16th October 2009 at 01:00
I'm a student teacher and my first placement is in a highly deprived area. It's a brand new academy, but I'm still a bit worried. Is the fact it's a new school a good sign

If you're considering working in a school that has a deprived catchment area, you have to examine your motives for doing so very carefully. When dealing with pupils who come from difficult surroundings and family backgrounds you mustn't be seen as a middle-class do-gooder parachuting in to pull them out of their deprived lives and provide them with an "escape route" to a socially acceptable lifestyle. Children are very perceptive and will immediately see through false or patronising intentions.

The pupils may well be challenging, not just with behaviour, but also with respect to their own ideas of what education they need or want, making engagement in lessons difficult. Working in such schools, though hard, can be immensely rewarding if you work there for the right reason, that you like the challenge of that type of child.

Approach the pupils with honesty and integrity. Uphold the school rules and policies fairly - without favour or prejudice - and you can build excellent relationships with them and their parents. You need to gain an understanding of what matters to the children and show that you appreciate how they live and survive what can be, in some cases, very difficult home lives and strained family relationships. By doing this you can make the lessons you teach purposeful and meaningful. What you must never do is be patronising and pretentious. This kills any possibility of building meaningful relationships with pupils and their parentsguardians. Remember, getting the parents onside is half the battle.

If you come from a nice, stable, supportive and "normal" upbringing, be prepared for what might be ahead. As a teacher you will be privy to sensitive information on your pupils, sometimes on a "need to know" basis. Such information about them and their families can be shocking. If you've never dealt with people who have suffered sexual and physical abuse, drug addiction, alcohol dependence, multiple divorce, being a child-age carer or if you've never known a child who has attempted suicide because they are so unhappy and depressed, it can be very hard. But for some pupils these experiences can be their "normal" life.

Of course these are extremes, and you won't come across all of these on a daily basis. All of the above situations can exist in all types of schools from the most elite private school to the most challenging state school. But the proportion of problems found in schools in deprived areas is, sadly, much greater.

The joy of working in such schools is being able to help children realise that education can have a positive effect on their lives and that they are allowed to have dreams and aspirations that could come true. As a teacher, you can be part of that process.

The teachers in such schools are also some of the best team players. They know that no one teacher can change the world, but that as a group, they can change many children's lives for the better. You also have to be prepared for the failures, the pupils who, despite your best efforts, you couldn't help.

  • James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex, School of Education and Social Work.

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