The toddler's a power-dresser

12th January 2001 at 00:00
Joining the profession young has its drawbacks, says Cassandra Hilland.

No amount of preparation can control your age. The lines on your face say more about you than any suits or soundbites. Not that I have many wrinkles. In 1996, when I started teaching, I had even fewer.

I was in my early twenties - only four years older than some students. So convincing was my infantile appearance that, in my first week, I attempted to look older by wearing a suit, only to have a colleague tell me how nice it was to see such a smart student. When I went to collect my new tutees from the main hall, another colleague mistook me for a student.

Meanwhile, the students thought I was either a precocious power-dressing student, or far too young to be any good as a teacher. So how do you cope with this age thing?

Tell yourself you're unique. You can still just about understand your students' peculiar words and idiolect, and can communicate just as easily with colleagues. This means you can communicate well with everyone. Once your colleagues realise you are indeed a teacher, they finally let you into the staffroom.

Once over the identification hurdle, my colleagues were amazingly supportive. Maybe I brought out their parental side. I found it harder to wn over the students. You have to gain their respect and prove that youth doesn't equal naive hopelessness.

Students react to a young teacher in different ways. Most of mine were chuffed by the fact that their teacher liked South Park and knew that there was more to garage than car storage. This is the positive side of being close in age to your students. You can explain difficult concepts using examples and terminology they can quickly relate to.

But there's also a lot that you don't have in common. Four years at that age can be a very long time. It's important for young teachers to maintain a professional distance from their students, for obvious reasons. Remember that you are, first and foremost, responsible for their education.

Students will see you as being much older than them, so act it. I was shocked when a male student flirted with me. I soon realised that if you reprimand them quickly, lads feel even worse than you do and quickly stop. The last thing you want is students getting too matey. Be friendly but not over-familiar.

I'm now in my fifth year, I am no longer the toddler teacher I once was. I am starting to suit my suit. So don't worry about how people will react to your age - be yourself. Enjoy it while you can.

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