I’ve had my last lessons with my current classes. As you know, I’m leaving my current school, so I’m not going to see those students again. End of an era.

Many longversations (long conversations!) have been had with several of the students regarding confidence and image, where they painfully recount what people have said or allow their inner thoughts and feelings to escape for a moment while their trust is up and their guard is down. They are a pleasure to know and it’s a honour to be able to walk with them through their teenage years.

A few weeks back, one student who seems to be immersed in hatred for some of his features spoke to me a length about how he feels people looking at him and how he hates looking different. I listened, puzzled, looking at this perfectly normal teenager who is convinced of his ‘difference’ in the world. I decided to do a class poll and share the results publicly, so I asked students to write down if they were happy with how they looked. A not-so-staggering majority were not, with most being girls but a fair few boys too. I took in the sticky-notes they’d written on and shared the results with them straight away and then asked the students what the results meant. They got it straight away, that most of us FEEL like we stand-out because of how we look, so then it’s a little futile to focus on it as we’re all different, (I don’t think they used the word ‘futile’ by the way. I mean, I’m a good English teacher and all that, but I can’t take credit for year eights casually throwing in that kind of vocabulary).

This week was the last teaching week of the year and so I took the opportunity to tell students EXACTLY what I thought of them. They took their seats, some knowing very well that this was our last lesson together. I explained to them that I’d brought something in that was so precious, so special and my life just wouldn’t be the same without it. That generated anticipation and excitement as they all tried to second-guess.  I invited them up individually and had a mini-chat with them, before asking them to open the filing cabinet drawer and take a good look at the treasure inside. It was a mirror, reflecting their wonderful-selves. Cheesy? Maybe. I ran with it anyway and I’m incredibly glad I did. Once more, I think I learnt as much as they did!

As each student came up, I tailored what I said to them before they looked in. Some fearlessly opened the drawer with little prompting, others had to work through some trust issues, convinced I was playing a practical joke on them (would I?!) or had a some sort of living creature in there. I did probably fuel the fire by answering in the affirmative, that yes, it was alive!

Their reactions were priceless. Some just stood there and looked at me, wondering when and why I’d stooped so low to think they were wonderful. Others started laughing – ones who reacted like this, it was generally uncontrollable and went on for longer than I had anticipated. The others loved it though, no awkward moments, just pure joy springing up from the very core of their being. I’ve got a funny feeling they felt their value for a second or two and were pretty overwhelmed. A few asked me to explain what I meant by making them look at a cheap mirror that I’d described with such fervour. Their reactions to my explanation was varied too. Some, I’m sure wanted just to hear me say it to them again, personally; a few screwed their faces up, realising I was “sticking this on them”, as they say in Teenglish. One beauty asked to hold my hand as she looked in the moment she’d grasped the meaning of all this, she took a sharp intake of breath, grabbed me in a tenacious vice-hug and bawled into left shoulder (leaving a snail-trail residue of snot and tears). I didn’t need to explain anything to her.

This got me thinking about reaction and risk again. We were asked in staff training how likely we are to take risks by means of moving our hands from our thighs (happy-where-I-am-thanks), above our heads (I’m-up-for-anything), or the meerkat inbetweeny pose (I-want-to-but-I’m-scared). This wasn’t in role as teacher, just as a person. In a room of over a hundred people, a handful stuck to the thighs and as many put their hands above their heads. I’d like to say I had my hands above my head, but I was in the majority with the meerkat pose. Dave Keeling, the guy leading the session explained that we often expect to grow in confidence and then respond. Not so. We take a risk and confidence comes as a result.

Even as adults, we’re not that much different from those years eights and their post-it note poll; we’re just as scared. We’ve got age and experience but often fear in equal measure. Our reactions to the question were as varied as those on the verge of their teenage years. It comes out of the same place, doesn’t it? That place of not really knowing how precious and wonderful we are. Are the questions really the same? Who do you see reflected back at you? What are they capable of? What are they afraid of?

I don’t know if you’re reading this feeling all vulnerable and insecure or affirmed. Either way, will you take a risk with me?

I’m going to. It actually comes in the form of delivering my leaving speech tomorrow. I get all shaky-quakey talking to large groups of adults, so that’s going to be interesting! I’m going to remember that little girl’s face when she realised what the message was. I’m going to recall her snot and tears on my shoulder as I try to remember who I am too.

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