“She got really aggressive and told me to f*** off.” The teacher said to me – closely followed by, “She gets away with everything, I’m sick of it.”
“She” was that one student that I invested over a hundred hours of my time in – only for her not to make it to any of her exams. Yes, it was completely unacceptable the way she spoke to the member of staff. Yes, she often appeared to get away with poor behaviour. But, that one morning, from the teacher’s perspective, she swore at them because she was challenged over her lack of blazer. Why wouldn’t you challenge a student flouting the uniform policy?
As a newly appointed Head of Year, I sprang out of the starting blocks, keen to take on the world and prove my efficacy as a pastoral leader. As someone who is naturally competitive, of course I wanted my year group to be the best. I saw every action, good and bad, as a reflection of my leadership. The first year was fine, the second year was frustrating, and by the third year, I realised the sheer size of the daily challenge that I faced. It doesn’t matter how positive a person you are, the disproportionate amount of time spent dealing with negative incidents as opposed to positive, gradually grinds you down. Eventually you stumble upon a dark realisation that you may lose more than you win; especially as a pastoral leader in a secondary school. Pragmatists may then adopt an approach where they accept that students either accept advice or they don’t, and that there are then a set of actions that lead to one of two main outcomes. Regardless of which path a student takes, the job will take you through the mill.
But, what you gain from such a role, is an incredible insight into the context behind the students within your care. Some of the children in schools have faced more challenges, and seen more horrific situations, than any person should face in a lifetime – by the age they join school.
Going back to the girl who swore at the teacher. It turned out that on that occasion the student had made a snap judgement to leave her blazer due to a serious situation unfolding at home. When I spoke to her, her response was, “Sir, it was either get to school without my blazer, or try and get my blazer and not make it all.” The context, does not excuse the behaviour but it does explain it. Yes, there are inspirational students who have worse home lives who still behave appropriately day in day out, but every child is different and with that diversity comes different levels of resilience.
Resilience is a term bandied about by many schools. “Students need to be more resilient.” “Students need to stop moaning about tests.” “Anxiety, pfft… some of these students need to be more resillient.” The horrific reality is the insight afforded to me by the Head of Year role revealed to me that some of the resilience demonstrated by our most vulnerable students, is truly inspirational.