Thursday, 23 April 2015

Seeing it from Both Sides

I have been teaching for almost ten years now off and on, mostly in fairly challenging urban secondary schools and although I hope it never shows in my treatment of the young people in my class, I do have favourite pupils, I suspect every teacher does. I find, in fact, that most teachers attract a few hangers-on, students who lurk longer than they need to in their classroom at break or who waylay them after school. Some of my colleagues were claimed by the sporty children, the creative ones, the nerdy ones, the gifted and talented ones. For me it is always the "naughties", although they really aren't naughty of course, there is far more to it than that. I am talking about the teenagers with a troubled home life; the persistent truants; pupils with ADHD or Tourettes; those with a substance abuse problem; those frequently in trouble with police; kids struggling to behave in the classroom for any number of reasons - they can sniff me out as a kindred spirit at fifty paces. I have never been certain why that happens: perhaps they can sense that I am not judging them; that I see something beyond the challenging behaviour that they are communicating with; that I quite like them and therefore maybe I am worth the risk of liking back? 

I suppose it is no wonder that when I became a Supported Living Carer the more challenging care-leavers to pass through my home would be the ones who won a permanent place in my heart. All of them have struggled in the mainstream school classroom to varying degrees so these days I can see the problem from both the teacher and carer perspective and still I don't know the answer. I look with frustration across the rows of desks at the thirty children in front of me and my heart breaks for that "attention seeking" pupil who is struggling to focus and wants me all to herself. I really want to give her the connection she craves but I want to do my best for the other 29 as well and somehow that just isn't possible, even with the occasional presence of an angel of mercy Teaching Assistant. I am sure the children are far more frustrated with the situation than I am. More annoying still I am sometimes pretty sure I know how I can help that struggling pupil to learn, I simply don't have the time or resources.

This week I witnessed an alternative, which wouldn't work for everyone but might help a fair few of the "naughties" I am acquainted with; I had the opportunity to visit a specialist school for boys with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties. About 50 boys are educated there, in my eyes most of them shorter versions of the lads I have supported in my home. The class numbers are very small, the ratio of staff to pupils high and the atmosphere was one of calm kindness. It was not the scene of chaos that I was expecting, although I am sure things can get out of hand from time-to-time and I certainly only saw a snapshot. 

First I was shown an art class, where an enthusiastic, excited, attachment-seeking twelve year-old insisted on showing me his sketchbook, which I obediently admired. Then there was a maths class, where one young man was struggling to sit still and not shout or make noises; "A stranger in the room can be unsettling for some of our boys," explained my guide. We passed classrooms with cosy, quiet, cushion-filled corners where overwhelmed children could hide for a while; we dropped in to a cookery lesson where the smell of Apple Crumble was mouthwatering. There was an allotment; a display of photographs from the annual ski trip and a poster reminding everyone of an upcoming outing to the theatre. 

I was impressed with the school and its staff, as you can probably tell, but saddened that the care-leavers I have supported, with complex behaviour and emotional needs, never had a similar opportunity. Most were squeezed into a mainstream mould which was not suited to them and resulted in their exclusion and transfer to a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU). No doubt there are PRUs which do a fine job but my experience of our local unit is that it is mostly an expensive holding area for the children who disrupt the "normal" pupils. It herds the excluded, challenging pupils together; keeps them out-of-sight and out of mind for a few years and then releases them into the world at 16 without a qualification to their names. Does that sound harsh? Perhaps it is and perhaps many PRU staff do their best for the pupils they teach, but I have supported two boys who graduated from the local one: both have no qualifications; both are NEETs (not in education, employment or training); both have served time in custody and neither is stupid. They are both of at least average intelligence so you might think the place could have at least squeezed a GCSE or two out of them.

At the end of my tour of the special school I was told there was a second small unit across the road for the hard-to-reach boys. Did I want to see it? Absolutely I did! Hard-to-reach boys are fast becoming my speciality after all. My guide explained that some of their oldest pupils have terrible attendance. Some are serial runaways; some are looked after children who have had one placement breakdown after another; some are from traveller families and a few have been kicked out of their homes and are sleeping on friends' sofas. I was told that often these boys were reported missing to police and the school was the only place they still dropped into, even if just for a cuppa and a sandwich. The unit itself had the feel of a youth club or children's home more than a school. There was a pool table; a large kitchen "We feed all our boys three times during the school day, they don't always eat at home;" a boot room and showers "for our older boys who sofa surf." Upstairs one of the rooms was occupied by a massage therapist who comes in once a month for parents and carers, an initiative to build positive ties with pupils' families who often have a stressful time. 

I love the holistic approach of this school, although I hate the fact that so much of it is necessary.Here is a team that understands that a child won't learn if their basic needs are not being met. Working in mainstream education I feel frustrated by the focus on pushing pupils to the next attainment target and punishing issues such as a lack of homework. Teenagers who I feed with breakfast bars from my own desk drawer and who confide in me that they don't return home till bedtime have bigger problems than achieving a Level 5 in Spanish. Maslow was the bane of my life at foster training but he is right when he insists that children cannot learn until their more basic needs are met. They certainly can't concentrate if they are hungry or worried about where they will sleep later. Neither will they make friends if they haven't showered in days. Furthermore children who have experienced trauma, or are still in the thick of it, have other things on their minds which will not be on the teacher's lesson plan and they will communicate them with their behaviour. I am relieved and encouraged to discover that some teachers recognise this fact and are highly gifted interpreters. 


  1. I was a foster child and now I'm a teacher. Everything you have written strikes a chord with me. Brilliant!

    1. Thank you for your comment. I love teaching but one-size-fits-all education isn't working, in my opinion. It certainly hasn't worked for "my boys." I have no idea what the answer is though!

    2. Oh I should have mentioned that I have been reading your blog, even before you commented here. It's great, keep at it :)

  2. Your post nearly made me cry for so many reasons. Because education is so hard for our children and because I also see how hard they must be to teach. Because my son has been at a PRU throughout his current school year and because I really wanted him to go to a special school like the one you mention, however the LA won't support that decision at the moment(long story). Thank you so much for writing this and linking to #WASO and I really hope you continue to link up.

  3. Thank you for your lovely comments Sarah. I wasn't sure if linking to WASO was the right thing, not being an adopter, so I am glad to have had a positive response.

    Some PRUs do a good job of reintegrating children back into the mainstream, I realise my own experience of our local one is heavily biased! I wish all the best to you and your son

  4. I'm glad you linked - I like to read as many perspectives as possible, and yours is certainly an interesting one to me and many others I'm sure. I, too, long for an education system that allows teachers to do more to meet the needs of individuals but can't really see how it could be done except in isolated pockets like the excellent example you mentioned.