The wonder, art, and science of creating transformation in our pupils.
I hope you had an excellent Christmas break – as undisrupted as possible from the Omicron rampage, and the quest for vaccinations! The holiday rushed past with – for me – lots of coaching sessions outside of the busy intensity of the school term and the task of unpacking and settling into our new home. One of the training sessions I delivered in the New Year was a topic particularly close to my heart…How to create, have, and navigate constructive conversations with pupils on subjects that matter – eg their struggles, their wellbeing, their vulnerabilities, relationships, and dilemmas (– rather than English, Physics, or French).
It reminded me of two things:
- How important teachers can be in transforming the lives of young people.
- How in these fraught times, the mental health needs of young people are requiring schools to be more proactive in initiating these sorts of conversations, and more skilled in responding to disclosures from students.
I know from my work providing supervision support to groups of Designated Safeguard Leads, as well as my Governance network, that there are more referrals than ever being made to DSLs, and MASH teams, and in many places, more delays in connecting children and their families to the right support. Schools are starting to invest more in tracking the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils via surveys, questionnaires, digital psychological check-in tools. And this data drives interventions which often involve 1:1s not only with those with a distinct pastoral brief, but basically, it’s all hands to the pump. Some of the higher level teaching skills involve the ability to create rapport, to connect and redirect in order to maximise the chances of all pupils engaging and investing in their relationship with their teacher, and their relationship with their work. And it comes in that order. When it comes to those at the sharper end who are disenchanted, disaffected, disengaged, and disruptive, it is almost always the relationship with the teacher that acts as the gateway for improving the relationship with the work. So if you want to up your performance around upping the performance of struggling students, no matter what their age, what helps?
We can start by looking at our own DNA as teachers – members of a caring profession. Because goodness knows, there are easier ways to make a buck. Not so many that are so very rewarding however. Reflective exercises:
- Try to recall a teacher who really made a difference in your life around a point of struggle. Someone who really recognised something else about you. Maybe they spotted a latent talent, maybe they showed they believed in you when others didn’t. Maybe they were there for you when something bad was going on in your life. Name them. Remember what you can about them.
o What was it they did for you?
o How did they show up around you?
o What did they make possible?
o How did that make you feel?
o Map that out in as much detail as you can.
- Now try to recall a pupil whose life you know you touched in a positive way at their point of need. We all have those contacts in our memory. But how swiftly the memory of how we inspired, encouraged, supported, recedes far back in the rear-view mirror alongside of out marking pile, lesson observations, reporting deadlines. But when we really direct our focus to those peak altruistic moments when we helped, we can feel the hairs in our arms rise, the goosebumps form, and that deep, deep sense of satisfaction that comes with our vocation.
o What was it you did for that student?
o Why did that work so well?
o What did you see?
o How well did you listen?
o How did you respond?
o What shifts did you see take place within them?
o What meaning do you make of this? How does this fit in with your schema of who you are, at your best, as a teacher?
These reflections are important – to connect, and reconnect with our sense of purpose. Of course it’s easy to have a sense of purpose when things are going well, when you are teaching kids who are ready to learn, and who are prepared to learn in the ways you teach. Because this is what we want – to be able to be part of the magical transformations that we know school can bring for a young person. It’s not so easy to hold onto our values of – for instance – being approachable, being a good listener, inspiring, able to get to the bottom of things…when we are faced with eye-rolls, apathy, monosyllabic answers. Or in younger kids, either a rigidity, a stolid disconnect, or chaotic, dysregulated and anti-social behaviour. Have you had the experience of sitting down, giving up your precious break or lunch time, fully aiming to listen and engage, only to end up giving the kid a rounded telling off – making you feel better at that moment, but leaving you with a lingering sense of frustration? I certainly know I have.
During the holidays, I had the pleasure of listening to Matthew Syed’s podcast – Sideways – available on iplayer. His episode called ‘Inspiring Bill Strickland’ was a contemplation on the influence of teachers and their ability to change the direction of the lives of their pupils. He remembered the English lesson and the English teacher, Mr Ross who inspired him to write, he played footage of Adele and Ian Wright being reunited with the teachers who switched them on to their inner power and passion. Such moving tributes to our – often over-criticised, under-valued profession. Listen here to Ian Wright. 3 minute clip from Desert Island discs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4VHhvnw3AI I defy you not to have tears in your eyes and feel the pride of what teaching can be at its best… The central story, however, was that of Bill Strickland, who described himself at 16 as ‘lost’ and ‘drifting’. He described himself as being on track for the penitentiary or death, growing up in an inner city area of Pittsburgh in the 60s in an atmosphere of chaos and violence, an a loss of home. He found sanctuary in Mr Ross’s ceramics studio after a life-changing encounter seeing possibility and hope emerge from clay whilst watching this teacher at the potter’s wheel. This meeting was the trigger for his transformation – the “focal point in my evolution as an artist and as a human being.” Not only was the skill of this teacher something which inspired and engaged Bill Strickland, the teacher accepted him -allowed him to stay and extend that engagement, despite his reputation. Mr Ross and the studio provided a place where he could create, and experience absorption. Beyond the studio, he supported him, mentored him, challenged him, and championed him to other colleagues who had given up on him ever making a success of his school life. Before Bill Strickland graduated ‘summa cum laude’, he had already started an after school club in his neighbourhood where he taught children pottery. This later evolved into the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild and Bidwell Training Centre – working with vulnerable and disadvantaged young people through the arts and providing training for jobs. These centres have been replicated many times, because of their amazing success in turning lives around. But what is being provided, is a secure base of acceptance, an invitation to absorption, and relationship – the chance through mentorship to ‘stand at life’s crossroads and change their stories”. This is where teaching is elevated beyond a craft. It can be an art form in a practitioner skilled in connection.
“Teachers are key to the whole puzzle. The skillful ones, the compassionate ones, the empathetic ones – can literally cure suffering. The way you treat people drives their performance and can cure cancer of the human spirit” Bill Strickland.
And now, the science part – or a part of it! Think of how it feels to struggle, to fail, to be on the periphery of a group because your performance lags. That is a high-stress situation to be in. There is guilt – you didn’t do what you should have done. You can’t do it, you got it wrong again. You’re confused. There is shame. I am not just doing badly, I AM bad. There is the insecurity about your belonging, how you are perceived. And that is EVERYTHING – especially to an adolescent, important to a child, to any mammal who cannot live as an isolate… How to respond when in this sort of threat / confusion / overwhelm? Just because these are social threats does not make it any less visceral an experience…and this is where the nervous system takes a range of adaptive routes…
Fight it – show contempt for the learning, for the school, for the teacher, for the tasks. Be provocative, disruptive, it’s a load of rubbish anyway… Flee from it – stop showing up. Poor or sporadic attendance. Lateness, disorganisation, chaos in between them and the task of learning. Freeze / flop – make myself invisible – dissociate – present in name only. Teachers bear witness to the struggles of children as they grow. And when informed, we can have choices to make in our toolkit of what to do.
A child or teen in a state of threat, or who struggles to self-regulate, is affected at a profound physiological level. Their heart rate will go up, their breath will go shallow, their hearing is affected. They will tune into background noises, especially low frequency noises that may indicate predator threats. Their feelings, their thinking, their behaviour will be affected. Students who are confused and getting lost are not making conscious choices to tune out. Their neuroception has taken charge. Notice the term neuroception as opposed to perception. Neuroception is the nervous system’s function of evaluating risk – feeling frightened vs feeling safe. This is beyond cognitive awareness. The social engagement system is quite simply off-line. And restoring the sense of safety is key. The teacher in the room, the informed, observant, reflective teacher, is able to – hopefully – hold onto their own social engagement system around the young person acting out the mobilization coming from their experience of threat or challenge. Dr Stephen Porges, whose ground-breaking Polyvagal theory is being applied to the treatment of trauma, is clear that connection and co-regulation are of prime importance in being able to make the switch from a reactive to a responsive mode. In other words the informed use of our own social engagement can be used strategically to enable the young person to experience safety within their body and bring their social engagement system back online.
This is about presence.
• Relaxed striate muscles in the face and head – especially the orbital group around the eye sockets…As my better half would say to me as we are going through passport control ‘Smile and relax for God’s sake!’. All mammals have a newer level to their vagus system which is the face-heart-bronchi connection to convey we are safe to approach. Reptiles and other more primitive life-forms don’t have this. It’s because mammals are more evolved and live cooperative lives – humans are at the apex of this: wired to find safety in belonging because that is where our collective power lies. It is the window to the autonomic state, or how regulated a person is. So being able to check in with yourself and give yourself whatever emotional reset you can in order to have a high stakes conversation with a young person is crucial. The body keeps the score. You can’t fake it. It’s the difference between the Pan Am smile and the Duchenne – the genuine article which has the true warmth.
• Voice with prosodic features. Prosody refers to intonation, stress pattern, loudness variations, pausing, and rhythm. We express prosody mainly by varying intonation, varying the dynamics and duration, varying the stresses. Notice when you are stressed or frustrated, what happens to these features of your voice? Without even making the conscious decision to do so, your volume control notches up, and the way you speak can become more choppy, much less musical. This has an effect on our physiological state – specifically the neuro-regulation of the middle ear. Responding to sound is part of the way our nervous system evaluates risk. As a woman, I have always had quite a deep voice, and used with intensity, especially if my voice becomes staccato and I am using short phrases, then I am aware that naturally this may be interpreted as threatening. When we are on the receiving end of these sorts of verbalizations, we will try to distance because these are signs that on a physiological level something is not safe. SO your tone is also crucial. Think how to create warmth, welcome. Think late night FM DJ.
• Gestures within a safe environment. Stilling, calming your body. Open hands, palm up, relaxed forearms. Consider the setting – not across a desk, behind a screen…how can you disrupt the hierarchical dynamics to change the setting and optimize safety and collaboration? If appropriate, how can you make your environment an accessible haven for engagement. Eg creative activities, thinking and working out of the box. Using music or other sensory aspects to create a different emotional setting…
I hope this opener to 2022 provides some interest and food for thought. AS teachers we can’t always provide every child with the creative, engaging environment that they are ready for at the time we show up in their lives. But we play a critical complementary role in the development of the individual which can be pivotal.We can create an inner environment within ourselves, in our skilled, nuanced observations and ability to show our pupils that they are seen, and that there is a possibility for them to be understood, that is rich in safety. Our inner spaciousness, curiosity, and resourcefulness in turn can create the space within the child which can help make some sort of connection that may just open up a new and more hopeful direction in their personal stories.And it doesn’t get much better than that.With love and gratitude,Emma.Currently providing individual professional coaching Plus staff development training centring on:
• Improving the quality of your relationships by improving the quality of your interactions.
• Managing your mind in stressful situations
• Handling difficult conversations
• How to speak to a young person in distress
• Supporting children and families through loss, grief, and change
• Deeper dives into supporting young people in managing performance issues: performance anxiety, social anxiety, perfectionism, procrastination, coaching skills.
• Looking at your ‘take-homes’ when handling difficult pastoral issues. How to balance caring deeply for pupils in need with being able to sleep at night.
• Personal and professional resilience
• Supporting lasting change for pupils with habits that are hard to break.
If you think I can support you / your team, with coaching or inspiring training, please get in touch to discuss:firstname.lastname@example.org 07812084419