The months of August and September bring the start of a new academic year for schools throughout the northern hemisphere. For some, it will bring the challenge of attending a new school, but even for those returning to the same school, the new school year need not be merely a repetition of the patterns of the past.
The teenage years are a time of bewildering change. Most teenagers, most of the time, cope well with a myriad of changes as they journey from childhood to adulthood. For the most part, the changes are gradual, part of an on-going process of development to which teenagers become accustomed. From time to time, however, there come changes that are of a greater magnitude, that are more comprehensive in nature: starting a new school is a good example of such a change.
Often, attending a new school will coincide with the transition to a higher level of education, introducing students to subjects they may not have studied before. The teachers at the new school will likely have different expectations of their students than was the case previously, and this can mean an increased workload. Getting to know a new group of fellow-students has its attractions, but there will be the unspoken competition between them as a social order is established within the new peer group.
For others, of course, the new school year means a return to the same school. However, many of the challenges referred to above may still be present, even if the environment feels familiar. For some returners, the return to the familiar may bring its own fears, especially in the case of those haunted by past mistakes or failures. The extent to which we allow ourselves to be defined by our past is an issue for all of us, whatever our stage in life, but for teenagers in the process of shaping their adult identity, the overcoming of the negative perceptions of those within a school community as to their character or capabilities can be a task of truly mammoth proportions.
Whatever the situation of the individual teenager, however, there is an undeniable element of opportunity with the annual beginning of a new school year. Difficulties there may be, but a new school year brings the undeniable opportunity of a fresh start. Things can be different; the past can be transcended; it is possible to move on from past mistakes; it is possible for a new school year to turn out to be successful – even when the challenges seem to outweigh the possibilities. The key question is “How?”
Advice for parents
Give attention to the basics. It is surprising how often teenagers ignore the basics of personal care and hygiene, such as ensuring they get enough sleep, eat regularly and healthily, exercise and shower daily. In and of themselves, these things will not ensure a student’s success. However, ignoring such basic lifestyle issues can lead to all manner of subsequent difficulties. Students who fall asleep in class, or who are wilting mid-morning because they skipped breakfast, or who find themselves excluded from group activities due to their body odour, are not in the best condition to perform well in class. Parents have an important role to help their teenagers get the basics right and the beginning of a school year is a good time to revisit such issues.
Be interested. There will be times in the lives of many teenagers when they may not want to talk about how things are going, but it is important nevertheless that parents communicate their interest by asking questions and taking time to listen. Understanding how school is different for today’s teenagers than it was in their parents’ day is important for any meaningful discussion. Important also is the realisation that there is no necessary correlation between the preferences of parents and their children when it comes to academic subjects. At its root, it might appear that the complex world of teenage social relationships is the same as it has ever been, but the social media-dominated environment in which such relationships have to be worked out and experienced today will be alien to those of former generations.
Face fear. If your teenager expresses fears about any aspect of their school life and education, or about their social world and its impact on their schooling, it is important to take what they say seriously. Never dismiss fears out of hand, since it could be devastating to a teenager who has struggled to express their fears to feel they are being ignored. It is always better to face fears squarely rather than avoid them. Wherever possible, encourage your teenager to explore the best way forward with your support. If there are serious issues underlying the fear, encourage your teenager to involve the school, again with whatever support they desire from you.
Talk about targets/goals. The question of goals or targets for the school year is one with which students these days will be familiar since many schools attach importance to student-set targets. Encouraging teenagers to think about their goals and to review progress towards them from time to time is one way parents can participate in the on-going education of their children. It is important, at all times, for the student to be supported as they formulate their own goals. Self-determined goals are far more likely to receive active “buy-in” from your teenager than parental- or teacher-set goals, and so far more likely to contribute to sustainable progress.
Advice for teachers and schools
Keep an eye out for those who might be struggling. It is always important that teachers keep an eye out for students who might be struggling, but especially at the beginning of the school year, and especially if students are new to the school. The simple act of enquiring if everything is OK conveys the message to the student that somebody cares, and this may be all they require to be able to find the strength to address whatever is concerning them. Occasionally, such an enquiry may provide a “relief-valve” for the student to be able to express their concerns before they grow to unmanageable proportions.
Give everyone a fair chance. The vast majority of the teachers with whom I have worked over the years will do all in their power to ensure that every student is given a fair chance. Occasionally, especially if a student joining their class has a reputation, teachers find it more difficult. However, in such cases it is even more important that students feel they are being given that fair chance. An early, honest conversation with the student that acknowledges the reputation but which makes it clear they start in the class with a clean slate may be a helpful way of trying to start the year on the right foot. In the past, when I have seen students rescue a school career following a disastrous episode, the recovery has almost invariably involved an individual teacher who believed in them, even when the student did not believe they deserved a fresh start.
Set a positive tone for the year. Getting the year off to a good start is invaluable for all the students in the class. I would encourage teachers to set high standards for their classes from the outset, to model those standards, and to hold their students to the same standards.