Emotional investment will pay dividends

28th August 2015 at 01:00
When staff and students feel a sense of belonging, it shows. And heads must lead by example to help vulnerable learners commit

A friend often regales me with stories of his time doing officer training with the Royal Marines. One of his favourite anecdotes is about the instructors' methods of encouragement: the Sleep Bank and the Pain Bank. Collective failure to perform to the required standard resulted in a proportional debt to one or both banks. As incentives go, being in credit with these two was a pretty strong one.

A colleague I worked with at an independent school had a similar system: this teacher was chief executive of the Bank of Fear. His reputation was well-founded. I shared a class with him and, one day, a high-achieving, hard-working student called Gabriel submitted homework that wasn't up to standard. As my colleague handed back students' books, he said to Gabriel: "I don't know what I'm going to do with you yet. I'll think about it over half-term, but you can be sure it will be horrible."

I could see Gabriel blanch but, at that time, I didn't have the moral courage to do the right thing and confront the teacher. I regret that to this day. All I could summon to soothe the boy was a weak: "He'll probably forget over the holiday." He didn't. I hope that someone, staff member or student, has since done what I couldn't and challenged this man. His entire behaviour management system would have turned to dust in seconds.

I have found developing staff and students' emotional investment in a place to be a more effective approach. This became evident when I worked at a school for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Although the students developed an affection for the staff, their peers and the school over time, initially they had nothing to lose - their stake in the community was minimal. But as they began to care more for the people and property around them, their respect for these things improved. It was clear, too, that whenever a pupil faced a crisis, their level of emotional investment dictated how effective the rebuilding process would be.

Ryan's early attempts to enter my science lab via the fire exit holding a scaffolding pole weren't repeated because my lessons and his peers meant more to him as each week passed. His internal radar that immediately identified authority figures or challenging work as a threat gradually turned itself down.

When I worked at a comprehensive, I was frustrated that too many students weren't as proud as I was to be a member of our school community. They lacked respect for the staff, their fellow students and the fabric of the place. I can see now that their emotional investment in the school was low. It showed.

Difficult transition

One of the biggest challenges at the school I now lead - which specialises in supporting young people with moderate learning difficulties - is building up the emotional investment of students who come to us from secondary schools. A quarter of our pupils join when a secondary placement breaks down and they are almost exclusively boys. They have learned that schools, and the adults in them, are to be fought and resisted at every turn, and that no one is to be trusted.

On one occasion, I was called to assist with a student who had joined us in Year 9 from a secondary school via a pupil referral unit. I was trying to work out what had happened when he looked me in the eye and said, "You don't understand me at all, do you?" He was absolutely right. I had yet to make my own emotional investment in him. He needed to know that I cared about him and I had obviously not managed to communicate that I did. His experiences had led him to believe that adults broke promises and gave up on him.

Our students find learning difficult by definition, so there has to be some reason for them to come back, day after day, to struggle again and again. I'm astounded that 15-year-olds who are still trying to learn number bonds to 10 or write their surnames legibly continue to hammer away lesson after lesson to obtain the skills and knowledge that most children their age deploy unconsciously and effortlessly.

It means that the staff need to be the ones to invest first. Here, we expect rejection, resistance and, in some cases, hostility. It is vital for the students to be certain that we won't give up on them, that there's a safety net to catch them when they fail - which they will, daily.

We don't take any rejection personally and instead take the long view. We've worked with enough students to be confident that they will succeed. It is not uncommon to overhear staff saying things such as: "Our relationship is bigger than this problem" or "We care about you too much to allow you to do that".

Deep commitment

As Ros McMullen from the Leaf Academy Trust says: "The students who require the most love are the ones who will ask for it in the most unloving of ways."

The commitment of a professional in a special school has to be deeper than simply helping people who find it difficult to thrive in the world as it is today. The job requires a vision of what is possible for that child and a dedication to doing whatever is necessary to make that a reality. Given that society expects virtually nothing from people with learning difficulties, this is no mean feat.

When I became a headteacher four years ago, some staff felt that the changes I was making would destroy all that was good about our school. They watched, powerless, as - Lehman Brothers-style - everything they had relied on for years disappeared. Fast-forward to our latest training day when a colleague remarked: "You can feel the happiness in this school." It was a good indicator to me that investment is back to pre-stock market crash levels.

I hate the term stakeholder, but our students and staff must know that their investment is in safe hands. They've put some of themselves into the school and as leaders we need to invest that stake wisely.

Jarlath O'Brien is headteacher of Carwarden House Community School in Surrey

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