What It's Like To Teach Teenagers When You're In Your 20s

Can you have a normal life if you've got to be a role model for a bunch of brats?

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17 May 2016, 12:00am

Collage by Marta Parszeniew

The manifold responsibilities and pressures of teaching don't really fit with the abstract concept of "your 20s", a decade that's supposed to denote the last socially acceptable pangs of irresponsibility, rootlessness and having no fixed idea about who you are. A career in teaching, meanwhile, tends to mean a life of dedication characterised by routine 70+ hour weeks, endless data input and controlling stuffy classrooms full of demonic, hormonal teenagers.

I know this because I've just finished a tour of duty in a south London comprehensive. As fulfilling as it was, it could be a struggle. Almost 40 percent of newly qualified teachers have considered leaving the profession in the last year, and I'm sure many found that the job had simply taken over their life.

We thought it would be cool to catch up with a variety of young teachers from around the country and ask them about what it's really like trying to juggle their 20s with life in the classroom. For obvious reasons, we've changed their names, but they weren't timid in dealing with issues, from partying, unwanted Facebook requests and the skin-searingly awful pitfalls of trying, and failing, to fulfil the "cool teacher" stereotype.

DAVID, 29, ART TEACHER, STIRLINGSHIRE

VICE: How do you square doing all the normal 20-something stuff with the responsibilities and stresses of teaching?
David: In the last job I had before teaching, I used to totally take the piss, turning up late for work having come straight from a party, but I maintain a pretty solid delineation between work and recreation now. I've only gone to work hungover maybe three times in about six years of teaching, partly because it's just totally fucking unprofessional to turn up as a teacher when you've obviously been wrecked the night before but also because being responsible for a room full of teenagers is pretty much the worst setting imaginable for dealing with the fallout from a big night.

From experience, I've noticed that teenagers definitely perceive you as being barely removed from their own lives in a way that doesn't happen when with older, more experienced teachers. How do you keep on top of that?
When I'd just qualified I was probably more relatable, and the cultural chasm between me and my pupils seemed more like a reasonably small crevasse. I now tend to take pleasure in making disparaging remarks about Kanye West or Joey Essex and lapping up their outrage.

So you don't try to be their mate?
Some teachers I know use a degree of familiarity to build really strong teaching relationships and I don't see any issue with that. As long as interactions stay within socially acceptable boundaries then it's cool. It's your responsibility though. I worked out pretty early on that my character doesn't mesh with that "cool teacher" approach so I'm pretty firm and formal, like a Radio 4 version of myself.

Have you ever been scouted by any pupils on social media?
The funniest social media experience was when this kid who wasn't even in one of my classes sent me a message that simply said "you're fucking gimp". It went into the "other" box because he wasn't a contact, so I didn't pick up the message for about three years. It was too late for me to get back to him with a request for clarification about whether the missing "a" should have been placed before or after "fucking". I'm still totally baffled by why he sent that message.

Do you remember having any younger teachers when you were at school and did that affect your relationship with them?
There was a Home Economics teacher who was in her early 20s. During our first lesson she asked everyone to tell their best joke. Inevitably everyone came out with the filthiest, sweariest joke they knew. I think I told one about a guy fucking a hole in a tree that I no longer fully remember and she was laughing along. Everyone thought she was really cool to start with but then for most of the subsequent lessons she was really strict and lost her shit about the tiniest things. No one would have cared if she'd been strict from day one but that inconsistency ultimately diminished the amount of respect we had for her. It was a good lesson about being consistent in the way you deal with people, if nothing else.

The teacher actually invited him to the school Christmas dance as her date. She must have given absolutely zero fucks.

What about the weird world teacher-student relationships. Have you ever seen any of that?
When I was in sixth form the only young teacher I knew was through my friend (who had left a year or two beforehand) who ended up going out with this girl who had started teaching at our school. I think she was just out of teacher training, maybe on her probationary year. There was only about a three-year age gap but it was really fucking weird to be 18, sitting in the pub with your mates and a teacher. She was actually a really cool person, but it was a small area and it probably didn't endear her to the faculty. She invited him to the school Christmas dance as her date. I don't think he went but she must have given absolutely zero fucks.

VICK, 22, HUMANITIES TEACHER, GLASGOW

Is it possible to be a "normal" 20-something when you're a teacher?
It's difficult. The life I had before teaching was completely different to what it is now. Teaching makes you grow up a lot – especially going straight into a job at 21. I'm less mad, for sure. Much more iPlayer and much less Subclub.

What are your strategies for dealing with the small age gap between you and your students?
Oh god, yeah the age gap thing has been a struggle at times. Teenagers don't take you as seriously as they do older teachers. Kids seem much older than me when I was at school, too. Some of the 17-year-olds look so old. Consistency is the key, having rules and routine for teenagers is so important. You have to take a line and follow it, for better or worse, as it's impossible to row back after you've committed to one way of doing things.

Were you ever tempted to play the "cool young teacher" card?
Yes, and I learned the hard way that it doesn't work. Teachers and pupils can't be friends.

What made you actually get into teaching?
I suppose I just wanted to help people. I like getting the best out of the kids I teach and it may sound cliché but it's one of the most rewarding jobs you could ever do. I have some friends who are in dead end jobs who count down the hours until they finish but it's not like that with teaching.

ALEX, 26, PHYSICS TEACHER, LONDON

VICE: Do you ever get to go out and get drunk or go on dating apps when you're a teacher?
Alex: Not really. I've not got too much of a life outside work, it's pretty all-consuming. Sometimes it feels like going out and getting minging with my mates is a thing of the distant past.

The few times I ventured topical jokes were among the most dreadful moments of my life.

Do students take you seriously as a young teacher?
The older ones always quiz me on whether I've been out during the weekend. I just tell them the God's honest truth: no. Where the fuck would I find the time? I've never tried to pretend I'm their mate; in fact, at the beginning I was being ridiculously harsh, which they don't respect either.

So you don't try and be relatable?
The few times I ventured topical jokes were among the most dreadful moments of my life. Proper lead balloon shit in front of 30 braying teenagers. Nightmare memories.

So what made you actually get into teaching?
I came out of uni and had no clue at all about what I was doing and this just seemed like the best option. But now I do love it. It's difficult and takes over your life, in many ways but it's worth it.

LAURA 23, ENGLISH TEACHER, NORTHERN IRELAND

VICE: How do you juggle the pressures of being just a few years older than some of the kids you're teaching?
Laura: It's a delicate balancing act, and one I'm still trying to perfect. During my first few months as a newly qualified teacher I remember looking around desperately for the adult in the room, before realising it was me.

How do the kids perceive you in the classroom?
The key is knowing what you can divulge (usually what Netflix series I'm addicted to), and what to withhold. It reaps rewards pastorally too. I find students feel more able to come to me to speak about any concerns, or when they need some support. I try to treat them as young adults rather than kids, and I think they appreciate that.

Did you ever feel tempted to try out the hip young teacher role?
I'm a massive nerd to be honest. I talk openly with my students about my obsession with dinosaurs and Harry Potter, and other severely uncool stuff. I try to show them that it's OK to be uncool, as long as you're being yourself. I hope it's a positive approach, but no doubt there is a sea of tweets somewhere with "OMG, did you SEE the nick of miss today..."

What drew you into teaching in the first place?
It may be a cliché, but I wanted to make a difference. I went to a great school, but went through quite a lot in my personal life as a teenager. I had one teacher who simply refused to give up on me. She gave me no option but to succeed. And I couldn't help but think that there are countless kids in schools everywhere who deserved that chance.

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