As I head into my 26th year of teaching, it seems a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned since taking a career break to work in the third sector. I am manager of Spartans Alternative School, which offers part-time alternative education provision for third and fourth years (aged about 13-15) at risk of exclusion and/or underachieving. We’re based in north Edinburgh, but students are referred from across the city.
We focus on English, maths and employability. Cookery is included as a life skill and a “nurturing strategy”; music encourages creativity and helps the young people find their voice; PE and active-learning techniques are key to our success as we break up learning with opportunities to move, kick a ball or shoot some pool. The charity U-Evolve provides counselling for all our students.
The entire project is founded on youth work principles and the Spartans Community Football Academy’s model of “building the bridge of trust”. Some aspects, such as “catching young people doing things right”, were already embedded in my practice, but it's fair to say that working in this project has revolutionised my thinking, made me more reflective – and made me re-evaluate many of the teaching decisions I made in the past.
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In my mainstream schools, I had never had the privilege of working with youth workers. If I’m completely honest, I didn’t really know what a youth worker did. In the early days at Spartans – full of enthusiasm and well-meaning intentions – I’d propose ideas to my youth work colleagues. The stock question I was always met with was this: “Have you asked the young people?”
It might sound naive – and I strongly believe I had always put some notion of personalisation and choice at the heart of my practice – but this simple question really pulled me up short. How many times in my career had I adopted strategies, chosen texts, presented lessons and made vital pedagogical decisions without once consulting my students? Yes, I’d questioned students retrospectively, but very rarely did I wholeheartedly put the students’ views at the centre of my planning. Oh yes, 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; and the relentless demands for increasing amounts of seemingly meaningless admin. I just didn't think I could ever have pleased all the people all the time – but I simply didn’t know what I know now.
Young people will give you sensible, reflective and honest feedback and solutions, but only once you’ve built trust and they know that you value what they have to say – and will act upon it. Often, I coach our young people on how to conduct themselves in a re-admission meeting so that their voices can be heard and their raw teenage anger or sadness be communicated to the staff they need to reach. In my broad experience, schools are relentlessly positive, forgiving and caring places full of the best of intentions. However, sometimes we need to stop what we’re doing, give that young person our undivided attention and a safe, non-judgemental space to really say their truth. We must listen, let slip our mask of authority and allow ourselves to be open to what they can teach us.
One day, while putting the finishing touches to a draft of our agreed contract that was to be signed by both staff and students, a student began folding the piece of A3 paper. I knew his attention was wavering and I was ready to end the session, but the traditional control freak in me was irritated by his blatant disregard for the piece of paper we’d all just contributed to. I was struggling to conceal the irritation in my voice, and in years gone by there would have been serious consequences for such outright defiance and wilful destruction. But I remained calm and expressed disappointment: “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 the assumptions bubbling up in me, I managed to remain curious and, in so doing, witnessed one of the most touching moments of self-awareness that student had ever shared with me. I apologised for questioning his motives, to model to him that adults make mistakes.
Another student displayed almost 18 months of masterful work avoidance and always managed to evade any sort of assessment. One day – lying prone on a sofa – he reluctantly completed an official National 4 listening assessment. Having achieved success in that, he casually asked: ‘Well what else do I need to dae then to get this Nat 4?” I produced a reading assessment which he did and passed – whilst still lying on the sofa. How many times in my mainstream classroom had I insisted on no swinging, no slouching, no heads on the desk? I know the reasons why I demanded those things, but here was a young person who finally trusted me enough to try, to expose his vulnerabilities and have a go at an assessment he had always assumed was beyond him.
Admittedly, the size of Spartans Alternative School provides a unique opportunity for us to work in very small groups. This clearly makes building relationships far easier, and I am under no illusions that the size of mainstream classrooms dramatically increases the workload, pressure and time constraints on classroom teachers, while depleting their energy, patience and ability to remain curious in the face of distressed behaviour. However, I feel Spartans has taught me skills, raised my self-awareness and increased my willingness to question why I approached students in certain ways and why I didn’t consider other possibilities. If you have a youth worker in your school, catch them for a chat, invite them into your classroom, venture out to the playground with them and watch what they do.
As Scotland continues to be increasingly “Ace-aware" (adverse childhood experiences) we know that one reliable, positive caring key adult can make the difference in the life of any young person suffering adversity. The relationships teachers and youth workers forge with young people can make that difference, and all our skills would be improved if there were more opportunities for teachers and youth workers to work together. Youth workers get to be the “cool” ones, of course, and their distinct role must be valued and maintained as different from a teacher.
Teachers, then, should ask themselves this: What if we were more curious and open to learning from young people and youth workers? And what if teachers dropped the mask of authority long enough that they could really witness young people directing their own lives?
Emma Easton is manager at Spartans' Alternative School, at the Spartans Community Football Academy in Edinburgh. The academy recently won the Raising Attainment prize at the annual Youthlink Scotland Awards