Tag Archives: mental health

School counsellor guest blog: What I do to protect clients’ privacy and why

‘What I do to protect clients’ privacy and why’ was first published in in the September 2016 edition of BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) “Children and Young People” journal for counsellors and psychotherapists working with young people by Ben Gross MBACP(Accred) MSc PGCE BSc(Hons) 

Ben Gross is a school counsellor, working in an infant, a primary and a secondary school and in private practice.  He is also a teacher and an author of children’s stories. You can contact him at innerrainbow@hotmail.com 

bob

Picture courtesy of Stan Dupp

I believe that protecting clients’ privacy is fundamental to ensuring the ethical and effective delivery of counselling in schools.  In this article I explore the significance of privacy by describing what I do to protect the privacy of my clients and the rationale behind my approach.

I protect my clients’ privacy by taking care to not make it obvious to their peers and staff that they are clients.  Here are a few examples of how I do this:

I cover the windows to the counselling room, although I often have to leave a small gap so staff are able to look in “if it might be necessary”.

I put a “PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB” sign on the door.

I choose discreet locations for counselling rooms.

I do not want to let other children know who my clients are because I do not want to make them seem different from the others.  If I did not take these precautions I believe that many of the children, even of nursery age, would notice that certain children are having additional input and before long all the children would realise it.  Generally children don’t want to appear different because they want to fit in with their peers.

To avoid making it obvious to their peers that they are having counselling I avoid collecting clients from class.  I ask their Learning Support Assistant (LSA) to bring them if they are Key Stage 1 (KS1).  Others can usually come alone.  If for any reason they cannot come alone, they can be brought by their LSA.  If a client forgets to come I ask either the SENCO or Deputy Head to collect the child from class (in primary schools).  In secondary schools if a client forgets to come I write them a letter explaining that they have missed a session, reminding them of their appointment time.  In the past when I have collected clients from class I noticed that it can attract a lot of attention from the other pupils.

Other ways I avoid exposing clients are by refraining from:

  • sitting with clients in the dining hall
  • working with clients during lunch break in the playground
  • pinning “counselling clients” lists to the staffroom or counselling room noticeboard
  • allowing clients to put pictures on the walls of counselling rooms with their names on.

This objective of ‘not letting others know who do not “need to know”’ also applies to parents of clients (who are also clients).  For example, I do not collect carers and parents of clients from the school foyer when we have meetings, but instead arrange for them to come straight to the room where we are meeting, so it is less likely that other parents and staff will see they are meeting with me.  I work in the same way when I have meetings with staff.

I do not let people who do not need to know, know the identity of my clients because there is inevitably a stigma attached to being in therapy, which springs directly from the stigma around having social, emotional or mental health difficulties.  We project our own vulnerability and fear that we might be mentally unwell into those who have been given this label, and then reject them, and in so doing feel we are now fine in comparison; not like them, the “mentally ill” ones.  This process of projection can cause people to treat “therapy clients” differently at best and, at worst, avoid and bully them.  Many young clients have said to me that they don’t want their peers to know they are going to see a counsellor because it would embarrass them, or they are worried they might get teased or bullied about it.   This can deter them from accessing counselling or make them want to stop if they are having counselling.

I also protect my clients’ privacy in relation to the school staff.  In my experience, many clients would not be comfortable with staff knowing that they are having counselling.  Only those who need to know should know, namely: Learning Support and Behaviour Support staff who work with the student; the teachers of the client; The Senior Leadership Team (which includes Special Educational Needs Coordinators and Head of Inclusion) and Year Heads in secondary schools.   I have found that staff readily refrain from talking with me about clients in front of other staff (ie in the staff room or corridor) and understand the idea of respecting client privacy once I explain to them the importance of this approach.

In secondary schools I protect clients’ privacy by not automatically letting carers and parents know when a student is referred for counselling; instead I ask the client how they would like this managed.  By contrast, in primary schools I have always been required to get signed parental permission before beginning the work.  This difference in approach seems to apply in many schools.  Although some clients, regardless of age, do not want their parents to know they are having counselling, privacy for clients in relation to their parents seems to be determined by whether they are in primary or secondary school.  This may be because of a mistaken understanding of The Gillick Competency where the rule has been oversimplified to match school ages for ease of application; after all, some primary-aged children have the capacity to make reasonable decisions for themselves and some secondary-aged students do not.

I contain my work within the privacy of the counselling room to protect the privacy of the counselling relationship.  Hence I avoid doing anything which would make me become part of a client’s social world such as:

  • leading assemblies about counselling
  • observing classes
  • teaching classes
  • setting up counselling info stalls in the school foyer
  • appearing in photographs of staff on the noticeboard
  • working with clients outside of the classroom (e.g. in the dining hall or playground)

The reason I avoid these activities is because in counselling work, I provide safe containment for very sensitive personal feelings in the privacy of the counselling room.  I join my clients in their private, inner, emotional world and so I feel that I should not at the same time be part of their outer, social world.  It is for this reason that the counsellor assigned to a child should not be a friend or teacher of the client, or a friend of the client’s parents.  My view is that if I enter a client’s social world, this creates two different relationships and the boundaries of therapy become blurred.

It is hard to uphold these boundaries in schools. Sometimes staff or students open the door of the counselling room, ignoring the “Please do not disturb” sign.  I have experienced members of staff not wanting the windows of the counselling room to be covered.  In a school where I worked it took over a year to reinstall the latch on the counselling room door that had been removed so that it could not close.  If staff are able to tolerate their frustration about not knowing who the counselling clients are they will model appropriate behaviour for pupils who will learn to not be intrusive with peers who are having counselling.  When a student is having counselling some of their peers and staff will no doubt find out, one way or another, even by simply seeing the child walking to the counselling room.  But this does not imply that all their peers and staff might as well be told.  So I do my best to be as subtle about it as I possibly can.

The BACP Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions 2016 (EF) supports my approach to client privacy.  The EF states that counsellors have a “commitment to clients” to “Show respect by …protecting client…privacy” (p1).  The EF sets out guidelines on “Good Practice” (p5) which includes “Respect” and states, “We will respect our clients’ privacy”.  Thus, according to the BACP, if we let others know unnecessarily that a client is in therapy we are not respecting their privacy and this is not good practice.

In schools, as already stated above, it is almost impossible to keep the fact that a child is having counselling completely private.  The EF states, “We will protect the confidentiality and privacy of clients by…informing clients about any reasonably foreseeable limitations of privacy or confidentiality in advance of our work together” (p7).  So we have a duty to explain to clients that others will find out they are having counselling, what the implications of this could be, and help them to make a decision for themselves about whether or not they are comfortable with this.

Of course some clients may be happy for others to be told.  The EF states, “We will work with our clients on the basis of their informed consent and agreement” (p7).  “Informed consent” is key here, and relates again to the idea of Gillick Competence; the ability to make an informed choice.  If a child does not have the knowledge and maturity to make an informed decision, we have a duty to protect them from the side effects they may inadvertently be exposing themselves to by agreeing to openness.  The idea of what is or is not private develops only gradually in children’s mind.  They need to be given the opportunity to develop their attitude to privacy.  If we don’t help them to make this decision themselves, but instead tactlessly reveal they are having counselling to others, we are doing them a disservice.  This could even be seen as abuse.  If I suggest to a client that it’s ok for all and sundry to know, they may agree and later regret it.  The EF states: “Careful consideration will be given to working with children and young people that…takes account of their capacity to give informed consent…and their best interests” (p8).  Clients have a right to choose for themselves whether they want the fact they are having counselling to be revealed freely to their peers and staff by those who know.  Some young clients will need support to make such a decision.

The guidelines for “Good Practice” in the EF state, in the section, “Building an Appropriate Relationship” (p8),  “We [counsellors and therapists] will establish and maintain appropriate professional and personal boundaries in our relationships with clients by ensuring that…any dual or multiple relationships will be avoided where the risks of harm to the client outweigh any benefits to the client” (p8). This supports my previous suggestion that we should avoid taking on additional roles outside the counselling room.  Similarly, the Department for Education (DfE) report “Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future” states: “Counselling needs to take place in a safe, private and welcoming environment…If possible the counselling room should be in an area where it isn’t obvious the pupil is going there to attend counselling” (2016:p30).

I have encountered members of staff who believe that it does not matter if the counsellor is seen in public with a client because students don’t know who the counsellor is.  I think that is unlikely; after all, young people are curious and they will see the counsellor walking about and into and out of the counselling room and news spreads fast in schools.  Some staff deny the existence of stigma saying, “All the children want to go to therapy because it has such a positive image in our school.”  I think this is wishful thinking.  There is a vast body of research evidence that counselling is stigmatised in UK schools, and that children fear being stigmatised for attending counselling. “Much research reinforces the ubiquity of concerns about negative stigmatisation by peers as a barrier to young people accessing services” (Prior, 2011:p1).  Students, generally don’t want it to be known that they are attending counselling because of student attitudes towards mental health and well-being services (p1).

Interestingly I have seen situations where senior staff members are extremely attentive to the privacy of staff members who are attending counselling whilst at the same time adopt a very open policy towards children attending counselling.  They are quite aware that staff seeing a counsellor would not want other staff to know.  Perhaps this is because they believe that adults stigmatise but children don’t.  Children, in their view, might not be affected by stigma if counselling is dealt with very openly.  I don’t agree.  If a therapist stays with a student in the playground or dining hall (acting rather like a human dunce cap), this will advertise to the entire population of the school the fact that he/she is a client.  Once when I was visiting a school for an interview, a counsellor introduced me to her client as they went into the therapy room (which was just off a dining hall full of students).  The client looked extremely uncomfortable.  I do not think being open about counselling is a good way to try to reduce the stigma around therapy.  Better keep a private interaction private.

In summary, I believe that protecting privacy is an essential component of ethical and effective counselling practice.  If we do our best to protect the privacy of our young clients this will help them feel comfortable about accessing counselling support in schools and staying with it. I hope the ideas I have set out in this article will encourage practitioners to think carefully about their approach to protecting the privacy of young clients in schools.

Bibliography

BACP, (2016) Ethical Framework for the Counselling Professions.  Leicestershire: British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Cooper, M. (2009) Counselling in UK secondary schools: a comprehensive review of audit and evaluation data, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research 9, 3, 137–50.

DfE, (2016) Counselling in schools: a blueprint for the future, Departmental advice for school leaders and counsellors February, 2016. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/497825/Counselling_in_schools.pdf

Freake, H., Barley, V. and Kent, G. (2007) Adolescents’ views of helping professionals: a review of the literature, Journal of Adolescence, 30, 639–53.

Prior, S. (2012) “Overcoming Stigma: how young people position themselves as counselling service users,” in Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 34 No. 5 2012, pp 697–713. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-9566.2011.01430.x/pdf

From the inside, a hamster wheel looks like a career ladder: sabbatical year for teachers

solid-wheel

Image: http://www.catexpert.co.uk/

The College of Teaching is really going to start taking shape now and I am hoping that one of the things they will consider will be a sabbatical year as a way to prevent teacher burn-out.

I was a teacher for over ten years and I took a sabbatical year once in my penultimate year of teaching. The decade in which I taught was filled with probably familiar personal milestones for many teachers today. I was at the peak of juggling the demands of my professional life and the responsibilities and developments of my personal life. I completed my PGCE, taught for 4 years and then graduated from my M.ed, which had involved action research and lots of late nights reading voraciously and writing, on top of my full time teaching timetable. Shortly afterwards I was married and a year later had our first child. In Israel, where I taught, it is accepted practice that a mother returns to work after 12 weeks of statutory maternity pay. By the time I was mother of two a couple of years later, I was working full time, supplementing my salary with tutoring dyslexic students and exhausted from sleepless nights which are part and parcel of having small children.  Adding together the long working hours and the cycles of lesson preparation and marking that happens out of school – you may not know this, but the weekend in Israel consists of Saturday as school runs Sunday to Friday – I was wondering how long I can sustain this intense lifestyle. My sabbatical year was a godsend.

How does a sabbatical year work?

The sabbatical year is part of an expectation of ongoing professional development for teachers and has been going for a long time in Israel. In 1962, the government approved the sabbatical year for all teachers as a way to prevent burn out and retain teachers within the profession. It was also seen as a good idea to strengthen teachers’ professional identity by encouraging them to take time out to study, recharge and reconnect with their profession.

There is an expectation that teachers will undertake CPD activities outside of their school hours throughout the normal working year to help strengthen their subject knowledge and also to support them to hone and develop their teaching methodology. I would usually do at least one evening class a week at one of the teacher training centres. An Israeli teacher’s pay is determined by their level of education and so each course helps you accrue “points”. These points, the different leadership roles you might take on and the number of years you have taught then inform your salary rate. The direct result being, the more you learn as a professional and the better you are able to use that back at school, the more valuable you become. Cynics would say that teachers could just attend courses to bolster their salary, but you have to pass the courses you attend and they are usually very interactive. So unless you sit there with earplugs in chanting nah nah nah nah, you will learn and your learning should inform and improve your teaching.

The sabbatical year gives you time to step off the hamster wheel of teaching and invest some time into a dedicated time for study and reflection.

How is it funded?

During the sabbatical year, a teacher is paid about 66% of their salary which they draw from a fund to which they have contributed 4% of their salary over the previous 6 years. The education department match-funds this. Of course, if you don’t want to take the sabbatical year, you can just defer it to another year or you can even take the money and continue working so you can also view it as a savings scheme. You can read more about this here

How can a teacher afford a pay cut?

You are able to teach on a part-time basis while on sabbatical. I took the opportunity to support a struggling English department at another school one day a week and it was a great insight into how another school operated. It also gave me quite a lot of professional confidence that I could deploy some good practice in another school and contribute to the improvement of their department overall. This in turn boosted my professional network and reputation. And of course, it helped supplement my income a little.

What can you study on sabbatical year?

To qualify for the sabbatical funding, you need to study at least 15 hours a week. We were offered a vast choice of courses and were encouraged to find courses ourselves too. We were required to think of three broad categories of courses: something that builds on my current professional interest, something that broadens my horizons and something for my physical and mental well-being.  Gym membership or Tai Chi classes for example, were a completely acceptable way to spend a couple of hours a week.

What did I do?

Aside from working one day a week at another school and continuing to give some private lessons in the evening, I decided to take a two-term diploma in conflict resolution, knowing it could be helpful as a tool in the classroom or beyond. I also took a 12-week course in graphic design, imagining myself perhaps writing my own materials in a more professional way or even illustrating that children’s book I had often thought about. And as a wild card, I did a year’s qualification as a Doula (or birth coach). This was a golden opportunity to explore a possible career fall-back plan if teaching ever got too much. Oh, and I clocked in and out of the gym at least once a week, doing yoga, Pilates and other classes, finally taking care of that niggling lower back ache that had been bothering me for years.

I passed all of my courses and had the incredible experience of supporting 5 couples through their births as part of my Doula course. I was able to charge my clients the going rate and therefore recoup some of what I spent on the course (as only the official education department courses are funded or subsidised). I am still planning to do a refresher and become registered as a Doula as my next career move when I am in my dotage and it was an amazing experience which perhaps I will write about more fully one day.

How can the government afford it?

I couldn’t find anything online about how the government affords the scheme but I can only assume that matched against the cost of high attrition rates of teachers and the fact that this scheme has been going since the 1960s, one can only assume that it must pay off. I did find the results of a research piece which says that findings indicate that a sabbatical in conjunction with a professional training programme had great impact on strengthening the teachers’ professional image, and reducing their feelings of job burnout and intentions to leave their workplace or profession


What did it do for me professionally?

Having a year to do something different, to recharge, and learn new things is definitely empowering. The fact that it is encouraged and is not seen as a sign of weakness or that your enthusiasm for the profession is waning to take a year out, is a great thing. Being able to spend time in another school, as I said earlier, was also a great experience. Just stepping off the great hamster wheel of school life was so refreshing.

I recommend a sabbatical year for teachers in this country but…

…this is on several conditions:

  • I think it is important that this is a whole year and not a one month or six week offer as was trialled in England in 2001 and as is available in places like New Zealand. You can read the English DfES (as it was called then) report here
  • It shouldn’t be made into the usual highly-monitored surveillance and hoop-jumping exercise that is so often the case in this country. If we want to professionalise the profession, then trusting the professionals is a first big step. If you give people the space they will usually make good use of it
  • It should be simple to administer and not a bureaucratic and expensive nightmare. Teachers should be automatically enrolled and if at the end of the 6th year they decide to take the money and run, so be it. This is the only point at which they should be able to opt out
  • The sabbatical should be the grand festive climax of an ongoing expectation that teachers should be given space and adequate time for continuing professional development that is high quality and impactful as far as the teachers themselves are concerned. Short courses and INSETs are notorious for being often centred on fad topics and not adequate in length or quality to have a lasting impact on the teacher or the school
  • It would be great if as part of the salary-supplementing ideas teachers were paid to undertake research, supply teaching or other interesting and much-needed activities to support the profession as a whole
  • There should be a limit on the amount of paid work you can undertake during a sabbatical year and a minimum expectation regarding professional development hours per week so that you don’t just work yourself into the ground when you are meant to be recharging

I would love to hear other people’s ideas of how to make this work and I wonder to what extent it is on the agenda at all with the College of Teaching, the DfE or fellow people of the teaching profession in general.

 

 

 

 

Everyone judges parents

fish

Picture credit: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/505458758156210756/

 

While I am writing this, I can hear my neighbour screaming at her kids again. She and her partner have three kids – two teenagers and a ten year old. She rants, screams, swears at them and humiliates them. It makes my heart ache but I feel powerless to do much except stay vigilant. I guess it reminds me of my own experience growing up and I often catch myself at home standing motionless, listening, my inner-child self paralysed in poised readiness for fight or flight. When I come to, back in my adult self again, I realise I am just getting myself ready to calmly pop over and ask if I can help out at all – especially when the shouting escalates and I fear there might ensue physical violence. I try not to judge. I don’t know what demons they are battling there or how precarious their situation is. But I can’t be indifferent either to the fact that these children are getting a very raw deal. They are being damaged. I need to find a non-judgemental way to extend some kind of support.

 

People are quick to judge when things go wrong

There have been a few dramatic stories in the news lately where parents’ ability to care for their children have been called into question. The parents of the child that fell into the gorilla enclosure in the USA were immediately investigated for neglect and poor parenting; the parents that left their son behind in the forest as a punishment in Japan were heavily criticised for their drastic and draconian way to show their anger with their son for behaving badly; and the parents whose toddler was tragically snatched by an alligator while they were holidaying in Disney World sparked consternation that they could be so stupid as to let him paddle in an area renowned for the deadly beasts. People are quick to judge when things go wrong but parenting is a complex operation and it must be the only high impact, high risk and high responsibility role that we need no qualification at all to undertake. You can’t work with children without training and a DBS check. And yet to be a parent, not only is there no training, there is also not much support out there either formal or informal.

 

Do parents support each other enough?

Parents here can be awful to each other. It seems that the only time they work together is when they have a common enemy in the school. I have seen some really nasty rivalry and complete inability to show any solidarity or support for each other. Parents just seem to lack any imagination about how to relate to other parents. Having been brought up by a single parent with mental health issues who was completely unsupported by her own family, friends or neighbours, I have made it my business to extend support to other parents at my children’s school. Especially the single parents. Since there are two of us, my partner and I have always tried to make sure we extended offers of help with the school run, babysitting and sleepovers to free up those lone parents to have a bit of space and breathing room. It is nothing for us and can mean a lot to a parent that is juggling work, childcare and any hope of a social life.

When we were living in Israel, it was taken for granted that parents would look out for each other. It is customary for the school teacher to give parents a list of all of the children in the class, their parents’ names, phone numbers and their address. Every parent will then scan the list and make contact with others that live nearby. We’d find each other and work out who will do the pick ups and drop offs on which days. That’s just the way it works. Imagine my surprise when we moved here, my child starting reception didn’t get the list sent home and I heard my first reference to ‘data protection’ and ‘privacy’ when I asked about it at the school. Imagine my bafflement when on the first INSET day of the year there was no provision for the children and instead 300 children’s families were forced to each take a day off work to care for their child. It took me three years to convince fellow parents that we could actually each only take a day off work during half term if five families shared the care of four other classmates. That was the best half term break ever, with a small group of delighted children hanging out all week together with a different parent each day, at a park, a gallery, an outing somewhere different each day of the week. Why don’t we support each other more as parents when we are often struggling with the same issues?

 

Do schools support parents?

Some schools can have an extremely judgemental attitude towards parents.  Many schools’ attitude to parents seems to be that they are a nuisance whether their children behave well or not.  A lot of the school communications and processes are defensive and designed to keep parents at arm’s length on the one hand and also to berate them for not being involved enough in their child’s education on the other hand. As parents who are both in demanding full time employment, my partner and I have found that the school’s invitations to be involved during school hours was really difficult for us. I find that the role that parents and teachers play in bringing up a child together is hugely important and yet, I have only once heard a teacher in this country say anything from the heart to this effect. She started the parents evening by talking about my child in a loud and enthusiastic voice “I LOVE A_____! I really love her!” This is what every parent wants to hear. They want to know that you love and care for their child. And once that is established, the parent will work with the teacher wholeheartedly. Once this is established, a parent will be ready to hear about the things that aren’t going so well, and they will work with the teacher to help create an atmosphere of mutual respect in the classroom. There is no home-school agreement on branded school paper sent home in a brown envelope that can replace this.

When I worked as a year 7 form tutor at a secondary school, I had a wonderful line manager and mentor who coached me on how to work with parents. She insisted all form tutors hold an evening meeting with the parents of the children in their class before the start of term. She scripted my opening speech for me and made me work on it until I owned it. The basic stance was that I am about to receive their children and spend more time each day with them during the week than they will. I would need their support and guidance to understand their child and draw out the best from them, and I would need them to support and respect my judgement as a teacher. We would need to communicate clearly, regularly and responsibly with each other. We would need to work together to raise their child. It made a real difference saying this loud and clear and to their faces.

 

Parents and teachers need to model tolerance

This week’s Secret Teacher article is a clear example of this judgemental and unimaginative stance towards parents. It doesn’t take a genius to see why parents might have sent their children with inappropriate contraband and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to have had a discussion with the children about why the rules for the trip are what they are. They might even appreciate them if you explain your rationale to both parents and children. I really believe that if this ground work is done at the start as I was asked to do as a teacher, and is maintained throughout, it should be easier to guide parents as to what is appropriate beyond sending a list of instructions home every so often. After all, parents and teachers alike are educators and we must model this at all times. We should also model tolerance to difference and be lifelong learners open to learning from parents as well as learning about parenting that differs from what we know. This doesn’t mean we need to compromise on what we believe to be true or stand by when children are being damaged or are damaging others. It means we need to make more effort to do the right thing for those in our care and at times to extend our care beyond our own charges.

A teacher in life and after death

Painting by mumPainting by Sigrid Rabiger c.1960

 

Last Friday I went to Southwark Cathedral for a thanksgiving service put on by Kings College London and the London and South East Committee of Anatomists. Hundreds of medical and healthcare science students benefit from hands-on experiences with real human bodies. Each year, a number of generous and public-spirited people donate their bodies for the benefit of medical education, training and research*. In August, one of those to donate their body was my mum.

When it became clear that she was dying, finding solace in the practical, I decided to familiarise myself with the paperwork in the folder marked “after my death” so that I would make sensible choices when the time came. I had learnt over the last few roller coaster years of acting on her behalf that being informed was essential to good decision-making. It was a bit of a surprise to see that on August 27th 2008 my mum signed and sent off papers to donate her body to medical science. It was lucky I found this when I did as there is a short window in which you have to arrange for the collection of the body so that it can be prepared for its use by medical students for the next 3-5 years.

Part of the motivation for my move back to England in 2007 after over 10 years living and teaching abroad, was to try to be closer to my mum and to extend some support for her. This wasn’t easy as my mum has been a very troubled person since her adolescence and by then was elderly, isolated and suffering from various health issues which inevitably also impacted on her already fragile mental health. I and my little family did our best and my siblings provided what support they could from abroad. But over time, her health failed to the extent that she had a massive stroke in January 2014 and ended up needing 24 hour nursing care.  A year and a half later – 7 years after she signed those papers – she slowly and gently faded away. I was there close by, watching over her, so grateful that after such an awful life of suffering and brutality she could be granted such a peaceful, forgiving and gentle passage to whatever lay beyond this world. By some strange coincidence, her body was donated the very same date that she signed those papers, 27th August 2015 – my 45th birthday no less.

Because Southwark Cathedral was so packed with families, I found myself sitting  in amongst the Kings College London choir, while they belted out the most heavenly and uplifting sounds. My eyes were fixed on their open mouths and the organist’s back, in these regal surroundings. The ceremony was non-religious and highly mindful of how people of all and no religion approach life and death. And the title of ‘thanksgiving’ went far beyond my expectations.

First up was a student physiotherapist. The irony didn’t escape me considering how central physiotherapists have been in my life with my disabled knee that I have been struggling with since I ruptured my ACL. Immediately I was struck by the passion with which this student described her love of learning, and the genuine gratitude she felt: “thank you for animating the transient, mortal, human body into a timeless gift – that of scientific learning and medical teaching. It is invaluable”.

She went on, “as the canvas is to the artist, the body is to the physiotherapists and it is with huge respect and thanks I can honestly say how enriching it has been to navigate my learning in this visual and tangible way”. You will understand if you read on why this reference to the artist warmed my heart.

She said, “Your loved ones donated their body to our medical curriculum, and they became our silent teachers”.

Rather than describe the ceremony in blow by blow detail, I wanted to find a way to express here how my mum, a parent who in many ways had failed me as a role model and a teacher, also inspired me to become a teacher myself and has even helped me positively shape my parenting too. I was so awestruck by the fact that this trip into the unknown at Southwark Cathedral helped me continue trying to make sense of so much that I am still grappling with.

I believe that everyone is a teacher and you can learn from everyone. One of the things I know about learning from other people is that you often have to separate people out into segments of their person to understand them and to gain from them what they are there to teach you. What I mean by this can be illustrated by my experience of my mum. She had a childhood filled with horrific abuse and mistreatment. She escaped her family to art school and by the early 1960s had been hanging out with a bohemian crowd of fellow artists. Our family home was filled with paintings by her from this era and today my siblings and I have her bold and vibrant paintings in our own homes. By the time I came along, she was broken. Two failed marriages behind her,  she found herself a single parent of two small children and pregnant with me, trying to hold her demons at bay and build a life for herself and her children. It must have been the most awful of times and while she essentially replicated the abuse, neglect and mistreatment on her own children, we somehow were always able to see beyond, to the person she would have liked to have been. We were always able to see her own small-child self battling the demons that had seized her. We were able to see her as the raging adult, fragile and let down by those that should have protected her, somewhere in the fire and brimstone.

By some miracle, while we were small children, my mum built herself a career. It was survival. She had been a stay at home mum until my older brother was five but with my dad gone, she had to work. She built on her knowledge as an artist and taught. In the 1970s, she taught basket weaving and sculpture at nursing homes, what were then called ‘handicapped centres’, and in a unit for school-phobic children. She brought home materials and we all learned to paint, draw, weave, do macramé, plaster-casting, sculpting, lino prints, the works. When she taught us, the irritable, quick to be triggered, lashing out hands, would diminish. She would connect for a moment and her voice and eyes would soften.

Through my early secondary school years in the 1980s my mum trained to be an art therapist at evening school while working and running the family home during the day. She started working at a centre for autistic children and later at a special school, and became hooked. She read voraciously, she became involved in what would now be deemed as action-research, constantly thinking about and writing about art as therapy. She found the personal and professional relationships extremely challenging and often felt alienated and misunderstood by her colleagues. But she was real and intense and absolutely committed to her work with the children as a teacher.

Fast forward to 2014. She has had the stroke, is in intensive care, then rehab for months and we are faced with £1,000 a week nursing home costs. We need to clear out her house and sell it to foot the bill. She has always been a hoarder and this was the most visceral and ghastly of tasks. I can only liken it to an archaeological dig – perhaps somewhere like Pompeii – each find throwing up images of a life lived and a disaster that had dashed away the possibilities somehow. Each room contained layers of a life holed up in the same house since the 1960s.

In one room she stored her art teacher and art therapy days. Piles and piles of powder paints, papers, work books and guide books, felt tip pens, huge pots of paintbrushes, reams of cane, lino cutting tools, and other dried out, dust encrusted items. On one side of the room, stacked haphazardly from floor to ceiling were makeshift portfolios filled with children’s drawings, each picture dated and labelled in her spidery semi-legible handwriting. Alongside them were albums of photos of the same works, also labelled and dated, bursting at the seams. She was carrying out a decades-long study, building up her evidence, complemented by her reading and illegible writing. Every wall, table, chair, surface of the house was filled with papers and books on child psychology, psychotherapy and art. She was a teacher, a student, a researcher, living and breathing her profession. It was painful to dispose of all of it.

I’m recalling this incredible labour of love of hers. As the choir is singing the painfully beautiful John Taverner’s Funeral Ikos I am thinking of my mum as the ‘silent teacher’ and as a parent. As both parent and teacher myself I have come to realise that one gives so much of oneself but that this giving is often done essentially out of necessity and not always from choice. As both parent and teacher you can be driven to give above and beyond because you are passionately trying to do the right thing. And similarly, you can be pushed to even going against what your principled mind truly believes in, because you are at the edge of your capacity to cope as a person. My mum, as a parent and as a teacher was often so unable to help others on so many occasions, including her own children, because she was so helpless herself. She was operating at the edge of and beyond her capacity so much of the time. And yet, as a teacher and as a parent, I know that she was so committed and fighting to stay committed all along. She loved the children she worked with and she loved her own children despite the inherited demons that led her to commit crimes against them.

Through donating her body in this way, we were being denied closure and the opportunity to bury her body – perhaps just as we may never have closure and bury what we went through in childhood. However, it was clear to me that my mum had chosen this option with clarity of mind and because of her conviction about the importance of learning, passing on learning to others and supporting our beloved NHS.  In amongst the constant chaos and unpredictable sanity, my mum made a clear, principled and generous decision that embodied her political, spiritual and moral beliefs and I am extremely proud of her for doing so. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “the only gift is a portion of thyself” and I know with complete certainty that this is what she did her best to give in her life as a parent and a teacher, and again in her death as a “silent teacher”.

In memory of Sigrid Alison Rabiger 02.05.1934 – 26.08.2015, artist, parent, teacherMum drawing

*If you are interested in finding out more about donating your body to medical science there is a good article from The Guardian here or click here for the Royal College of Surgeons site

On empathy and viewing education through a lens of childhood

heart and brain

Image source: https://atmanco.com/blog/working-environment/importance-of-empathy-in-your-organization/

I read an article this weekend about Why You Should Have More Empathy and it got me thinking about our society and how managerialist culture, the obsession with productivity and outputs, measurement and data can really mean empathy and a place for human beings’ emotional investment takes a huge hit. It was later in the weekend that Alison Peacock tweeted “Leadership that views primary education through the lens of childhood is essential if we are to provide optimum learning for all” and I realised that this is completely connected to my earlier thoughts about empathy.

Somehow, we have created an education system where the child, at every stage in their childhood development, seems to be invisible in the setting of education policy. We are hell bent on trying to define where they should end up, what level they are at as compared with where they should be, what part of productivity in the capitalist machine they should take. And we are using our children’s learning as a way to measure their teachers’ success in instilling in their students the latest fad of what a good curriculum should look like. Through a lack of empathy we are dehumanising our children, their parents and their teachers in favour of an apparently more superior, logical and linear thinking, data and measurement.

To illustrate my point, I was flicking through my Year 8 daughter’s English workbook after she had shown me some really interesting homework she was doing on comparing two poems that show panic and confusion in very different ways. “I need to write more” she said, looking glum. “Looks good to me, you have argued your points well and there seems to be every inch of each poem covered” I responded – I try not to get involved, but I was an English teacher for a decade, I think I recognise good work when I see it. As I was turning the pages of her workbook, my eye rested on one of those little “Oral feedback given” stamps and then on the next page in red pen: “You need to write another paragraph – how can you maintain a level 7 if you don’t write more?!” Argh. There it is again.

It made me think about how an injection of empathy could impact on situations I have experienced lately connected with education. One example is around SATs again. My youngest is in year 6 and I have written recently about her experience as I see it. I watched the “Kids Strike” with interest last week. The parents’ slogan of “Let Kids be Kids” is catchy but not very clear. What I would hope they are trying to say is that kids generally love to learn, and if done well, they can even quite enjoy the challenge of a test or two along the way so long as they understand that this is a good way to see whether what they have learnt has stuck. If it hasn’t, their teachers can then ask, is that across the whole class? This might indicate that there might be a problem with the teaching, the curriculum, the planning over time for the whole class and it could help the teachers to think again. Or there might be a problem for individual children within the class, indicating the same issues may have affected a handful of children alongside other factors that might be getting in the way of their learning. Again, so useful to know to make sure the right things happen next.

But how did these parents of Year 2 children get to such a place that they felt they had to take this radical action and stage a strike? How did the conflict of empathy vs. rigid policy play out such that they had to make a stand based on their own empathic understanding of what is right for their children over and above what government thinks is right for children. I think in part it might be because at no point was there any thought put in, when orders were passed top-down regarding the Year 2 SATs test, into the feelings that would be stirred up in the headteachers, teachers, children and their parents. Perhaps a little step by step, empathetic, easing in would have gone a long way. It’s so telling that almost as an afterthought a template letter has been adopted and circulated this Friday by some headteachers nationwide, telling kids that they are awesome whatever the outcome and to relax and take it easy, ahead of the Year 6 SATs next week. Empathy yes, but so late in the process it’s almost ridiculous.

Another example this week was that I had my first experience of feeling so exercised by a situation unfolding in my older daughter’s secondary school that I felt I had to go and speak with the headteacher. For context, it takes a lot for me to go into school and say what I think is not going well and I make sure I write an email at least twice a year to the school thanking them and outlining what I think has gone well. I asked a couple of headteacher acquaintances for their advice on how to go about this and the answers were pretty much the same: go immediately and speak to the school. A couple mentioned following the school’s complaints procedure so I thought I would check this out online and try to be a good citizen. It irked me to think about this as a complaint though. I am not a consumer, receiving bad service here. I am a parent, who through listening to their child and discussing this situation, has realised that for the school to grow and learn, I really must feed this back. My daughter, who is so empathetic it is sometimes paralysing for her, was worried about the teacher getting told off, and of making her feel bad. She could see why this teacher had behaved the way she did and that the teacher obviously had a difficult conflict of interests that she was wrestling with.

The school complaints procedure is the most classic example of British, managerialist, bureaucratic and unempathetic prose written. It immediately starts with almost legalistic jargon mentioning statutory duty, with an array of numbered clauses down the margins. It would make even the meekest parent bristle ready for a fight. I would love to see something that starts perhaps like this: “We take care and pride in our school and our relationship with the children and parents in our school community. We recognise that we may not always get this right, and we appreciate your feedback and support to help our school be a place of true learning and growth. Therefore, we have written this guide to help you through what we perceive to be a fair and correct way to register a complaint, suggest a change, give some feedback or request a greater understanding of what we do at the school…..”

I practice what I preach in the workplace. Managerialist culture can fail to recognise the importance of the emotional life of your fellow colleagues and yet this failure is the very thing that can hold back effectiveness and quality of work. I feel it is my duty to act with empathy with the people I work alongside. It is such a strong and relevant ‘tool’ to begin with when setting a vision, working towards targets and goals and when leading and supporting other colleagues. Always the first thing on my mind when setting out the strategy of how we will get from here to there, is who are the people, what do I want them to feel, how will I communicate this to them? And in the current education sector, I do feel that unless we can find a way to disentangle the short-term political gains from the long-term educational aims, we are forever going to be locked into this politicised, marketised, unempathetic and managerialist attitude. The representation of logical thinking, measurement and data as inherently superior to emotional and intuitive reasoning can lead to the more extreme and rigid forms of managerialism we are seeing in the education sector and many other workplaces. We need a more humanised, responsive and relationship-based practice at the heart of what we do in order to succeed.

 

 

SATs – what raising the bar means for a summer-born child

sats_cartoon1

Image courtesy of Chris O’Brian – The Roanoke Times

So, it’s SATs week soon. We went away on holiday over the Easter break and when we got back, I heard my youngest daughter utter the horrific words I never thought I would hear from a child of mine: “Mummy,  I can’t sleep. I’m scared of SATs. I think I am going to fail at everything”.

I can’t imagine where this has come from. Certainly not from us at home. I find it hard to believe it is coming from the school either. Their attitude seems to be that the bar has been set so ridiculously high that everyone is just committed to muddling through, trying their best, teachers and pupils alike. The Year 6 teachers at her school remind me of myself faced with an IKEA three-door wardrobe to assemble – just working their way through the vague outline of what needs to be done, trying to make sure they have all of the components accounted for and hoping that what takes shape is going to work.

Perhaps it has come from other children’s families, putting pressure on them. That’s always a possibility. I wrote in a previous post about choosing a secondary school that parental anxiety around their children’s schooling sometimes reaches unnecessary life and death proportions.

It was clear to me what to say to my child. “These tests are the only time in your schooling where the results have absolutely no meaning for your life. They do not define you. They do not give you access to the next level of schooling”. (It’s true to say that most secondary schools don’t even use SATs as a baseline but prefer to spend the first few weeks of Year 7 testing their new cohort themselves. If anything they are a test for the school, and are designed to monitor their teachers). I continued, “SATs are your gift to the school, do your best and you will be able to show some of what you have learned and how well you are able to pass a test”.

I was delighted when Sparky Teaching produced this nice letter and poster to send to Year 6 children and their families. It does feel a little hypocritical though that schools might circulate them as I am not convinced I understand to what extent schools are in fact producing this level of anxiety and passing it on through their students.

But I am aware that there are many factors that statistically might have an impact on my own child. Of course, she has professional dad and mum who have a PhD and an M.Ed respectively and I can be pushy when I need to. We have books and go to museums and are lucky to live in a city with easy access to all sorts of cultural experiences. But also, she immigrated at the age of two with no spoken English (so officially should have been classed as EAL and bi-lingual although she never was given any special support for this). She was premature, summer-born and has dyslexia – only becoming a fluent reader at the end of Year 5 and still struggling with writing.

Compared with my oldest child who was born at the end of September, it seems that the biggest impact of all of this list is the fact that my youngest is summer-born. She was in such a rush to be born, that she is now a whole school year younger than most of her classmates. She is three years younger than her sister and yet only two school years behind her. And I’m pretty sure that the ‘dyslexia’ is probably more visible because she is essentially bravely tackling things that others have had more time to grasp. We had to send her to Reception at the age of 4 and because our local school had a January intake, she had 6 months of Reception before she started Year 1. That’s quite a rush-job. And now, the goalposts have shifted drastically and where a couple of years ago my oldest was in Year 6 and was seen as rather special with her SATs results, what was then way above average is now pretty much the baseline expectation from all children. So much more of it relies on their memories for facts too.

I can’t help agreeing with Michael Rosen when he says “…the test system is narrowing education. Children are spending far too much time just doing tests and rehearsals for the tests. And we should remember that the tests can only test the testable. Whole areas of experience and learning are not included in what an ‘education for the test’ covers. Think of investigation, invention (creativity), interpretation (coming up with various conclusions for things), discussion, co-operation, compassion. These vital ways of learning are getting squeezed out of the curriculum.
And remember – at the end of the day, the tests are not there to help our children. They are there to test whether the teachers have taught the stuff that’s in the test – some of which is useless anyway.”

We will keep reinforcing the messages of encouragement and try to play down the importance of these tests. I do feel for my youngest daughter though, that on top of everything that she has been grappling with, the bar has been raised during her SATs year and this isn’t really helpful at all for a child who has been fighting hard to keep up from the first day of school. When the school year ends, she will be happy to celebrate her birthday, the last of her peers to turn 11 before we send her off to secondary school.

 

 

 

 

Social media: handle with care

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love my social media. I use Twitter and Linked In professionally and I keep my relatives and friends up to date with my family life through Facebook. And yes, I am starting to explore the wonders of blogging through WordPress. Twitter, in particular, has given me so much. It has opened my eyes, broadened my horizons and provided a reach I never imagined possible. There are times when it’s a bit weird – although still on the spectrum of not unpleasant – like when someone approaches me at a conference and says, “Excuse me but are you @Penny_Ten? Amazing to meet you, I’ve been following you for ages!”

But there have been times when it has got messy. Two examples stay with me and make me feel extremely uncomfortable. The first is what I can now jokingly refer to as my ‘claim to fame’ of having been hounded 24 solid hours by one of our finest and most prolific Twitter edu-trolls. Among other things he called me a liar and anti-Semitic. I feel proud that I didn’t buckle under his attempts to humiliate me until he finally skulked away and blocked me. But it was traumatic and degrading. While it was happening, several of my Twitter allies were direct messaging me, encouraging me to keep to my cordial, outwardly calm stance. But my boss was far from happy the following Monday and I really wondered if the whole very public episode might somehow undermine me professionally. Teacher Toolkit writes about his own similar experience and captures well that awful sense of being emotionally violated by his attacker.

The second occasion was when a long-time LinkedIn professional contact of mine suddenly went creepy on me and started propositioning me in the most unwholesome and inappropriate of ways. I told him in no uncertain terms that he was completely out of order and disconnected from him on LinkedIn immediately. I admit that I had stereotypical assumptions about him as he was married, a practising Christian and much older than me. It took me by surprise and made me realise that you never really can tell.

So you see while it would be hypocritical of me to ban my children from enjoying the modern privileges of online life, I am keenly aware that it has real dangers for all of us. Some of these dangers are concerned with other people’s malicious intent to harm us and others are more connected with the relentless nature of being constantly available and always in communication with the outside world. It is my job to make sure that my children know how to be safe. As parents and as teachers we can’t keep children safe all the time and in every situation. What we can do is set boundaries that are age-appropriate, equip them with sound and constantly evolving understanding and hope for the best. Grim and extreme as their example is, Breck Bednar’s parents explain this all too well in the article in the Guardian this weekend. Breck was a 14 year old boy who loved gaming and who was groomed online and murdered in 2014.

When one thing leads to another

I have two daughters aged 13 and 10. Like most young people of their age group, they are pretty active online. My youngest is an avid Minecrafter often joining shared servers to play and chat with a combination of school chums – and people she has no idea who they are. She also uses WhatsApp to communicate with her friends and family. The oldest, like many 14-17 year old girls has two popular Instagram accounts. One has over 2k followers and contains pretty good street photography, the other account seems to be mainly selfies and other such stuff. She invests much time in maintaining them both. She also has Snapchat, WhatsApp and Skype. They both know the rules and understand why we have them – no pictures of you in your school uniform, no sharing your full name, details about where you live, go to school, where you hang out with people with those you don’t know personally. We found watching this short film on Thinkyouknow.com was really useful in helping all of us to get gain a basic understanding of how quickly and simply things can get complicated.

I was quite impressed with my oldest’s use of Skype. Especially since our own family experience of it was excruciating weekly meet ups with the grandparents abroad which mainly consists of various combinations of each side saying “I can’t see/hear you, can you see/hear us?” and then it usually ends up with one of us on the phone directing granny and grandpa on how to switch on the mic or the webcam. We would watch their pixelated looming faces peering into the screen or hear someone bump their head on the desk and swear as they returned from wiggling some cable or other to solve the issue. The kids would invariably slip away unimpressed using the commotion for cover. But no, my oldest daughter uses Skype to do her homework with a friend and for general chit chats.

I did become alarmed recently though when I heard her laughing and chatting away with someone new in her room late one night. When I enquired casually who it was, and she said a name I didn’t know, I asked her where she knew them from. I wasn’t expecting her to say they ‘met’ on Instagram and then one thing led to another. I felt my stomach lurch when she said that. And I saw the look of panic and then defensive defiance on her face when she realised that this was not cool. You see it’s one thing to like each other’s pictures and quite another to start messaging each other when you don’t know each other. But to give out your Skype details and to start actually talking intimately is quite another ball game. The one advantage with seeing someone on Skype though is that you can fairly accurately gauge whether they are who they say they are. Unless they are posing and grooming you to meet their older friends. It has been known. My take on it was to explain that we are all feeling our way on this, and it is better to keep the communication channels open rather than force my daughter underground and into deception and concealing her activity. We talked for a long time about why there may be dangers and how to be careful about these. But I am still jittery and know that we all need to stay alert.

Social media or anti-social media?

Earlier this week the NSPCC chief executive, Peter Wanless, warned of a nation of deeply unhappy children, due to “the pressure to keep up with friends and have the perfect life online … adding to the sadness that many young people feel on a daily basis”. And this is something that has also had mixed impact on us as a family. My youngest was a little isolated socially until we managed to get her a smart phone on Freecycle and suddenly she was meeting up with her classmates at weekends and chatting with them after school during the week. It was as if the floodgates were opened and her social life took off. My oldest also has a varied social life but actually getting up and going out gradually became less of a priority. Until we had a very dramatic incident which shook her out of it.

I am not sure I will be able to convey the force of the drama clearly here but it went like this: over a period of weeks, she had been on her phone what seemed like constantly. She was putting herself under pressure to build up her Instagram following, and she was chatting to school friends as well as some of her friends from our previous life abroad. Evenings and weekends would be spent getting homework quickly out of the way and then endless screen time. TV on so she could keep up with Dr Who discussions later, WhatsApp pinging, thumbs scrolling and pumping ‘like’ on photos so others would ‘like’ hers. It was relentless. And we regularly intervened, nagged and set boundaries. We gently placed her phone in a drawer overnight and switched off the Wifi at 7.30pm.

One Friday we could see yet again she had no plans to meet anyone real face to face or do anything meaningful over the weekend. The next day we tried to help her find someone to meet with, offered to spend the day out together and eventually in desperation, established a no-screens-until-evening rule – and it was hell. Our mature, reasonable, sensible girl was simply like a raging addict. By the Sunday, she wouldn’t even get up, wash, eat, establish eye contact. We did everything we could to get her to move on to something else. By Sunday night she was like an empty shell. On Monday morning she announced she was ill. I was outraged and quite alarmed and felt I had to put my foot down. I insisted she get out of bed, wash and go to school. She was morose, floppy, glazed. But I was determined that she would go and get off the blinking screens. Off she went, still protesting, but she went. Dad and the youngest left for work and school. She must have been waiting and watching nearby and saw her chance. She didn’t know that I was planning to work from home that morning before I had to go to a meeting and so when she crept back in, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw me there glaring at her. She turned and fled and for a while we had no idea where she was.

The long and the short of it is that it all came to a head, and we ended up that evening having a three hour, very intense and deep discussion about what it is to be a teenager nowadays. She was distraught, bursting forth hearty wails and gasping tears. She had reached an extremely dark and painful place. It was frightening for me to see her like that but it was important to unpack, together, how the intensity of feeling had been fuelled by this relentless online interaction and screen time. I could see how it had become mesmerizing, sucking up her energy and how she just couldn’t get herself to disconnect and to meet with some of her offline real-people friends, face to face. She challenged me about my use of social media and whether I needed to rein myself in a little too and then she came up with the idea of writing down and committing to everything we had discussed. So was born the “A Healthy Use of the Phone” contract we have hanging on our pinboard and that we are all bound to as a family.

contract

As parents, as teachers, as people who live in a digital age, we need to help each other to honour healthy use of the Internet and social media. We need to stay alert to the wonders and the potentially addictive nature of this tool. We need to do this regularly and especially when things are going well. In honour of the memory of Breck Bednar, next week I plan to sit down with my children and watch the harrowing documentary about him on BBC3 called Murder Games. I’m not looking forward to it but I feel we must.

Sources:
Think You Know is an excellent resource on safe use of the Internet for young people, parents and teachers http://thinkyouknow.co.uk/

Bad Blogging by Teacher Toolkit http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2015/11/08/bad-blogging/

Guardian newspaper article on Breck Bednar http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/jan/23/breck-bednar-murder-online-grooming-gaming-lorin-lafave

Murder Games: The Life and Death of Breck Bednar http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03cgtx5

Daze Digital short piece on girl Instagrammers http://www.dazeddigital.com/photography/article/28682/1/hit-follow-on-these-teen-photographers-taking-over-instagram

Guardian article about the online pressures of social media making children unhappy http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/07/online-pressures-unhappy-children-cyberbullying