If there is one thing that I’ve become more passionate about the longer I’ve been involved in education, it’s the impact that our system has on the mental health of our young people. Each week there seems to be a new hashtag or thread out there to support people who feel like it’s just them. One that’s done the rounds for a long time is #ItsOkToNotBeOk and it remains something that I often look through and offer an ear on.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about implementing a digital detox for a few hours each weekend as a part of improving our own mental health. Perhaps what I missed out on there was the impact that the education system was having on the mental health of almost every member of our family. Our KS3 kids were overwhelmed by the pressure of GCSE options and increasing homework loads; as parents we were stressed out by the pressure to be “good parents” that ensured all school work was done, keep a nice house, and spent quality time with increasingly large people who declared how lame we are; and with exams looming and my tuition timetable overflowing, my anxiety levels were through the roof (which meant everything was being cleaned & organised to within an inch of its life). It’s not really the insta-worthy picture is it?
After 7 weeks of our weekly digital detox for just a few hours each weekend, I can report back that everyone is feeling much better without exception. Clearly, we’ve done more than just put our phones away for a few hours, but it’s been the catalyst to consider whether all work and no play is a healthy state of being (spoiler: it isn’t).
However, it dawned on me that I am in a unique position to do something about lessening the impact on those around me as an independent tutor. The views on employing a tutor are polarised, possibly because it often costs a tidy sum to bring an individual into your home to work one-to-one with your child. Because of the price tag attached, it’s seen as only accessible to the elite and another way to create unequal access to education. But talk to many private tutors and you’ll find that the students that come to them from a variety of backgrounds, and more often than not a percentage of their tuition is through scholarship or pro-bono. Talking to tutors will also highlight the variety of reasons that students access their services.
Anxiety is the top reason why parents seek individual tuition for their child from me. Whether this is exam anxiety where I can prepare them better by familiarising them with the exam style and answering their questions until they feel safer (and safer is absolutely the right word to use with anxiety), or an overall fear of what is perceived to be a difficult subject, almost without exception the students seeking tuition are looking for confirmation that it’s going to be ok.
Part of my toolkit for reducing educational anxiety is to use a form of gentle stoacism. We look at the toughest questions together and I mark harshly.
So, if I marked this trace table as a 2 out of 5, but you answered these correctly what is the worst grade you’re going to get?
Ok, so if you get that grade, what’s the worst outcome?
That may sound harsh, but as we progress and the worst grade becomes a 5,6,7, or even 8 or 9. What’s the worst that could happen is that they get their chosen place in college even though it wasn’t a 9. Stoacism is a form of CBT that I use myself (Good rule of thumb: I wouldn’t try anything that I wouldn’t put myself through).
Once students are feeling more confident to try questions, I throw in a few from the next level up (AS questions at GCSE, or A Level for AS) without telling them. Once they’ve answered and gained marks I confess that it was actually far more than they needed. Ater a few weeks, my students know I’m sneaky and expect some kind of evil but fun activity.
Anxiety isn’t the only issue that teenagers are suffering from, but it is the pastoral area where tutors are most likely to be supporting the work that teachers are already putting in. By working one-to-one with a student, we have a unique ability to address that child’s individual fears and help them feel heard. And this is not a dig at teachers – with 30 kids in a classroom for an hour lesson, that’s two minutes per student if you did nothing else but talk to them. This also isn’t a millenial snowflake* situation, but a real issue that impacts on not only grades, but will follow a child into their adult lives.
If a tutor can help a child feel less anxious and give them the tools to learn independently, then we’ve done a huge service to the child, their parents, and their teacher. Strategies like digital detoxing are part of a whole toolkit for mental health – your tutor is another.
*These are quotes words, I shudder using them