Q+A with a special needs teacher
We talk to a special needs teacher in a challenging school working with children with behavioural problems. Sarah Kean-Price poses the questions and learns that education “needs to shift away from academia and towards building questioning, empowered, creative individuals”
12th December 2012
1. Tell me about your job. What are you employed to do?
My job title is ‘Assistant Curriculum leader for inclusion’. I’m basically a special needs teacher with some responsibility for overseeing the provision that some of our special needs pupils receive in the classroom.
I work in a challenging school, so the number of pupils with Special needs (SEN)is far higher than the national average. Rather than something specific such as autism, most of our kids have social, emotional, academic and behavioural problems stemming from a turbulent, unstable and often-abusive home life.
I tailor the curriculum to the needs of these pupils. This means making it accessible to lower ability students, but also teaching in a way that pupils with behavioural and emotional issues can access. My classes are very small with no more than 12 pupils, which allows me to cater for their individual needs.
As well as my role in the classroom, I run a number of small ‘intervention’ sessions. These range from focussed academic sessions with school refusers or infrequent attenders to ‘emotional literacy’ sessions with pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (known as BESD). Quite often these pupils will be at risk of exclusion. With 2-3 pupils, we’ll focus on a range of topics such as handling and resolving conflict, emotional literacy, self-esteem and respect.
As part of my ‘leadership’ role, it is my job to check that provision for these pupils is good in all their classes. I suggest strategies and support where needed – although I’m not the boss of anyone!
I’m also an NUT union rep, which is a job in itself, and very rewarding, but I won’t talk about that here!
2. Describe a typical day.
Really, in teaching, there is no typical day, but –
I arrive at school around 8am, which gives me time to check my emails and get myself set up for lesson 1. Depending on what day it is, I will have either a staff meeting or corridor duty before lessons. My current corridor duty is greeting pupils at the gates, which means I get rained on and frozen every Wednesday morning! Our school day is split into 4 lessons, each lasting an hour twenty. On average, I will teach 2-3 lessons, a tutor lesson and one intervention session. Most days, I get a planning slot (PPA) to allow me to get some lessons planned etc.
Depending on the day, there may be staff training, or department meetings after school. These generally last and hour or so. After school, I’ll plan lessons, mark books and catch up on paperwork. Depending on how things are going, I’ll leave work at any time between 4.30 and 6.30. Over a week, it probably averages out to a 5.30 finish.
Every day is totally different which is one of the best things about teaching. Although we follow a structure, you’re always thinking about how to make things more fun, accessible and challenging for the kids which, whilst difficult and time consuming, is so worth it when you see a kid make progress, grasp a concept, or even just enjoy themselves while learning!
3. Did you always want to work in education? How did you end up following this career?
I’d always had it in the back of my head that education was a route I wanted to take. I actually came to education after spending a number of years rotating between the dole and short term employment on production lines, bin rounds etc.
I didn’t have a great time in education. My grades were good enough, but I always kicked back against what I saw as pointless rules, and teachers with the power to behave unfairly without having to justify themselves.
I still believe many school rules are pointless, and still believe that many teachers see themselves as ‘above’ the pupils. I wanted to get into education to challenge a lot of the unfairness I saw first-hand when I was a pupil. I’m passionate about equipping young people with the skills and knowledge they need to become empowered, valued and useful members of the school and wider community.
I actually think that an understanding of maths, of commas and full stops is pointless if you’ve not been taught how to make responsible decisions in your life, critically question your surroundings or know how to play an active part in building, shaping and improving your local and wider community. Everything I do is aimed at empowering the kids I teach.
In terms of how I got into teaching, I followed a pretty standard path of college, uni, then – after a couple of years working – a PGCE course at the University of Bristol.
4. Your work centres around challenging behaviour - can you tell us a bit more about what you are trying to do with your students?
I think a lot of that is covered in the question above. Leaving aside the challenging home circumstances of many of my pupils, I get the reason that their behaviour is challenging. School, and work do involve a lot of relatively pointless rules (tie done up, shirt tucked in, sit up straight etc). Many of my pupils are just expressing dissatisfaction and a lack of understanding of how to appropriately challenge or interact with those rules.
Basically, my goal is to take kids who ‘kick off’ at perceived injustice in a really negative, sometimes violent way and encourage them to find positive, creative and useful ways to express themselves – not just their frustration, but also their creativity, ideas, fears and hopes.
Too often, the type of kids I work with will go on to be ‘anti-social’ adults – because for them, society has only ever been a negative thing that has shunned them, arrested them etc. Challenging pupils to really understand, question and try to change the world around them – and giving them the belief that they are valued and useful members of society - is, for me, way more important than the academic side of my job.
My professional life is driven by the quote ‘education can either be a force for liberation or oppression’. In a nutshell, I do my best to make sure that education is a tool to help young people feel empowered, confident and creative.
5. Is there any information that you've found invaluable in doing this kind of work?
I’m always learning more about how to present information in a way that kids will find easier to understand or more enjoyable. In terms of working with my pupils, I’ve learned never to give an instruction or rule that doesn’t have a sound reason behind it, to always explain the reasons behind any instruction and to never ask the kids to do anything I would be unwilling to do.
Pupils are fine with rules that make sense, but too often, we don’t give them the opportunity to make sense of them- they’re just orders to be obeyed. Making sure that you and the kids have a shared understanding and agreement of the ‘point’ of what you are doing is so important.
6. What's the best thing about your line of work? What makes you keep coming back?
So many examples! I work with kids who routinely assault others, are involved in drug and weapon crime, who self-harm and have no respect for their own minds or bodies, or sense of self-worth. Breaking through those barriers and allowing these kids to start building a positive life for themselves – and even just allowing them to be kids – is such a rewarding experience. I work with the kids who are expected to be the next generation of criminals and ‘drop outs’, so when one of them manages to turn that around, it’s so much more rewarding than seeing a pupil go from a B to an A grade!
When these children are in class, it is sometimes the only place they get to interact appropriately and safely with peers and adults. Creating a safe, structured and positive environment where pupils can express themselves as children and individuals without fear and where I can have a shot at making a real difference is what I love about my job, and what keeps me coming back every day.
7. Do you think further training or study would help you further? Is there anything you wish you'd learnt before you started this work?
I think the nature of my job means that I’m learning all the time. If you ever get to a point where you think you’ve learned ‘enough’, or that you can’t learn from those around you, you’re an idiot!
Nothing can fully prepare you for teaching and getting better at it can only be achieved through getting into a classroom and building up your skills as you go along. My PGCE course was helpful in teaching me some of the theory underpinning effective teaching. Study and reflection are always useful things, but in teaching, I think your work is also your training, provided you are willing to take on board the lessons that your own experiences teach you.
8. What would you say to someone considering a career in this area?
Do it! It’s really hard work, but it’s a daily rush! What could feel more rewarding than getting in there and having a positive impact on the lives of some of the most vulnerable young people in society? It doesn’t go right all the time, and there’s a lot of heartbreak involved, but when it does go right, you know that you’ve done something great for someone – possibly altered the course of someone’s life, or at least given a scared, vulnerable young person a chance and a break from a tough life.
There’s a lot of crap that goes along with teaching (as in any job), but the buzz of helping to shape, build and empower young people is worth it!
9. What would you tell your younger self as an NQT?
a. Stop bossing those kids around! They don’t respect you for it, they don’t understand why you’re doing it, and even if you do succeed in bullying them into behaving in this class, you’re not addressing any of the issues that made them ‘misbehave’ in the first place.
b. Calm down - It gets easier!
10. What do you hope the future holds for educators working with challenging behaviour?
I think there needs to be a dramatic change in focus when dealing with these kids. We push university like it’s the holy grail, and actually, it’s not for all of us. The education system makes a lot of kids – especially those I work with – feel like failures before they’ve even started their adult life.
The focus of education needs to shift away from academia and towards building questioning, empowered, creative individuals who want to interact with and change the world around them. If I can help create young people like that, I don’t care what job they end up doing. We also need to work on self-esteem and confidence and stop writing off these kids’ thoughts and feelings as ‘naughty’ or ‘wrong’. Fundamentally, I think we need to move towards a model of education that respects, values and affords a genuine voice to all young people.
In the very short term, there needs to be a greater emphasis on community involvement and therapeutic and reflective work with pupils, allowing them to understand, cope with and question their own attitudes, behaviours and values.