Today [Wednesday 29th April] was my second day in the primary school in the heart of Portsmouth. It was in some ways a marked contrast to yesterday. There wasn’t quite the same range from the pupils, but there was still a range of experience for me.
One thing I didn’t say about yesterday, was that I wasn’t invited to lead a session on spirituality for the staff as my programme suggested might be helpful on my first day. This was a deliberate decision on the head’s part who felt it would be more appropriate for me to offer this on another occasion. Now that I’ve been in the school a couple of days, I think it was the right decision. To have tried to do that immediately would have been to set myself up as an expert in an area in which there may be specialists (am I one?) but there are certainly no experts. I think I would have handled it sensitively and with humility, but I think it might still have appeared a little arrogant for me to try to tell these people how to support children’s inner selves.
I have so much more to learn from this experience than I have to give. That’s what I anticipated. That’s what I’m finding. And it’s constantly surprising. Yesterday, after seeing what a constant effort it was for experienced and talented teachers to keep the children’s attention, I had begun to think, particularly in the morning, that the sessions I was going to be leading were going to be a disaster. Maybe I hadn’t thought enough about those moments I reported in the afternoon that were more quiet and reflective. But I had thought: ‘How on earth are these children going to cope when I ask them to sit very still and effectively meditate for several minutes?’
The answer turned out to be: brilliantly. They responded absolutely beautifully. There was a bit of sniggering at the beginning, but the whole class, every last one of the children that were there today, engaged with the activity with attentiveness, openness and positivity. I think they genuinely enjoyed it too. <– that right there, that’s the most important outcome.
The sharing time was profound. When I asked them how they felt, they used words like, ‘calm’, ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’. I told them that what they shared there was just for the group, so I’m being careful to ensure that what I’m reporting here is a general impression rather than individually attributable comments. That does show up though the difficulty of capturing and celebrating the value of this time together whilst at the same time protecting the ‘specialness’ of these moments for the children. It’s their experience, not mine and I need to tread carefully. I am on sacred ground.
In that sharing time as each of them received the ‘sharing stone’, I gave the children the option to respond with silence. A few took this option but what was interesting was that towards the end of that sharing time, all of them bar one asked for the stone back so that they could share after all. I didn’t offer the adults (teacher, LSA and myself) a turn. There was no good reason for that and afterwards I discovered that the others would have valued the opportunity. I thanked all the children for their contributions. It would have made more sense to do this as another contribution to the sharing circle.
One magic moment, just for the sheer sense of humour on display, came when I asked the children to shape a partner into a human sculpture representing what they loved to do best. One boy, who is dealing with some emotional difficulties in his life and as a result absconds from the classroom, put his partner’s hand on the door handle and put the other arm in the air to make a waving hand. His favourite thing to do, it seemed, was to leave the classroom.
That time when I gave some of my prepared input to the class was actually a small part of the day, even if a significant time for me. But there were other things that happened. Again, I was privileged to be able to offer a little bit of help to some of the children who are more challenged academically. I wasn’t specifically invited to by the class teacher but neither have I been asked to desist! And it’s not because he hasn’t noticed. This man is alive to everything that’s going on in his classroom. I hope that so far I have been able to strike the right balance between supporting children’s learning and leaving space for them to work independently. Basically I’m very conscious of the need to avoid doing their work for them, as is so often the temptation with my own sons’ homework.
I wish I hadn’t had my nose buried in my iPhone as I completed yesterday’s blog entry at lunchtime. It would have been a great moment to get to know some members of staff a bit better. They seem a lot of fun actually. Senses of humour are very much intact and absolutely vital to survive emotionally in this environment.
A PE lesson this afternoon (the session before the one I was leading) was intriguing too. The children responded well to the chap who’d come from outside the school to lead a touch/tag rugby lesson. It offered some of the children who struggle a bit more in the classroom a chance to shine in a different way. I really enjoyed just playing a bit of catch with one child who is frequently disruptive in a low level way and seeing him respond with apparent enjoyment at getting a bit of positive attention. I’m not saying he doesn’t get that in the classroom. His teacher and other staff work hard to remark on all the children’s successes, however small. But it’s fair to say that some of them find themselves more often than others ‘on the wrong side of the law’.
I got an insight into why that is for some of the children in this class and in the wider school through being invited to attend a Learning and Pastoral Support (LAPS) meeting.
I have sat in on meetings before where, though I’ve been invited by a senior person, I’ve been painfully aware that my presence is at best a curiosity and at times unwelcome. I have to say that there was no such feeling this evening. The deputy headteacher went out of her way to welcome and include me at the beginning and thereafter every member of the meeting treated me like a trusted colleague; going out their way again to explain things to me and include me. I was humbled by the experience.
I was also heartbroken. I don’t think that was because of naivety. But maybe. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all or I’ve got nothing to learn. Far from it. It did become emotionally tough to hear the extreme circumstances that some of these children have to endure. Abusive doesn’t even cover it for some of them. And I don’t think the amazing staff in this school have become inured to the desperate nature of these children’s experience. They have simply had to develop strategies to cope.
One of them is to mark and celebrate the achievements and progress they’ve been involved in, so despite the relentless tragedy, it was a positive meeting. And that‘s not because of any sense of unreality. There are real ways in which this school is making life a little better, a little more tolerable for these children. There are setbacks, frustrations and disappointments to be sure and daily affronts that no-one should have to put up with. But they do all the same, with good humour and deep compassion for the vulnerable and, at times, deeply unpleasant, people in their charge.
There were stories that deeply challenged my Christian commitment to forgiveness. It’s not my place to offer my forgiveness to some of the adults who are hurting children so badly, but even to begin to reflect God’s forgiveness would have an edge of obscenity about it.
None of those small steps register for the system that measures everything in terms of academic attainment. It will be interesting to see what comes out of a ‘mock’ Oftsed inspection at this school in the next couple of days and later to compare that to the early days of one of the city’s secondary schools’ new management as it attempts to overturn low attaintment. I have recently heard people talking about schools in tough areas being resigned to failure. On the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, I am less persuaded by that argument than I may have been. I am also beginning to suspect that any turnarounds in attainment in these sorts of school might be at the expense of inclusion; something this school is working very hard at, perhaps to the detriment of their reputation (we’ll see) but absolutely for the benefit of those very children who present the most extreme challenges.
[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]