I don’t remember when I decided I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but looking back there seems to be a story that fits together so I’ll stick with that.
Around the time those lads broke into Ladbrokes at the end of my road, and after all the other hoo-ha around the London riots, I noticed a surge in talk about the ‘youth of today’. I was pretty tired of hearing views exchanged on what we should do and what our children really needed.
I realised I didn’t know as much about young people as I used to. Then, to my dismay, I realised I wasn’t young any more. Unexpected ageing aside, I realised that talking to young people seemed a more enlightening option than talking about them.
After a chat with my housemate I decided to look into mentoring and found out about a charity called Chance UK that works with children between 5 and 11 years old. Their mission is to improve the lives of primary school children with behavioural difficulties who are at risk of developing anti-social or criminal behaviour in the future. Long story short, I now volunteer for Chance, spending 2-4 hours a week with a 9 year old with behavioural and learning difficulties.
It’s brilliant hanging about with a cheeky kid who sees the world differently. Kid A (not his real name) is bright and funny and thoughtful, he just gets carried away sometimes and needs a bit of guidance to keep him out of trouble.
Obviously there’s the admin of the positive development, and objectives and paperwork that he doesn’t need to worry about, but we play football, ping-pong, swim, go to shows, museums, the cinema and basically have fun. In his hectic school and family life it’s invaluable for him to have one-to-one positive attention for a couple of hours a week, even if it is just a stress-free break from his normal routine. There is hard work involved, as well as the fun and games, and it is a commitment but I never realised how organised I could be when it was for someone else and about something that truly mattered.
To be a mentor you need patience, energy and a sense of humour. Don’t worry, you get training and they try to make sure it’s right for you before you’re matched with a child. I recommend it to anyone who has so much as a half thought about doing it. It’s a real buzz and can change a child’s life. And yours. In fact, after mentoring I decided I wanted to quit my office job and work with children from now on.
I applied to do a PGCE to be a Primary School teacher. I have to say that since making the choice I’ve never been so supported in anything in my life. Admittedly, most of the encouragement I have received was from people saying I already look like a teacher. It was clearly meant to be. One interesting thing I learned in all this was the sad shortage of male primary school teachers.
Now I don’t like to make assumptions but the lack of positive male role models in young learners and the increase in crime, depression, and all the other problems young men face can’t be a coincidence.
Why are there so few men in teaching in primary school? Has Operation Yewtree and damaging societal assumptions about men who choose to spend their working life with children scared us all? Is primary school teaching considered a female domain? There are deep-seated cultural ideas about both of these issues, but who cares. I haven’t got enough time in the day to worry what people think of my masculinity (whatever that might be!) and my choice of profession.
You don’t have to talk like a CBBC presenter to work with children. Is that what puts people off? I don’t know, but I hate that baby talk shit. I don’t put on a special condescending slow voice when I talk to children; I talk in the same tone I use for adults. I do this because I believe that if you demonstrate that you respect young people enough to address them like real human beings, then they will respond to that and work to keep that respect. Plus, patronising children makes me cringe.
The strangest thing about mentoring and teaching is the presupposition that I’m a positive role model. When the hell did that happen? The truth is I’m not sure it did. When you work with children, whether you feel it or not, you are the de facto responsible adult and by and large you rise to the occasion.
Am I a good role model? Who knows? I’ve led a life full of actions I wouldn’t want kids to copy but how would they ever know? I guess the interesting ones will do their own versions of it all when they grow up and who am I to stop them? Until I started working with young people I never realised how much I had to offer that I took for granted. In a world that acts like there’s no future, I think we need more people to act like there will be and invest in it.
I’m not saying drop everything and become a teacher, but at least visit Chance UK’s website or have a look to see what similar programs there are for you locally. It could be the best thing you ever do.
And hey, even if you remain sceptical, at least hanging around with kids means you get to feel like the grownup for once.