Secret diary of an Irish teacher: I think we need to tell young people exactly what’s happening

‘This is no country for old men.’

Secret diary of an Irish teacher: I think we need to tell young people exactly what’s happening

‘This is no country for old men.’

Never was Yeats so relevant. It’s no world for them either. Our elderly are terribly vulnerable right now. And “the young in each other’s arms” can do a significant amount to help them.

Over the last few days, I’ve seen teenagers in buses sitting on top of each other; I literally jumped between one young couple, reminding them to keep their distance.

Even as I left school last Thursday evening, clutching my box like I’d just been fired, I passed 30 of my own students congregating. This is anti-social socialising on a whole new level. And it’s not good enough.

You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher. Truth be told, I’m not far off heading into town with my flashlight and an old-fashioned teacher bata. I might even bring my measuring tape to ensure lovestruck couples are social distancing. Yes, in the face of this virus I have become a 1950s nun, the type who used to stalk dance halls and social clubs across the country. Keep your dance-space. Repent. Avoid sin.

I never thought I’d feel such affinity with the repressed Catholics of yesteryear but like them, I feel it’s my duty. I’ve been telling teenagers how to behave for 15 years now. I miss them. I miss doing it.

What’s to miss? I miss their joy, the way they talk to each other, even in the mornings, all animated and tactile. I miss the little ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ that makes your day. The nod as you pass that acknowledges you, maybe even accepts you. I miss them fighting over a bread roll. I miss when they reveal something about themselves, something personal and small like how they love their dog or pot noodles. I miss the many ways they know to irritate you with a water bottle. I miss their lovely faces. I miss sharing their Friday feeling at the end of every week. I also miss helping them and some of that means telling them what to do.

But I get the feeling other people fear telling teenagers what to do. It seems we’re either afraid to break them, or we’re afraid of them. It strikes me again and again as I hear advice on this pandemic that we seriously underestimate our young people. Teenagers are not problems. We shouldn’t be afraid to tell them exactly what to do — parents, bus drivers, shopkeepers, passers-by — we can all play our part.

Too often we talk about our young like they’re either victims or vermin. We discuss them like they’re held together with brittle shells or conversely like they’re walking, talking bombs. Most of them are absolutely fine. They’re grand, like. They just need to be told to ‘cop on’ every so often.

Why do parents look to experts and psychologists for advice on how to talk to kids about this latest crisis? Why are parents told repeatedly to stay calm for the children’s sake, to lead by example, to not panic? To protect them at all costs. That this is all on them.

It’s quite possible it isn’t. Maybe all this hysteria, this advice on good parenting, creates distance within relationships. Distance from our own kids. It’s possible that this hyper-sensitivity might paradoxically cause anxiety in young people. I remember when I was about eight, hearing and seeing my dad break down in the kitchen.

One of his best friends had just died. I’ve never forgotten seeing him cry but it didn’t damage me. Strangely, and I can’t quite express how, it made me stronger.

Suppose tomorrow I freak out and say I’m scared of the virus. Suppose I cry. Suppose myself and my husband have a fight over whose turn it is to make tea. I’m pretty sure my kids will get through it. I certainly hope so, because our last little spat was about 20 minutes ago.

I think we need to tell young people exactly what’s happening and how we feel about it. Don’t worry if you have a moment of panic. That’s human. That’s ok. We shouldn’t police ourselves in our own homes. It’s all we have. In my experience, most teenagers are robust — treat them that way.

But they’re also natural risk-takers, which is where my flashlight comes in. Right now, they must stay home, and they must be parented.

If you can manage it, they could also do with being schooled! Teachers across Ireland will be supporting students online and through resources, but please accept a minor recommendation from a secret teacher without a classroom.

Plain and simple, get them reading. Or read to them. Just make them read or listen. Not from screens. Send them on a walk or a run with an audiobook. Check out the book lists for the exams online. Literacy often gets neglected after primary, lost in the sprint towards exams. It affects everything else. Some of the sites below are worth doing for 20 minutes a day.

These are strange days.

But we can take back our parenting. We can do it without experts, without teachers. We’ve got this. All we need is that measuring tape, a bata, and a good long book.


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