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The school social worker: why being punched by a student was a turning point in my career

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Twelve years ago, as a young female teacher, I was working in a mainstream secondary school. I loved my job and the young people I had the pleasure to work with. Then Ben arrived and was placed in my class. Ben was every teacher’s nightmare and he was removed from lessons on a daily basis for disrespectful, negative, attention-seeking behaviour towards pupils and staff. We were told that he had been in and out of care throughout his early years, but we knew very little else.

After only a very short time at the school, he was facing permanent exclusion for hitting a teacher during a classroom fight. He was aiming at another pupil, but missed and punched the teacher in the face. Yes, that teacher was me.

He broke my nose – I still have a bump as a reminder. I was angry, but it also scared me. It had knocked my confidence and I felt intimidated. I was young and this was not what I had expected in the first term of my new career. I left that day unsure if I would ever return to the school or the classroom again.

I came in a couple of days later for a meeting to discuss how to move forward. I went into that meeting fully intending to say that I wanted Ben removed from the school or else I would not return. I wanted him permanently excluded.

The boy behind the bravado

Then a social worker told me about Ben. They told me about his life and how he had been abused from a young age. Although the information provided was minimal, and gave me only a brief insight into the suffering this child had experienced, it was enough to give me the opportunity to begin rethinking my decision. I now realise the information I received that day was the tip of a very large iceberg in Ben’s life. It was also a turning point in mine.

I was told that Ben really wanted to apologise and had written me a letter. In this letter, he explained that he struggled to control his anger, but he really wanted to. He knew he needed to change and said that I was his favourite teacher and he was really sorry. Something inside me knew Ben meant what he had said. I could see that inside that cocky teenager there was still a frightened little boy who needed someone to believe and trust in him.

The next week, I returned to teach that class. Ben was welcomed back a few weeks later after a period of exclusion. I never experienced a problem with Ben again. In fact, he became my star pupil. That is not to say he was the same for every member of staff, but we gradually developed a strong professional working relationship. He went as far as telling me that I was the only adult he trusted. This felt like a big responsibility but also a great honour.

Then, suddenly, his behaviour changed. He told me a devastating story and asked me for help. I explained that I needed to speak to the safeguarding officer to make sure he was safe. That evening, I left Ben with social workers; he was in tears. I drove home, also in tears. He did not return to school.

Social workers explained that he had been moved out of the area. I asked if I could contact him to say goodbye, or at least send him a letter I had written. This request was denied. I felt like I had let him down and abandoned him when he needed me the most.

At that point, I did not completely understand why the social worker was so against me saying goodbye to Ben. I thought she was being awkward and obstructive. I now realise it was because Ben would have been placed at further risk had I contacted him and I understand completely why they had said no.

Five years later, I was teaching in a provision for Neet (not in employment, education or training) young people and Ben’s name appeared on my caseload. I went to the meeting to discuss supporting him. Something had made me keep the letter I had written all those years ago and I now had the opportunity to give it to him. We worked together again and I helped him to get an apprenticeship. He is now a plumber, and has a partner and a young baby.  

New perspective

I have been a social worker for four years. I made the decision to study for an MA in social work because, while teaching, I found I often became frustrated by the actions and decisions of social workers who supported the young people I was working with – young people like Ben. I wanted to understand the other side of the story, to see what happened outside my control as a teacher. 

I can now reflect on the frustrations I experienced and realise that I was completely wrong to feel the way I often felt as a teacher. Social workers do a very challenging job and if I'd had a greater insight into the role of the social worker while I was teaching, then I would have been much better equipped to work with young people and understand how and why a particular decision was made or action taken. Now I want to give other teachers that insight.

Each week, I am going to give you a glimpse into the world of being a social worker and my work in schools. My aim in doing this is to provide colleagues in education with details of the work we undertake. I want to explain the challenges along the way that can sometimes make this difficult to achieve. I want teachers to really understand what it is like to walk in a social worker's shoes. 

This is the first blog in a weekly series by a social worker who works exclusively with schools. All names have been changed, as have some details of the story, to protect the student's anonymity 

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