Inclusion buck stops with you;Another Voice;Opinion

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
"HOW are you?" A simple enough question, but one which changed my life. The enquirer happened to be a Methodist minister, who looked deep into my eyes and held my gaze as he said "How are you?" This was no mere greeting. He wanted to know the heart of the matter. Although I cannot remember how I replied, I do remember that I came away from this brief encounter believing that somebody cared - a novel experience.

Later in that year of quiet desperation far from home, a woman I hardly knew, acting on some intuitive impulse, gave me a warm and affectionate hug. Afterwards, I realised that I had really needed it, and I started to believe that some people really cared about other people. What a powerful message of hope! So let me ask you to take a moment to reflect on these questions: how are you, and do you need a hug?

I could write a book about preventing exclusion. In fact, I just have. But, in doing so, I have come to realise that, in the end, it is only people who can include people. The systems and the structures are deeply flawed, and probably always have been. But changes in infrastructure and resourcing will only follow changes in outlook and thinking - it seldom works the other way around.

My two life-changing experiences may seem mundane, but their effects are still at work in me. The people who provided them were skilful in delivering these experiences, and they drew on resources from deep within.

Teachers may justifiably feel beleaguered from all sides. The administrative demands continue to grow while further targets are set for a workforce which, from time to time, feels too drained even to shoulder arms, let alone take aim.

The cumulative effect of trying to meet these performance criteria (which often individually seem worthwhile) can make teachers feel harassed and upset. On top of all this, there are the demands of problem children. Even if staff have the skills and empathy to get alongside needy children and work changes in them, the inner resources may not be there.

We cannot have it both ways. If we are going to sympathise with children at risk of school failure, and focus on healing rather than punishment, we should also recognise the emotional needs of staff. How many times this week did teachers find themselves too busy to give their undivided attention to the crucial concerns of their pupils?

Unfortunately, it really is easier to avoid dealing with people than to avoid dealing with paperwork - the consequences are less onerous. My sympathies are with all the people caught up in a culture which has become too mechanistic. In order to cope, we mentally separate ourselves from others.

The inner resources of many teachers are being consumed by anger - towards the many failures of the system, the incessant pressures and the lack of opportunity. Have you ever been shouted at by the boss, and then gone home to kick the cat? We cannot strike out at the machine, but we can exclude the immediate problem.

This is not laying blame. It is simply recognising a process. The hardliners are half right - there is a conflict in demands on teachers. However, this does not justify scapegoating the obvious human target because the other targets are too big.

What can be done to change things? Exhausted and dispirited adults cannot be expected to do anything for exhausted and dispirited children. So we must promote the needs of individuals over the mediocrities of the system.

Those who continue to develop educational systems which bear a high administrative workload are like factory owners pumping waste into the nearest river. One end is productive but the other is destructive. Teachers who are expected to treat pupils with respect should be accorded respect themselves. If you are a head, go and take a long hard look at your staffroom - does it revitalise or depress you? What are you doing to build your staff's self-esteem?

Second, we need to acknowledge that the same insidious processes are undermining our weaker and more vulnerable students, and those who work with them. You are entitled to enjoy your work, and pupils are entitled to enjoy their education, within the same system, governed by the same framework of rules and policies.

Try thinking of and treating your pupils as partners. Allow yourself the pleasure of receiving from them as well as giving to them. The classroom is your learning environment, too.

Adam Abdelnoor is a chartered psychologist who specialises in working with excluded children and families. His book, Preventing Exclusions, is published by Heinemann on November 5

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