Behaviour - Don't let a baby face hurt your credibility

31st January 2014 at 00:00
As a young college teacher, you may be almost the same age as the students. Try our tips to avoid falling into the `friend' trap

On my first day of teaching, the college receptionist mistook me for a student. I was fresh from my teacher training, had just turned 22 and was about to take over several sixth-form English classes made up of students aged 16-18.

It was immediately clear that we had a lot in common. I watched the same television programmes and listened to the same pop music as my charges. On one unforgettable occasion, I even wore the same Primark dress as one of them. In fact, I shared considerably more interests with these teenagers than with my colleagues in the staffroom.

The problem was that I was in the zone where I could be seen as "friend" rather than teacher. The upside of this is great pastoral relationships; the downside is severe damage to behaviour management. Students think you are joking or indulging in banter when you are in fact telling them off. They don't believe your deadlines. They sidetrack you with talk of what was on telly last night, or by telling you they saw you in the pub on Saturday evening.

Luckily, I had been forewarned of the nightmare this would be and so, when they asked my age, I lied. I told them I was 29. Problem solved, right? I was way out of their friendship zone and firmly in the teacher zone.

In reality, it proved just as troublesome. I ended up second-guessing myself, playing a constant game of "What would a 29-year-old do?". What year would a 29-year-old have graduated? When teaching The Great Gatsby, was it acceptable to say I was excited about the film? Just how would a 29-year-old feel about Twitter?

In trying to create a teaching persona, I ended up crafting a false (and frequently inconsistent) character. As a result, my credibility was poor and behaviour management suffered.

I realised soon enough that although my students and I might have shared a fondness for Kanye West, there was one whopping difference that would always separate us: I was a trained professional and they were, however grown-up they thought themselves, children in my care. I had no real need to pretend I wasn't in an age bracket where "friendship" seemed plausible to my students. I just had to do my job.

Every young teacher working in further education has to make their own call on this issue. Lying will make some feel more comfortable, but there are a few simple tricks you can use to ensure they know who's in charge without you having to alter your birth certificate.

Dress the part

Pretending to be someone else can be tiring but dressing like someone else was, for me, a transformative experience. I ditched the summery dresses and cardigans I wore in my own time and ushered in smart blazers and skirt suits instead. Just putting on an oh-so-grown-up ensemble made my brain behave differently: I felt sharper and more authoritative. As a result, my students perceived me that way too. Appearance can be an important signifier.

Personality versus personal

The greatest joy of teaching in further education is discussion. As a younger teacher, the cultural reference points at your disposal are arguably more engaging to your charges than those of your older colleagues. Don't be afraid to use these references to your advantage, letting your own personality and opinions peek through. Just be aware that divulging too much of yourself erodes the perception of you as teacher and increases the chances of you being seen as a friend. Although sharing your views and behaving your age might potentially strengthen your position in terms of behaviour (giving you respect), divulging excessive personal details will have the opposite effect.

Encourage independence

Sixth-form students are not a homogeneous lump. Your Year 12 class will be almost unrecognisable by the end of Year 13 and the personality changes that take place during those two years will be rapid and dramatic. As university and freedom draw nearer, make sure you are preparing them for the independence of the outside world with high expectations of self- motivation and by adapting your behaviour policy. Your youth can be an advantage here. They are likely to listen to your reasoning for why you are not telling them off for late homework and simply failing them instead.

Classroom rules

Don't overestimate your students. Because the years between 18 and 22 can fly so quickly, you can find yourself placing your 22-year-old head on the 18-year-old shoulders of your class. In reality, these fledgling adults are as in need of direction, care and strict class rules as any 14-year- old. By all means give the illusion of a light touch and phrase things differently - for example, I rebranded bad phone calls home as "development discussions" - but remember that they need the same careful guidance and consistency as younger students.

Ultimately, sixth-formers are in class by choice and have their sights set on preparing for the future. They won't give a hoot about your baby face if you don't let it become an issue. And you can always take comfort in the fact that after a few years in the classroom, exhaustion will probably have aged you beyond recognition anyway.

Katarina Keith is a teacher at a sixth-form college in Surrey, England.

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