‘That’s the nickname you’ve given yourself? You shouldn’t call yourself that. I’m not calling you that. Just Sugar, right?’
I am sitting on the stairs with Audrey, who has walked out of her lesson. We are writing a list of things that she likes about herself and she isn’t finding or making this easy. Nothing comes quickly to mind so I have to prompt her with the things that I have noticed.
I don’t teach her year group, but that is one of the things that I have noticed about my new setting, it really doesn’t take long to get to know the entire school. This is, of course, to do with the numbers and the size of the building. It’s so much smaller than any school I have worked in before that sometimes I even bump into myself. It’s also the nature of the children and the staff.
Communication is essential here. Emails fly thick and fast, but corridor life here is a big part of our school culture and I easily get my 10,000 steps escorting students back into lessons and resolving incidents. It has not been easy. It seriously has...not...been...easy. My first week was spent ducking from a barrage of insults, rejection and the occasional pen.
‘Who does this woman think she is?’
‘Why are you here?’
‘Don’t talk to me!’
‘Don’t f***king look at me!’
I crawled into bed one day that week absolutely exhausted only to look at my phone and see it was only 8.30pm.
I questioned my choices that first weekend. What had I done? Text messages telling me that I was missed at my previous school did not help. But something clicked on the Sunday night. I didn’t feel anxious about work on Monday. I didn’t feel the same mental exhaustion I had often felt in mainstream. I was tired, yes, but the emotions drained away readily. Initially, I found this confusing. I can only think that it is because it was never been the students’ behaviour that caused my stress but rather workload, other adults and workplace practices which hampered my ability to support students appropriately.
Almost like that house plant you thought was doomed but you wake up to find is suddenly budding, I have found that each day has started to bring with it little joys and tiny successes. Whole days have passed where I haven’t heard a single insult – except for Aaron’s fixation with wanting to comb my ‘picky’ afro, and Emily’s absolute disapproval of my outfits. Students and parents are starting to share with me their dreams, their pain, and their interests.
Later in the day when Audrey was making mischief in her Art lesson, I looked at her with raised eyebrows and said ‘Sugar?’, she smiled and sat down to get back on with her work.
I am becoming, if not part of the furniture, at least a fairly healthy house plant.
I’m still an object of curiosity and as a member of SLT a target of students’ anger and issues with authority. One thing that really helped me in those first weeks was the supervision session with my compassionate coaching group with other Difference leaders. I shared my concerns about the aggression that had been directed at me and the number of lessons where nothing had been achieved except students revelling in the opportunity to ridicule me. It was really helpful just to hear people who were sharing a similar experience express empathy. What really made things click for me was the suggestion to accept this part of the journey was about relationship building and it didn’t matter at this point that evidence of progress was absent from their books. I wasn’t going to get that without some trust being gained. Colleagues have also been kind and offer advice and encouragement on those days when things aren’t going so well.
It truly is so very much about making those connections and being prepared to be vulnerable. These students don’t just want to know that you care, they want to know why. I have had to climb out of my teacher box and back into my human box. I know that many aspects of my own childhood should have made me a statistic. Sharing some of these personal experiences, has helped the children trust me just that little bit more than they did before that supervision session. I know that for many people our students are already statistics. There is a stereotype of these children that will come to mind for many. Honestly, our students do not conform to a typical profile. They are from racially and socio-economically diverse backgrounds. There are school refusers, students with diagnosed learning difficulties, students with undiagnosed learning difficulties, students in gangs, students with anxiety and depression, children in care and children who are carers. One thing that I can see clearly is that underneath the eruptions of anger is a lot of sadness, and under all the bravado are young children who really need boundaries wrapped up in a package of love and kindness.
Audrey and I are completing her list as the bell goes. I’ve written most of it but then she says ‘I never give up’ which makes me smile from ear to ear as I write it down.
That’s exactly why we’re here.
Irene Ogunseitan is one of the first ten Difference Leaders, working across London. If you want to apply for Cohort 2 in Yorkshire & the Humber, the North West or London and the South of England, express your interest today.