Dear Corporate Dad…

tired dad

Dear corporate dad

I can see you have had a long day. I can see you’re struggling to keep focused on what I am saying as you sit across the table from me. I know you just want your kid to pass and be happy.

It’s very telling that every time I ask a question like how your child is coping with homework or their studies, you look at your wife for answers. I don’t blame you; I can only imagine the long hours you have to put into work. You seem to be the same dad who stands next to the sports field when your child is playing over the weekend, except you’re not watching your child playing, you’re usually on the phone or talking to someone about work.  Is your presence better than your absence? Absolutely! But what your child really wants is your focus, your attention, and your time.

Sadly, too many of you “corporate dads” believe that you have lost the battle so you won’t even pick up your sword. You seem to think that as long as your child is not using drugs, not having inappropriate relationships and is doing reasonably well in school then your job is done.

The fact of the matter is simple though: a child can grow up with all the world has to offer- every toy, video game, fashion accessory and a bazillion friends on Facebook and still be utterly miserable and self-destructive. What most of the kids I’ve engaged with really want is quality time with their parents, especially with their seldom present dads. This does not mean a board room meeting where we as dads deconstruct each area of our kids’ lives and proceed through a value chain analysis to effectively navigate them to “happiness”. It simply means taking quality time out of your week to focus solely on your child.

Please note I am focusing on quality time and not the quantity of time or the amount of money that is spent during this time. The family trip to paradise for a month is still not going to help bridge the gap between you and your kid if you don’t actually know what he or she enjoys doing.

A good example of this would be the mistake I made with my own daughter. She loves sport and like most is addicted to TV. I am a huge Liverpool supporter so in my mind, good quality time would be watching Liverpool try and actually score and win a game. I would constantly be frustrated (not only by Liverpool’s poor performance) but by the fact that my daughter did not enjoy this time and chose game days to be restless and whiney – attention seeking in other words. Eventually my sweet wife pointed out that my daughter would rather be kicking the ball outside with me than watching others play.

I’m not saying this is easy, I’m not saying that there are not a few challenges to creating a space for us as dads to connect with our kids. Many of our children are incredibly busy with school work, extra murals or maintaining their social media profile. The responsibility, however, does lie on us as parents to actively create quality time for our families to connect. This should not be a modern version of the Spanish Inquisition with questions flying a mile a minute. Start slowly, find a topic of common interest, make sure the family sits down for the evening meal together and let the conversation develop organically.

Just because we are the dads does not mean we have all the answers, but we will have made that all-important first step to connecting with our child. If dinner time isn’t always viable, try an approach where for one hour a week you set aside time to just be with your child.  Teenagers are particularly difficult to connect with, especially as you have to get through the barrier of technology before you can engage. Try asking that for one hour a week they put away their phones, iPads, computers or TV’s and yes I know this sounds scary but try and just be with your teen with no agenda. Let them decide what it is that you can do together. It can be helpful to give some suggestions like a walk, coffee or poker but the main point is that you let them decide. It’s vitally important that you let them know you don’t have an agenda. You are trying to create a new space where you can connect and develop trust between the two of you. Even if you have a quiet teen who does not talk much, enjoy the silence, respect it, and they will respect you for not pushing and probing. If you have the loud and proud teen, hold on tight and try keep up. They will appreciate that you are listening and engaging with what they have to say.

So to the dad who is standing next to the sports field on the phone. To the dad who is present, at home and providing for his family but A.W.O.L with the emotional needs of his kids, please remember that you are the dad, please remember that no one should be taking your place, please remember that you are not just the ATM machine but a pivotal member of the developmental process of your child’s emotional wellbeing. Your kid wants and needs your attention, affection and love. They deserve it and so do you.

By Gareth Fell


Playing in the Grey

Playing in the grey

playing in the grey

We are in the 21st Century. We are supposed to be encouraging critical and creative thinking in our children. We are meant to be growing entrepreneurs, inventors, problem-solvers. And yet, we continue to be so content-driven in our classrooms and schools that we cannot step out of the black and white check boxes of our rubrics and allow kids to “play in the grey areas”.

This black and white stuff does not work for me!

It seems that all I do is make sure that my students have the ability to regurgitate the content that I have given them, instead of allowing them the opportunity to think about the content and develop their own questions and answers.

I do not deny that content and base knowledge is necessary before thinking can take place; I acknowledge that we cannot spend all day playing in the grey if we do not even know what the colours of the spectrum are, but it is frustrating to recognize that I and my colleagues are often the stumbling blocks to lateral thinking and philosophical questioning.

In my previous article “Who stole my super powers” I spoke of the sadness of having your self-belief knocked out of you by fear of failure or ‘being wrong’. It is even more alarming to note that I and my colleagues are the ones who seem to “steal” the super-powers!

Many educators feel the same way. It’s not hard to find an article where either a teacher or educational psychologist is challenging the black and white structures of our education system.

I’d be lying if I did not admit that the black and white CAPS system of education is great to assess. The student either gets it right or wrong; answers need to conform to a specific memorandum. This makes my life easy. I know the correct answer and I simply guide my students toward it.  So while I am making sure that my students are well-prepared for the formal assessments and that they have all the correct information in order for their results to reflect their ability to rote learn and regurgitate information, while at the same time proving that I have amazing teaching skills, am I actually educating? Is this growing entrepreneurs, inventors, problem-solvers and super-heroes? I think not!

In the past two years, I had the privilege of watching a colleague teach, whose main focus was allowing his students to “play in the grey”. Mr Zain Strydom made the main outcome of his lessons for his students to find their own voice and provide them with the resources to support the hypotheses they developed. Class discussions would flow from one student to the other and they would have the freedom to challenge each other as long as they could support their opinion with factual evidence.  The energy in the classroom was electric. The debate was mature and insightful. It was magic and it was merely facilitated by Mr Strydom; not driven, not directed. No black and white. Only Grey.

I felt challenged to try and adopt this type of teaching philosophy in my own classroom. It was fun, interesting and stimulating to hear the students drive the lesson instead of relying on me to put on a good show. Was it a perfect learning environment? Of course not, it was chaos! And this kind of chaos requires very careful planning and very structured steering. Content still needed to be covered so that there was a basis for debate, and some students still needed the security of knowing if their answers were “right”.  It is uncomfortable at first, for teacher and student alike, but it is worth it if the desired outcome is ‘out-of-the-box” thinking and playing in the grey.

The reality is simple. If I want to believe that I am shaping minds for the future and actually educating my students and not just assessing their short term memory retention; if I want my students to leave my classroom believing in their own abilities and equipped to handle the complex and dynamic society that they will enter after school, I need to be vulnerable enough and flexible enough to move from the black and white structure of teaching to playing in the grey. It is an uncomfortable place as a teacher, where I am not always right, where I don’t have all the answers and may even disagree with some of my students. But it will only be then that I can actually claim to be an educator and not just a paper peddling, brainwashing entertainer.

By Gareth Fell


“Super powers”

“Super powers”

So I’m sitting at my desk replying to emails when I realize things have radically changed. I was once young and believed that anything was possible? The next question to enter my head was, ‘what changed’? Can you take yourself back to when you believed that you could achieve the impossible, wholly convinced that the batman suit you used to have actually gave you the power necessary to change the world? I watch my two year old daughter playing outside with a dish towel attached to her shirt with washing pegs…she runs in at top speed, turns to me and screams “SUPER POWERS” as she jumps off the couch. She believes that simply saying those words makes her bigger, stronger and almost superhuman. She believes she can be and do anything. She is a blank slate and she holds the chalk to write her destiny.

This is a vastly different perspective to the one I’ve seen come through my classroom with far too many teens over the years. Teens wandering in with bowed heads and slumped shoulders, clearly feeling like they don’t have the power or ability to cope with their day-to-day demands, defeated and overwhelmed by all that life in the 21st century requires of them. It’s most evident that they do not believe in their own abilities when I give them an academic task to complete. The questions that follow seldom go along the lines of how far they can take the assignment, how big they can make it, how creative they can be. It’s always the opposite- fearful questions on how they could get it wrong, how their work needs to be perfect for the rubric instead of challenging the rubric to become more adaptable to fit into their abilities or ideas.

Again, this begs the question, what changed? How does the young superhero leaping off couches morph into a bland, fearful, conformist young adult without drive or excitement to be the best version of
themselves? I am realistic in my understanding that some teens who have passed through my various classrooms have not received all the emotional support they may well have needed. Most have acquired challenging labels along their journeys at school and home. I can’t remember the last time I read an educational report regarding a teen’s psychological or cognitive abilities and had the report say that they are ‘normal’.

It’s undeniable and understandable that the large majority of teens and young adults in our South African context today have challenging backgrounds and even heart-wrenching stories to tell, but does this mean that we stop them from dreaming big? Does this mean that we teach them to believe they can’t achieve ‘the impossible’? Something is gravely wrong with our education system or our parenting strategies if a child grows up to believe that they can’t achieve the impossible or what seemed extremely possible and achievable at the invincible age of 3. I’m not saying that we need to encourage reckless and unwise behaviour in our tweens and teens. I think we would agree that I had failed as a parent if my daughter grew up to drive her car off a bridge screaming “super powers”!

Surely though, there needs to be a balance; a dynamic space in which we have an honest grasp of our own abilities, strengths and limitations, but at the same time are not afraid to dream the impossible and push the limits to allow ourselves the opportunity to experience something great and powerful.

If you are anything like me, you may find yourself in a position where you have stopped believing in your ability to do more, achieve more and become a better version of yourself. I would then challenge you to join me on this journey of discovery and reflection, as I remind myself about what I once believed to be achievable. To start tomorrow with the idea that anything, yes anything is possible! I’m very much hoping and more importantly daring myself, that tomorrow morning as I kiss my daughter before leaving for work, that I’m the one screaming “SUPER POWERS” as I wave goodbye.