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Valuable lessons from volunteering

Dominic Tiernan reflects on a month working with disturbed adolescents.

A month volunteering in the education unit of an adolescent psychiatric hospital proved an invaluable preparation for my postgraduate teaching course in special needs. As the patients at Huntercombe Manor Hospital near Maidenhead in Berkshire include those with depression, eating disorders and behavioural problems, I encountered a range of new situations and difficulties both pedagogical and personal.

Initially I realised that I was unsure of how to physically approach the patients in order to discuss possibilities and set them up with a programme of academic exercises or craft activities. This was due to a two-sided fear of unintentionally being the cause of upset for the student and a more personal fear of rejection and perhaps abuse. After all I was new, temporary and male in a schoolroom where most students were teenage girls, many with an understandable suspicion of strangers, particularly men.

Knowing a brash, over-enthusiastic approach was possibly detrimental to the existing atmosphere, I attempted to become a part of the school environment slowly but surely. In doing so, I set myself no real time limits to achieving this objective, deeming acceptance as an important achievement in itself.

Instead, following the advice of the teaching staff, I became involved in activities which had already been set, working on my own task, but as part of a group of students all working on individual projects. This change to the usual teacher-student relationship of my previous experience allowed for general, relaxed conversation among the students, of which I soon became a part.

As this approach began to bear fruit, the difficulties in motivating the students to undertake tasks quickly became apparent. No doubt comments about academic work being "too boring" are commonplace among adolescents, however in this case the sentiment was joined by other barriers to motivation. These included depression and a belief on the part of some that they are not capable of achievement; anxiety experienced during on-going therapy; fatigue and a lack of concentration due to the effects of medication; an all-consuming preoccupation with weight and size among anorexics which results in a low threshold of concentration for any work, academic or otherwise.

Students would therefore regularly respond negatively to any new suggestion. Even on those occasions when a piece of work had been completed, it was considered to have little or no merit and was immediately forgotten about, the students showing no apparent concern for what became of it or for any academic or artistic achievement in its completion. This would often mean that there was no link between sessions. It was difficult to use a completed project as a foundation for further learning since there had been no apparent satisfaction in its completion and no desire to continue with the theme and subject matter.

This could also result in there being no clear development in the usually dynamic teacher-student relationship, because the students had no faith in their own abilities and therefore did not wish to continue being taught.

To me, such a state of affairs resulted in a feeling of being, in effect, de-skilled - of not being able to offer anything to the student. With help, however, from the teaching staff and, very importantly, from regular supervisory sessions with the headteacher, this became an interesting and valuable learning experience.

In these sessions I was able to explore the causes of this relationship and their effects on both parties. Realising that the experience of de-skilling is very common in working with young people who project or transfer their anger and feelings of worthlessness on to adults, I felt able to approach the students with more self-confidence and less personal doubt.

To counter this lack of motivation the teachers would themselves begin the project they had suggested to the students, either individually or as part of a group of the more motivated students. By example, the teacher showed that the work was interesting in its own right and not merely an academic "tool". This interest in, for example, pottery, art or languages, attracted the attention of the students, encouraging them to take part in the academic or creative process in a far less teacher-centred way. It also had the effect of circumventing the problem of the students' defensive wish to control their own lives and the events around them.

In creating this interest, the teacher has effectively allowed the student to experience a certain vulnerability, manifest in their wish to take part, from which they can then allow themselves to be taught. At the same time, however, it is the student's own decision to take part and they are to all appearances still in control.

Beginning a piece of work and allowing a student to finish it was also a way of achieving the same results. Not only was it the decision of the student to take up the project, but a semi-completed task presented a more clearly defined and obtainable objective and would often result in a sharper, more tangible sense of achievement. This could then provide the stimulus for further work on an associated theme and occasionally saw the input of new ideas from the student.

The work provided a wealth of practical experience. It gave me an insight into certain types of behaviour in young people and the opportunity to witness a range of teaching methods and ideas.

I felt my own objectives had been realised, particularly regarding being accepted by the students. I was told by one on leaving: "You can't leave now. We've only just started being nice to you."

Dominic Tiernan is training to be a special needs teacher.

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