I didn’t need an alarm to wake me up for my first teaching job in Scotland; I was full of anticipation. This was an opportunity to make a difference in young people’s lives. I wasn't even particularly anxious about meeting my pupils, but maybe I should have been: one 10-year old, David, was in the midst of an emotional crisis and had recently been placed with a foster carer after years of abuse.
When I was walking David back to class one day, he collapsed to the floor and lay in a crumpled heap, sobbing. His mum was supposed to visit but she hadn’t shown up, again.
David’s behaviours were extreme: he would tear up his work and swear at me, and when challenged, would sometimes bite deeply into his arm or tear everything off the walls of the classroom.
Over the next fortnight, I wrote down descriptions of all of David’s many difficult behaviours, describing them as if I was recording it on video. I focused on the detail, so rather than saying, “He was disrespectful,” I wrote, “He pointed his bum at me and smacked it.”
Something unexpected happened; David’s behaviours began to change. The crises still came but didn’t last as long. When David wasn’t coping, he would let me help him. Then the headteacher told me: “I am changing David’s risk assessment so that he can go out of the school and play football with the team.”
'Something changed in me'
I could only attribute David’s improvement to something that had changed in me: I noticed that I could tell what kind of day he would have just by the way he walked into school. I could fine-tune his work: for example, no mental maths on a day when he was anticipating a visit with his mum.
One day he came to me and said that a sink was broken in the toilets. I was about to get on with the lesson, but I could see that he was pacing restlessly. I remember thinking, “He is worried that someone might get hurt.” I went with him to tell the janitor.
David was experiencing what it was like to have an adult attuned to him. I had learned to “read” his behaviours and developed an awareness of David’s thoughts and feelings.
I lost touch with David. But years later, I was in a meeting with senior social workers and politicians from across Scotland during which a group of young people presented a drama. I couldn’t believe my eyes; there was David, much taller and more confident; he performed flawlessly.
David’s story reminds me of why I get up in the morning and go to school. I can still make a difference in the lives of individuals.
David Woodier is a support teacher in Coatbridge, Scotland
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