I have been on my travels this month. Visiting a place far from home for work, I found myself taking my first solo long-distance trip in more than 10 years. Marriage, mortgage and motherhood have all played their parts in keeping me grounded and I have become so unaccustomed to being on my own that it came as quite a shock. Navigating my way through airports and tube stations was one thing, but what waited for me at the other end of the journey was even more unexpected.
I found myself in a strange and unfamiliar place, hundreds of miles from home, where I knew no one. As welcoming, positive and encouraging as this new community truly was, it was still a community I was not yet a part of. I didn’t know or understand how things worked, how the connections that stretched around and through the room had been forged and strengthened over time or what the shared values that these connections rely upon might be.
I felt lonely, awkward and uncomfortable. I found it hard to concentrate on the speaker because I was silently worrying that I would have to find a partner or use a resource I didn’t have. I felt terribly homesick and my confidence fell lower than the soles of my shoes.
What pupils want: ‘Give every child a plant on their desk’
If you had asked me in advance how I would have coped in this situation I would have shrugged and told you I would be fine. I would have told you that I had the social skills to manage and that I would make the best of it, get to know people, create new connections of my own. In truth, I was much more worried about getting lost on the way there than feeling lost when I arrived.
I fully underestimated how difficult it is to walk into somewhere new, where everyone knows each other and the rules of the game, except you.
And yet this is the lived experience for many children and young people arriving in our schools every day. Starting a new school alongside your peers as part of transition to primary or secondary school is daunting enough, but to do it alone, midway through a term, perhaps following a house move, relocation or parental separation must be quite something else. To find yourself somewhere new, perhaps even in a new country where the primary language spoken is not your own and leaving behind the community you knew and understood.
I have lost count of the number of children, families and new staff members I have welcomed into schools over the years, reassuring them that it will all be fine, to ask if they have any questions.
I realise now that we often act like we know what it is like to be the new person, but we don’t really know. With the shoe having been so recently on the other foot, I have to wonder – do we really do a good enough job of helping new children and staff settle in? Do we understand the resilience and courage it takes to be open to new people, to let them get to know you when all you really want to do is go home? Do we take the time to explain why we do what we do? Or do we quickly go over the basics then just expect people to run and catch up because school life is already busy enough?
Of course, things got better for me and by the end of my trip I had forged those connections that I had assumed would come so easily. But it took hard work and in those first few anxious hours it greatly impacted my readiness to learn; because feeling comfortable and secure within a group is a prerequisite to effective learning.
If we really value wellbeing, investing the time to ensure the newest members of our school community feel included should be at the top of everyone’s agenda.
Susan Ward is depute headteacher at Kingsland Primary School in Peebles, in the Scottish Borders. She tweets @susanward30