An open letter to my students
To begin at the beginning:
It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and- rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows' weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.
Listen, Dylan Thomas would have told you. Time passes.
And yet, for so many in contemporary society, time does, far too clearly, pass us by. The night hours tick past, and sleep becomes ever more elusive. When Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, set in the sleepy fishing village of Llareggub in the mid 20th century, he envisioned a world where night equated to the quietude of sleep. The black waves of the dreams of Llareggub’s butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers washed over them all in turn, lulling them into reverie as the day passed. Yet where, we might ask, would they be now? It is my own quiet suspicion that under the hooting darkness of Milk Wood, were we to look down on Polly Garter and Organ Morgan, we would see not the smoke of their dreams, but instead the light of a few hundred laptops and smartphones. Dai Bread, the baker, would be busy instagramming the morning loaves and Gossamer Beynon wouldn’t have to dream of her fox-like lover; he would be eminently googleable, and while she should be slipping under the sheets, she’d be slipping stealthily into his DMs instead. Milk Wood in modernity.
To look with a slightly bleary eye to another mid-century catchphrase, it is clear that we have all too well learned to ‘Turn on, tune in, and drop out.’ So much so that we can no longer turn off, tune out or, aptly, drop off.
The benefits of sleep for all, and most importantly to me for my students, are numerous and fairly blindingly obvious. Yet too few students understand how critical sleep is for their health, their everyday performance and - simple as it may seem, their grades. For those not yet educated, let me teach you a little bit about sleep. It is a lesson which too often I do not manage to fit into our hour-long sessions, so here is my chance.
There are two major kinds of sleep - Slow Wave Sleep and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) Sleep. In the former, our brains sit and have a think about the information we’ve learned while awake, consolidating our short-term memories into long-term memories. In short, that interesting fact you learned about your poetry anthology is using the evening to embed itself deep into your subconscious, so that later in the year you can pull it out and impress everybody. If, however, you don’t get enough sleep, that information doesn’t have enough time to get through the cycle, and the piece of information you so carefully learned fades into the aether. Most adolescents need about nine hours of sleep, but get less than eight and a half. Adults similarly rarely get the amount of sleep they need. Some of the causes of this are, for adults of course, relatively insurmountable, especially for families with young children keeping them up at night.
But for our children and our teenagers, surely we can help you do better?
There are numerous unhelpful cultures at work which we might point a finger at.
For many students, ironically it is worry about exam stress and things going on at school which leads them to sit up for hours into the night, cramming in the hope of receiving a better mark. I have had students proudly tell me that they were up revising or finishing homework until the early hours, which should explain their dishevelled and disoriented appearance when finally they get around to seeing me after school. Yet few of them believe me when I tell them that was probably immensely unproductive. Those extra hours once everyone else has gone to bed probably won’t help you remember anything new for the test. They will, however, slow your thinking and reaction times during the exam, making it much harder for you to effectively apply the information you do know.
The effect of social media - be it Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or other innumerate platforms - also cannot, of course, be discounted. And while some schools have coped by banning phones during school hours, educators and - most importantly - parents need to take an active role considering how best to prepare young people for a 24-hour world entirely unlike the one which they themselves grew up in.
Consequently, most families have limits on screen-time, playtime, and indeed most other kinds of countable time. Regulation and self-regulation are rightly seen as increasingly essential life-lessons. Yet it would be valuable to consider that work, too, has a productive limit. There is a pervasive and damaging trope of the genius who gets by on little sleep, an illusion as insidious as the troubled visionary, or the beast with a heart of gold.
It is also simply the case that some people are night owls - teenagers in particular. As Professor Paul Montgomery, from the University of Birmingham, told The Times Education Supplement (TES): "We want people to be aware that sleep deprivation in adolescents is a real problem which affects their functioning, their wellbeing and even their academic performance." Last month, a debate was opened in Parliament by Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge, on the possibility of opening schools later for adolescent students. Responding to a petition begun by Hannah Kidner, a teenager from Devon, he correctly identified the wealth of scientific evidence that leads to the conclusion that sleep is the ‘strongest predictor of wellbeing among teenagers’. (Reassuringly, in the same debate the Minister for School Standards Nick Gibbs offered that ‘good mental health is a priority for the Department and for the Government. It can have a profound impact on the whole of a child’s life, not just their attainment.’ It is, eyebrow-raisingly, a relief to see that ‘the whole of a child’s life, not just their attainment’ is a priority for a government who has partially overseen an increasingly assessment focused education system).
Yet the current practicalities of such an idea would mean limited implementation - purely in colleges - and potentially meaning longer working hours for teachers, who desperately need their own free time during the evenings. A school which closed at 6 would be of little use for a teaching parent who wants to be home for their own children at 4. Education, as far as I can see, will continue in the near future to function in a 9-5 world, despite the paradox that a large segment of our society does not.
So then, my students must ask themselves, what can I do to help myself in a world that isn't necessarily entirely geared towards my success? Luckily, here at least there are some answers.
You live, I know, in a world which will always be whirling around you, and which you will never be able to keep up with. Accept that, and learn to turn off those blue lights. Recent research found odds ratios for getting insufficient sleep ranged from 1.82 for using social media at least an hour a day to 2.98 for at least five hours a day. And how are you going to look in those selfies with chronic sleep deprivation? Self-care is immensely important, so at the end of the day try and tune out from the world around you and focus on yourself, just for a little while. For parents, banning phones in the bedroom and communal events like meals is a start - and for you too, not just for your children. Take an hour without screens before bed. Make sure you get regular exercise - and not just in PE at school. Find some kind of exercise that you personally find fulfilling, whether it be a team sport after school, or solo yoga before bed. (And cut down on that caffeine! It’s great in the short-term I know, but it stops you sleeping and stains your teeth, a double-whammy of misfortune).
Make sleep a ritual and treat it as self care - look forward to it and what it will do for you. Sleep isn’t a chore, it’s a daily opportunity to make sure that tomorrow goes well. Invest in your sleep, and invest in tomorrow as well.
Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop Off