents regarding ID books, early flight departures, poor academic progress and Bloggs’ mystery gastro virus! On the staff front; numerous e-mails clutter the cyberspace informing the Housemaster of numerous errant boys – bunkers, shirkers and defaulters, all of whom need to be dealt with immediately! Depending on the time of the year, the day could also be interspersed with “new boy” interviews, writing Grade 12 testimonials or chasing down senior boys who have illegally brought vehicles on to the estate…

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A boarding house ‘day’ room

With one or two other meetings thrown in, a sport practice to conduct, papers to mark and even on occasion, ones own life to keep on track, the sun starts setting in the valley. The Housemaster’s final frontier – will the tutor arrive on time? Wander through the House just to ensure an academic ethos is being maintained, chat to Bloggs about his terrifying gastro bug, exchange pleasantries with a few others and retire to the sanctity of one’s home; just in time to field a few more e-mails from parents with genuine or perceived concerns about their boys…

Peter Huntley


 

IMAGE_5Peter Huntley’s career as a House Master has spanned 14 years with a mini break between his time as the Superintendent of a Senior House at a top state school and then a move to his present “calling” as a House Master in the Independent school sector. He says every day still presents new challenges and opportunities for “an old dog to learn new tricks!” but that ultimately he would not change it for anything!

 

How to build a winning team

I am usually a calm and measured person, thoughtful and considerate for the most part. However put me on the side of a sports field and I have the potential to transform into a ranting,  raging and rude maniac. I once told an opposition coach that people like him were the reason South African soccer was in such a mess. Much of the impact of my words were lost I think given that my team were 7-1 down at the time. A few years before that I saw red in more ways than one as I disabused the referee of the notion that he was impartial, fair or in any way competent when it came to officiating a football game.

Sport has the ability to raise one’s blood pressure exponentially, especially if one is involved in coaching. I have reflected on the alter ego that appears whenever I am near a white line and I have come to the conclusion that it is most likely to manifest itself when I care too much about winning. Winning is of course important, no one should play sport to lose, but when it becomes everything we are already losers.

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The last unbeaten season was 1909

Last year our school 1st XV rugby side had an unbeaten season. Much has been made of this and rightly so. The only unbeaten seasons prior to this were in 1902 and 1909 when staff still played in the team and there were only 4 matches a year! There are I think so many variables in creating a winning team that it is impossible to predict how well a team will do in terms of results. Not only do you need to have the right players, you need the right players in the right positions, you need them not to get injured, you need them to get on with each other, you may need the opposition, or their star player to have an off day and you may need a few 50/50 calls from the referee to go your way. Any coach that says otherwise is fooling themselves. It is why an unbeaten season is such a special thing.

I spoke to our 2015 1st XV rugby team coach about why he thought the season had gone so well last year. He said the following, “Imagine coaching a group of rugby players who love the game, who are keen to play, who are talented, who are humble and who want to be role models for the younger boys at the school. Well, in 2015, I was privileged to be able to coach such a bunch of boys. The result, my best coaching experience so far as a teacher. Not because of the fantastic results, but because of the total educational experience.” Mike Schwartz.

I think that last line is the key, building a winning team at school level must be in the context of the total educational experience not a “winning at all costs” mentality. To win every game in a season is insignificant, in the sense that it makes not a bit of difference to the world. So is using a club to push a ball in a hole, as is driving an expensive car or earning a large salary. In the context of the global and local challenges we face, all of these achievements pale into insignificance, success in these terms is simply not important or relevant to the world we live in. Boys playing sport need to know this.
Meadows benchesThis is a difficult lesson to learn for an adolescent when up to 10000 people are cheering you on in a schoolboy match. It is hard to see, given the adulation and fanfare reserved for players who make the Springbok squad. Impossible to understand perhaps when professional football players overseas can earn more in a week than many South Africans earn in a lifetime. A winning season is of course associated with success, but it is important that our boys know that success does not equal significance.

At the end of the season our 1st XV coach quoted Larry Gelwix, coach of the Highland Rugby Team and featured in the movie ‘Forever Strong’, in his after dinner speech, “It’s not about rugby, it’s about young men. It’s not about building a Championship team, it’s about building Championship boys; boys who will be forever strong.

That’s a great quote. As educators and coaches we must first be aiming to build boys into significant as opposed to merely successful men. This means that regardless of what happens on the field in terms of results we can see growth and development in the character of our teams. We can have winning teams and championship boys irrespective of their win/loose ratios.

What did this entail for last year’s team? According to the coach the following had to take place:

  • Commitment – This started with a hard and demanding preseason training.
  • Sacrifice – Time had to be put aside for the prerequisite training. Boys also had to learn to put the team’s needs before their own.
  • Goal setting – This was individual but done publicly to increase accountability
  • Routines – Before and after matches the team knew what to expect. “The chocolate milks that they received at the end of the match were a major highlight.”
  • Gratitude – Giving thanks for talents, their own and others
    , became part of the team ethos.
  • Relationship – The older boys did their best to ensure equality in the team as opposed to relating in a hierarchical way. They enjoyed each
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    Goal setting: An important part of development and growth

    other’s company. “The group of players was united and this made it easy to motivate them.”

  • Fun – The boys enjoyed their training and were happy. Music and singing were also important to them. The boys had a playlist
    that mostly consisted of One Direction. The year before that they told me that as they arrived at an opposition school they would sing ‘Story of My Life’ by the same band at full volume.

Our coach said, “The concept of making successful boys and not only successful players tied in well with the school vision. We have framed this as Success v Significance. The boys were just living what they had learnt for a number of years already.

If boys need to know that winning as an end in itself is not significant then so do their coaches.  Joe Ehrman in his book ‘Inside Out Coaching’ frames this as transformational, as opposed to transactional, coaching. A transactional coach has “their focus solely on winning and meeting their personal needs”, whereas a transformational coach “helps young people grow into responsible adults, they leave a lasting legacy.”

In a report by the Journal of Coaching Education it was found that coaches were ranked as the no 1positive influence on today’s sports playing youth. Given the critical role coaches play Ehrman says that each coach needs to ask themselves 4 questions:

  1. Why do I coach?
  2. Why do I coach the way I do?
  3. What does it feel like to be coached by me?
  4. How do I define success?

I know for myself that as I have introspected on these questions it has helped me clarify my own role as a coach and sharpened my focus. I am setting myself up for a fall here but I think I am less prone to fits of unbecoming rage and am more relaxed in my approach. I still hate losing (especially 7-1) but I am also more aware of an overarching goal that goes beyond winning or losing.

In my own small way I was also lucky enough (and I do mean lucky) to have my own unbeaten season last year with the Under 14A soccer team. In fact we won all seven of our games, the first time that has happened to me as a coach. I am fairly sure that, at least in part, it is linked to the fact that I am learning to stay calm on the side of the field, which in turn is a result of rethinking how I define success and why I coach.

Morning frost

In closing I want to retell the story played out in the American PBS documentary ‘Raising Cain’, narrated by psychologist Michael Thompson. Having examined the lives of teenage boys across the US, the series concludes by following the fortunes of Lincoln Sudbury, a High School Football team, and coverage of their final derby match against arch rivals Newton South,  upon which the success of their season will be judged. Lincoln Sudbury lose the game and anyone watching the footage can see they are truly shattered.

Thompson though, as he reflects on the game and the boys, chose to finish his broadcast with these words, “The boys thought today’s game was going to be a test of their manhood. They were right but not in the way they had imagined. These young men are going to have to prove they can cope with an immense disappointment…Today they showed deep compassion for each other. They’ve learnt that emotional courage is courage. Our job is to help them learn that lesson well.”

 

 

 

Psychopathic schools

Some of my boarding school colleagues have a frenzied start to the day. Overseeing morning roll call in a fog of morning breath, checking that all the boys are present and correct, making sure they are dressed correctly, clean shaven, hair suitably brushed and off to breakfast. These days it also involves dispensing large quantities of medication all before getting to that first lesson with Grade 9.DSC_0350

One typically frenzied morning a harassed colleague of mine was in the pharmacist phase of his morning routine. He happened to have a spitting headache and a difficult class looming. He grabbed himself a couple of Panado’s as he handed out a variety of stimulant and other medication to those in his charge.

Unfortunately as the day waned his headache did not and he found he had to take more painkillers. It seemed to work and he found himself focused and engaged as he tackled his remaining classes with aplomb, cleared all of his marking and got up to date with his e-mail backlog. In fact, as he sat down to plan his afternoon coaching session he was surprised by how effectively he coped with the day. Indeed his wife commented on just how efficient and effective he had been as he had also managed to contact maintenance to sort out a problem in his own home and dealt with a few domestic matters that has been unattended for months.

As he strolled confidently down to the sports fields basking in the glow of a job well done his cell phone screen lit up in front of him, illuminating the name of a teacher who had been on his case about a particular boy in his house who was clearly, obviously and officially suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, (ADHD with the emphasis on the H). “Did you give Joe his Ritalin this morning? I have just had him for a double lesson and he was absolutely unplayable, ruined my lesson and my day!” After assuring the teacher that he had in fact dispensed his medical duties diligently, my friend reflected on the morning rush during medication time and the ensuing day. As he did so it dawned on him slowly that Joe had in fact received a couple of Panado while he himself had imbibed some 72mg of stimulant medication, hence his rare (some would say only) foray into the word of hyper-efficiency.

Schools can sometimes resemble a stay at the mad house, but are they psychopathic? They are according to John Taylor Gatto, “Although teachers do care and do work very, very hard, the institution is psychopathic; it has no conscience.” Gatto, an author and New York City teacher of the year for three consecutive years, believes that schools become this way because despite the fact that, “thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers, the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions.”  That is, despite being filled with good people the institution of the school tends to squeeze out the humanity of its members. Often this comes from the pressure to perform and achieve, requiring an almost unsustainable super human effort.Slow down data graphic

In my last blog, Moving Up by Slowing Down, I wrote about the pressure on children and the pace that schools run at most notably in the areas of academic assessment, homework and extracurricular activity. I posed the question, ‘Are children today too busy?’ The response? An overwhelming 97% of respondents felt that they were. My contention was (and is) that we would all (teachers, parents and pupils) be better off if we just slowed down a bit rather than running around with, as Carl Honore puts it, “schedules that would make a CEO anxious.”

How do we slow things down though? I have spoken on this issue at several schools recently and asked a friend of mine at one of them how things were going. He replied, “Alas, the Utopia you sketched has faded from memory. Our ardour has cooled. Our lives are a blur of desperately reaching back to complete the tasks of yesterday while planning the future which is already happening.” Brilliantly put. It is really hard to escape the gravitational fields and orbits of our educational solar system in order to slow down. It appears ‘the abstract logic of the institution’ does indeed overwhelm our individual desires to be more humane.

So what can we do? There are though lots of ways to re-imagine education, but these fall beyond the scope of this blog. Instead I have chosen to look at what schools can do in the current educational paradigm of which they are a part. I have combed a variety of source material on this question and the suggestions below seem either to be the most common or alternatively make the most sense, to me at least.

1. Be human

Teachers must take every opportunity to be human and recognise the humanity of their students too. Let’s not be overwhelmed by the school system but make and take opportunities to connect with our colleagues and our students on a human level.  Anything in schools that build relationships can only help. I have heard of one school that has timetabled ‘Connect’ periods for their staff. A few years ago the International Boy’s School Coalition undertook a study on the best teaching methods for boys. They asked staff and students from schools around the globe to tell them what worked when it came to good teaching. I recall that storytelling and video clips featured high up on the list. However, although it had not been part of the research, what shone through was that the relationship between teacher and student was paramount. So strong was this narrative throughout all the text that the researchers analysed, that it could not be ignored. Boys learnt best when they felt that had a good relationship with their teacher regardless of the teaching methods used. I can’t imagine it would be much different for girls.

2. Do less

In 2004 first year students at Harvard receiving a welcoming letter from the Dean entitled ‘Slow Down – Getting more out of Harvard by doing Less’ exhorting them to do less, pick activities based on fun and basically get some balance back in their lives after the rush of school. Have a look http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/harrylewis/files/slowdown2004.pdf  . In a similar vein the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have revamped their admission form to encourage high school students to do less in terms of gaining acceptance to MIT. Rather than expecting the students to have completed a myriad of tasks and activities at school they rather ask them to focus on one particular thing that they are passionate about. It is important to state that slowing down is not synonymous with being lazy. By doing less we are actually more focused, more productive and dare I say more passionate about what we do.

3. Sleep in

Sleep is important and we don’t get enough of it. This is perhaps more true for high school students. For teenagers this means having a lie in. There is much research to point to the fact that due to their circadian rhythms and melatonin levels teens will struggle to fall asleep as early as adults, hence the need to sleep in at the other end of the cycle. In 2009 a 10am start was introduced for 800 students at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, UK. It was instigated and observed by Russell Foster, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Foster says that the outcomes were clear. “The Monkseaton experiment shows, frankly, that if you start at 10am, grades go up.”  We have been trying our experiment at our school. While the students love it, it seems to be causing unbelievable pain and trauma in the lives of our teachers so the jury is out. I know of a school in the Cape where they have ‘Late start Wednesday’ where for at least one day of the week students have the margin to catch up on sleep or work. Anything we can do in this area is going to help.

4. Take the ass out of assessment.

Schools should delay grading and ranking as long as possible and when they do start it, should do it as little as possible. There are other ways to assess children. Formally assessing children as young as 4 as has been proposed in the UK is preposterous. Cityterm in New York assesses its students by asking them to display mastery of a particular subject or area.

5. Listen to student voice

Radical I know, but the more we listen to what students are saying the more chance we have of learning from them. Teachers don’t always make the best students but we need to become experts in our subjects and our subjects are our students as opposed to the discipline that we happen to teach. One example I heard of this was to train students up to assess teacher’s classroom performance as opposed to merely relying on other teachers for feedback. There are many other ways that room can be given for student voice. I guess it comes down to our attitude in this regard.

6. Get out

The book ‘Last Child in the Woods’ by Richard Louv points out that when children play out doors they use more vocabulary, use greater imagination and creativity, are involved in less conflict, and play longer games. Being outdoors can be tough but it builds character and gives us time and space to develop self-knowledge. I have written on this before at https://timothyjejarvis.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/better-out-than-in/ if you are interested. In addition, Ben Foggle, the UK based explorer, writes a really convincing case for more time outdoors. Have a look at his article if you are interested in this aspect of education http://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2015/dec/17/we-need-fewer-exams-and-more-wilderness-in-education

Outdoors
“Moses didn’t find God at the mall” John Eldridge

7. More arts and culture

In our utilitarian world, and in a South Africa where economic survival is a challenge the arts are sometimes given short shrift. Even when it comes to choosing subjects boys (or their parents) will eschew drama, visual art and music in favour of seemingly more useful subjects like accounting or economics. This despite the fact that for the most part universities neither know nor care what you study, just how well you do it. As Ken Robinson says, rather than anesthetising kids through school by the use of stimulant medication, which should instead be waking them up to what they have inside themselves through the ascetic of art and culture. Antony Seldon, previous Headmaster of Wellington College said that, “Children need extra time in school to experience enrichment in the arts, sport and character education. Too much time in class and pupils switch off, or they become too tired for homework… so we need longer school days, but, in the state sector, longer holidays, too.

8. Make sport fun

The pressure and intensity of the sports culture in schools is counter-productive to educational aims. There is a recent trend in South Africa to appoint professional sports people to come and coach at school level. This is a mistake. These well intentioned and capable people often lack the educational training and experience to get the best out of young people. They are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to looking at their role in the lives of young people holistically.  That’s not to say that there is no place for professional coaches, at the higher level students can really benefit from the technical edge a specialised coach can impart. It is just that their role needs to be clearly defined and monitored. Coaches need to have a transformational mind-set that aims to develop the students in their teams rather than a transactional one which merely utilises them in terms of getting results.

9. Pimp the school day

A school not so very far away from my own has just cut the number of lessons down to only four a day. That sounds fantastic. OK so each lesson is 80 minutes long, which from a teacher’s perspective (and a students I am sure), sounds dreadful. I will be really interested to see how this goes. The concept of extendable learning periods is another innovation that I have both read about and also heard about from our students who have been on exchange at schoolS in Australia. There are many ways to do it, but in this instance it was a 20 minute extension period tacked onto one of the lessons each day. The teacher of the lesson immediately prior to it could use the time to continue with the lesson, get the students to do their prep or just allow them time to do their own thing. I am also a fan of a ten minute gap between lessons. This allows teachers and pupils a little more time to interact informally and more intimately and allows space for the humanity of both staff and students to grow.

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10. More coffee

OK this one is mine but it can’t be too bad a suggestion can it? It does help keep you human after all. If my friend had some time for a half decent cup of coffee in the morning he would maybe not have popped his stimulant medication. OK so he wouldn’t have been such a machine, but he would have been more human.