I’ve always been broken. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been emotionally fragile. I was painfully vulnerable and it was painfully obvious. For too long, hiding this humiliating softness became my main aim, both in my private life and my professional teaching life.
Academic prowess acted as a perfect foil for what became my secret life of depression. Yet, even with all my massively impressive revision strategies, I could not even begin to join the dots to stamp out “le cafard” (the cockroach or, according to Baudelaire, the blues).
The more I starved my melancholy, the more it grew and found other things to feed on. The sadness was parasitic and even began to eat away at my most prized intellect and creativity. So my life has been a patchwork of dark downers stitched next to hyper social and intellectual binges.
It’s only now, in my forties, that I am able to admit my intense ups and downs to myself, never mind begin to imagine the effect it has had on my nearest and dearest, who have lived within such close proximity, yet so far from me.
Times have changed with me. People’s experiences of mental health challenges are often made public and discussed, from Prince Harry to Zayn Malik. The zeitgeist has helped me accept and even embrace my challenges with mental health. And I have found myself having more success with children who we label “challenging”. I have even found a new pedagogy sprouting from within.
Not so long ago, I remember being walked down an infinitely long primary school corridor, as a supply teacher in a deprived innerLondon area. The school secretary exuded worn-out pity, as I tiptoed behind her, wondering if I could make a silent getaway.
She explained in no uncertain terms that pupils were jumping off the ceilings – that there were just five children who would do what they were told and the rest reflected varying degrees of anarchy. The regular teacher was off with stress.
Before you turn aside to puke into your popcorn, no, this isn’t a sugary anecdote. They weren’t transformed overnight by my waving a magic wand. What did happen was that I learned to listen to these children. I heard their varying degrees of angst and tried to respond sympathetically – poorly, at times. But respond I did, human to human.
One of the things I noticed about the way I initially dealt with the really disconcerting kids was I’d be dealing out negatives the whole time: “Don’t do that”; “stop it”; “I’m gonna have to put you on orange/red if you carry on doing that”. Threat after whinge after threat.
When you’re trying to control a class that’s out of control, it can be hard to step outside of the situation to find a new approach. I was barely surviving and more than relieved when they fell out of my room and into the playground at breaktime. I was too tired and overwhelmed to analyse “my practice” at the end of each day. By the end of the week, I could barely take off my coat.
Despite the exhaustion, I looked, searched and ransacked the personalities of some of the hardest characters in the room for something to work with.
One boy in particular struck me: one who was continually meeting a special educational needs and disabilities coordinator in the middle of English and maths, owing to his statement of additional needs. He spent most of his time making low-volume screeching noises and doing very little written work.
Once I started observing his reactions, I saw that his level of written work decreased and his screeching became louder relative to the noise in the room and the rebukes he received from a teacher. So I started by speaking to him gently and quietly. I would bend down next to him and whisper words of encouragement. Then I would praise him, loudly, for doing the right thing.
I noticed that he needed kind, focused girls to bring out his desire to learn. Also, I realised that the five children nearest to him determined his mood spectrum for that session. So, if, for whatever reason, he was not responding well to those working around him, I would give him the option of working in a new group instead of stubbornly sticking to my “pie in the sky” seating plan.
It worked. His behaviour and work improved.
Too often, as teachers, we choose to divide pupils into two categories: aggravating pains and misunderstood souls. But with both groups, I find that connecting with their vulnerability through my own vulnerability helps me to respond from a genuine place.
Remembering what it was like for me to feel isolated or like an oddball softens my hardness and makes me more patient. When I’m in a bad place and at the receiving end of lectures, advice and know-it-all posturing, it goes down like a lead balloon. And so it is with my students.
Intuition works nearly every time. I’ve spent so much time denying the voice in my gut because it seems to contradict the norm expected of teachers. But since I’ve followed that voice, I find I can relate to the mood changers, the leaders, the jesters of my classroom. Even if they don’t smash their learning objectives, our working relationship is being watered and nourished. It means more children are likely to learn in our next lesson.
Not everyone follows leaders
Often, we’re told in training to “be the boss”, that there’s a binary relationship in the classroom: leader and follower. So if the fragile part of me is exposed, it’s a bad thing. But the opposite is true. I have found that there are fewer incidents during my shifts because children see my mortality. I did not try to appear in control or judgemental. If I don’t know, I’ll admit it. If I feel insecure, I’ll express it.
When a “high risk” 15-year-old girl blurted out “You look like a lesbian…are you?” as an opening gambit, I took this opportunity to explore her preconceptions and how she would treat me if I were. I kept her not knowing the answer to her question for as long as I could, and that increased her curiosity and openness to building trust with the latest strange adult that was invading her space.
Colleagues were shocked at how she warmed to me so quickly.
I put myself in my pupils’ shoes. I remember times in my life when I’ve felt utterly let down by people and I respond to the children from my “broken place” rather than as an overworked adult modelling the dictator approach. And there are academic results, too. I have found – at least in my subject, English – that connecting with our brokenness in the classroom can take an average answer into the territory of an A grade; depth of analysis and inference can be pushed beyond expected levels of attainment.
The concept of a spectrum of mental health, as opposed to a divide of sane and insane – that we are all somehow broken – helps students to make links with great writers, their inner struggles and the society in which they lived. Embracing the broken helps our students to take responsibility for themselves and invest wholeheartedly in their future.
Hannah Sokoya is an English and drama teacher in north London