I am manager of a school in Edinburgh that offers part-time alternative education for S3s and S4s at risk of underachieving or exclusion.
In the mainstream schools where I’d been previously, I’d never worked with youth workers. So, in my early days here – full of enthusiasm and well-meaning intentions – I proposed ideas to colleagues, and their stock answer was: “Have you asked the young people?”
This simple question really pulled me up short. How many times in my long career had I adopted strategies, chosen texts, presented lessons and made vital pedagogical decisions without once consulting my students?
Yes, I’d questioned them retrospectively, but very rarely did I wholeheartedly put the pupils’ views at the centre of my planning. I know the excuses I’d have used: the constraints of the book cupboard; the countdown to folio and exam deadlines; the sheer exhaustion of the job; the relentless demands of admin tasks.
But I simply didn’t know then what I know now. Young people will give you sensible, reflective and honest feedback and solutions once they trust that you value what they have to say – and that you will act upon it.
I coach our young people on how to conduct themselves so that their voices can be heard, and their raw teenage anger or sadness is communicated in ways that will reach staff.
Schools are positive, caring and forgiving places full of the best intentions. However, sometimes we need to stop what we’re doing in order to give a young person our undivided attention and a safe, non-judgemental space to really say their truth. We must listen and allow ourselves to be open to what they can teach us.
One day, while putting the finishing touches to a draft contract to be signed by staff and pupils, a pupil began folding a piece of A3 paper. The control freak in me was irritated by his blatant disregard for what we’d all just contributed to.
In years gone by, there would have been serious consequences for such outright defiance and wilful destruction. However, I remained calm and merely expressed disappointment, saying: “I wish you hadn’t done that.”
At that exact point, he sent a beautifully crafted paper aeroplane across the classroom, looked back at me and said: “That’s us taking off with our lives.”
By pausing, drawing breath and suppressing any assumptions bubbling within me, I was able to witness one of the most touching moments of self-awareness that a student has ever shared with me. Emma Easton is manager of Spartans’ Alternative School in Edinburgh