Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Politically Incorrect Teaching Blog

For many years I have carried a dark secret.  When I was 16 years old, my English teacher Mr Janes locked me in the store cupboard of his classroom, along with three or four other pupils.  We had to stay in there ALL day and were unable to talk above a whisper in case the other students going about their work completely unaware in the classroom outside heard us.  Not a soul ever knew we had been there. Was this child abuse?  Nope, quite the opposite - our teacher was helping us to pass our final year of English!  There were a few of us who, due to our own lack of self discipline had got so behind in our essays, there was no way we were going to catch up left to our own devices. Unconventional as it was, Mr Janes knew the only way we would manage it was to be physically put in a situation where we couldn't do anything else!  So a secret plan was hatched and early one morning into the cupboard we went.  I wrote four essays that day and left school a short while later with an A in English.

You don't forget teachers like Mr Janes.  I still have a photo of him somewhere sitting at his desk with a huge smile about to throw a paper plane at me.  I think when you have a real love of the subject you teach it just shines through.  Like the English teacher I had after I left school and went on to college, Mr Tomlin.  Tall, craggy and always seemingly dressed in brown and green he reminded me of a tree - but a tree who brought the whole classroom alive.  We would all sit mesmerised as he sat and regaled stories such as 'Gawain and the Greene Knight' and excerpts of Homer's 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey'.  Thanks to him I began a love of Greek mythology and Celtic history which has never left me.  We were all heartbroken when he left.  His replacement was a tiny woman who liked to shout a lot.  She didn't like boys and although I wasn't a boy she didn't like me either.  The classroom no longer came alive, instead we just sat around a table taking it in turns to read passages of books in bored monotone.  It wasn't long before the college canteen became a far nicer place to spend my time than in her class and in the end I stopped bothering to go at all.  Had Mr Tomlin remained my teacher I have absolutely no doubt I would have left college with another A.  As it was, I dropped out.  Amazing what a difference one teacher can make.

Back then the sum total of my financial education at school was how to write out a cheque and fill out a deposit slip.  Sex education wasn't much better but at least it was funny and we got to laugh at the poor teacher who got the job of instructing our class of delinquents how to put a condom on a banana.  I never in a million years thought I would one day be standing up in front of a class myself, much less teaching financial literacy but that's exactly what I did last week when I made my teaching debut.  To say it was nerve wracking was a bit of an understatement.  I thought I still had another week to prepare when I was called one afternoon driving two hours from home and was asked if I could change the day to the following morning.  'But I've got no notes!' I wailed.  'I haven't had a chance to prepare,  I'll have to wing it!'  'That's no problem, I'm sure you'll be fine', said the voice at the other end.  Just to top it off, among the students casting their critical teenage eyes over me was none other than my own son.  Understandably he was as overjoyed at the prospect as I was.  I got up early the next morning and scrawled down a few notes and hoped that would do.  As the Year 12's and 13's wandered curiously into the classroom, another teacher came in to tell me his Year 11 students were also going to be joining us as well, as he thought they should hear what I had to say.  Oh heck, what had I let myself in for?

As it turned out, what I had let myself in for was an hour of what was really quite fun!  The students were lovely and attentive, they asked questions, they didn't fall asleep or spend the entire session playing with their phones as I had expected and we had a lot of laughs - some at my expense and rightly so but mainly because having raised two kids their age I could speak their language and everything I talked about I was able to offer an example in terms and scenarios which were relatable to them.  Just like the many adults I had given workshops to years before, I was able to scan their faces and reactions to see what was pushing their buttons.  Seeing the light bulbs literally go on in some of their heads was hugely rewarding.  Before I knew it, my first class had come to an end.  I knew it wasn't perfect, I was still pretty rusty after several years' break from public speaking but it was all still there and even Ali admitted that for a class which had been done almost entirely off the top of my head, it was pretty good.  Praise indeed!

The best part however came in the days which followed.  I was surprised and chuffed to receive a message from a student who asked if I would possibly be able to do a class just for Year 13's about how to survive after leaving home with regard to smart cooking and shopping and so on. ' Of course!' I said.  Then I received a message from another student and then another.  Then parents started contacting me to say how much their kids had learned and could I please teach them this and that and when were the self esteem classes starting because their son or daughter really needed them?  It was brilliant to receive so much feedback after just one class and I can't wait to do more.  I'm not sure I could ever aspire to being a teacher of such amazing calibre and influence as Mr Tomlin.  I can't imagine ever dressing like Mrs Tiggywinkle and shouting in a squeaky voice at my students like his replacement either, heaven forbid!  But unconventional like Mr Janes?  I think that could be me. Although in this day and age I wouldn't try locking my students in a cupboard, no matter how much I cared about them passing my subject, can you imagine how that would go down in today's society? I'd get struck off in a heartbeat and sued by legions of angry parents!  But hey, look at me.  I survived the cupboard and I'm still writing 25 years later out of choice.  

Even if I only managed to teach one thing from that class which would stick in those kids' minds and help them succeed a little more in later life I would be happy.  But I learned a lot from that class too. These are just a few things I gleaned from that session, I thought that parents and readers may be interested to know:

1. Kids have no concept of how THEIR money and what they do with it right now relates to their future.  They don't think about things like buying houses, investing or retirement, it might as well be a million miles away.  Money education in young people needs to focus on things which are a lot closer to home.  They understand a lot - but only if it directly affects them and where they are at right now. Anything more complicated or long term, you might as well be talking to yourself because they really don't care.  They need to come to grips with how to manage their money day to day before they can even think about 10 or 20 or 50 years time.  But once they have those skills down pat, they're set for life.

2. Kids get told they have to save money, but nobody really explains WHY in a way that they actually give two hoots about.  It's no wonder they find the concept so unimportant and uninspiring when nobody ever tells them what is in it for them.  THAT is what they want to know!  Let's face it, that is what teenagers want to know about EVERYTHING.  You can literally see the penny drop once someone explains to them what they will get out of it.  

3. At least 50% of the students have jobs, but aside from the odd few putting petrol in their vehicles, the rest of their money is disposable.  They have no concept whatsoever of how the money THEY earn plays a vital part in them being able to get to uni and so on.  Student allowance is not guaranteed.  Year 12 students need to be saving the money they earn now to enable them to afford to support themselves when they go on to uni at the end of Year 13.  Kids don't realise how much it costs to go to uni.  They don't realise that their parents may not be able to support them with things like accommodation and that student allowance isn't a given.  The focus is always on passing NCEA and gaining University Entrance but not the financial implications of achieving this.  Because of this lack of information there are kids with uni aspirations every year who get a heck of a fright when they gain their UE and then realise to their horror they don't have a hope in hell of going.  How heartbreaking is that?  For those who don't go to uni, they have no concept how they need to save their money for all the things in life which continually go wrong such as needing to replace your car tyres or copping a parking fine.

4. Terms such as 'debt', 'interest', 'budget' and so on have absolutely no meaning or relevance to most teenagers.  It's like when I was a kid and we used to get told to save money for a rainy day.  What the hell is that supposed to mean?!  Kids need to know how to save money on the things they come across every day - the things they do, touch, eat, drink and want.  The other stuff just bounces off, doesn't resonate.

5. Nobody tells kids how tough it is to be on a benefit.  How depressing it is inside a WINZ office and how being on a benefit can make you feel about two inches tall.  There are plenty of kids who think it doesn't matter if they don't know what to do when they leave school because they know there is such a thing as a benefit and they think they can sit back all day.  They don't realise that being on a benefit can mean the difference between putting petrol in your car or turning on a heater to keep warm.  They don't realise that WINZ cut you no slack and will nag them constantly to find work, that their lives will be full of appointments and training and if they don't make the effort to find work and PROVE they have done so, then WINZ will find it for them and they may well be forced into doing a job they hate.  Even the teachers didn't know that!  But maybe you can't unless you've been there.

The above is just the tip of the iceberg.  What my experience so far has taught me more than anything is that kids worry about a lot of stuff that they are either not voicing or not being taught.  It's not rocket science, it's simple every day smart money management and survival skills.  My first class made kids think 'shit, I didn't know that!' and they really want to learn more.  Which is brilliant for someone like me who has all the time in the world to teach it to them!  Oh - and Mr Janes, if you ever happen to be reading this?  I totally forgive you for locking me in the cupboard!  However I still haven't forgiven you for locking me in the cupboard a second time with Andrew Burgon on my birthday...


  1. Well done Jackie, you are going to make an important world of difference to those kids. Your classes are exactly what kids need today, on so many levels.
    I love your writing too.

  2. Well written Jackie. So many kids have no clue about money. My girls are saving to buy thier own cars. Their friends seem to think that their parents will provide them with one. No money lessons being learnt there.

    I hope you get many more opportunities to share your knowledge.