“As teachers and school leaders I have always thought we have two priorities; one is the health and safety of the child, and the second is the academic wellbeing of the child.”
It always helps to simplify ideas down to the simplest terms, stripping away the noise from the signal. Tom Bennett, interviewed by John Tomsett and included in his new book, does that in the quote above.
I doubt there are many teachers or school leaders who would argue with the basics of Tom Bennett’s point. When I was a fulltime teacher, and now as a headteacher, a large proportion of my time is spent working on issues around student welfare and student learning. The two are inescapably linked. Whether one ascribes to the details or not, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs clearly shows how making sure students feel safe and loved is essential if we want to be successful in the main part of our mission, which is to educate them. The how of this varies and it is in the how that the debate really lies.
One of the reasons I enjoyed Tomsett’s book so much is because he is reluctant either declare there is no crisis or accept the argument that there is an ongoing mental health crisis in our schools. The book is interspersed with a series of interviews with educators, mental health experts and researchers who offer differing persepctives of the topic. As Tomsett writes himself, more than once, as you think on the views presented it is easy to move from feeling everything is overblown to feeling there really is a crisis, and then back again. As one of the interviewees says, ‘everybody has a mental health‘. Once we recognise this it becomes an imperative to put in place school wide systems to ensure both support for the majority and attention for those who really are suffering from something more real, more painful and potentially more harmful than just the normal ups and downs of life.
There are some broad points where I felt myself agreeing with. At various points Tomsett writes about how one of our goals has to be to help students learn and understand that life does have its ups and downs, and that sometimes the best thing is to push through challenges and give the tasks at hand our best effort. Some might argues this is the puritan work ethic in diguise (or just the British stiff upper lip), supressing feelings in an attempt to ignore them and thereby doing harm in the longer term. But I tend to agree with Tomsett. The truth is that as students rise through school the stakes naturally get higher. The reality of grades and examinations is inescapable. I often tell our Upper Sixth students that the final year of school is a little like climbing a mountain up until Christmas, with each completed and submitted internal assessment another step on the way to the summit. Sadly though there is really no time to admire the view at that point, as once January arrives it pretty much is a downhill ride towards examinations and graduation. The key to success is to try and enjoy the ride, while methodically making sure you keep ahead of the game and all the commitments. It is only when the student gets to the end and look sup at the mountain he or she climbed that you get the satifaction of knowing they did it.
The book is a mixture of three threads woven into a whole. Tomsett reflects on some key moments in his life at points in the book; these never feel forced and certainly they help us sympathise with his thinking. The second thread are the interviews. The final thread, and probably the most interesting to me, is putting ideas into practice in the context of a school. The later chapters are particulrly strong. Who owns the child? (chapter 27) left me with both food for thought and an urge to take some of the systems from Huntington School and apply them to our context. I have asked a few times in meetings the very question, ‘Who owns the child?’ and it seems to me this is the essential question in any school system that claims to be student-centered. All students need somebody they can lean on, and every school needs a system for making sure students are supported and encouraged, while also serving as a way to identify quickly students who are having difficulties. With ownership comes a sense of responsibility, which the best tutors have towards their tutees.
In this area there are two fascinating ideas that Tomsett describes. The first is simplicity itself – clarity in describing how the role of the tutor works. It sounds obvious but it is important that in any tutorial (or pastoral) system there are some givens and consistent practices. Of course, in an ideal world, every tutor would be passionate about their students and be always present as a cheer leader, a motivator and as a first responder. In the real world teachers come in all shapes and sizes; some seem to be natural tutors, while others put the role a very distant second to teaching a subject. It is understandable; we are after all talking about educators with different levels of passion for the many facets of the role – they are just as varied a group as any other collection of human beings might be. So in oder to have some quality control, some consistency, it is important to make sure some basics are followed consistently. Tomsett is generous enough to share some of these details, including the basic functions of tutors in his own school, and their Goals-Resilience-Effort-Attitude-Tools (GREAT) model, designed to support student developmentand wellbeing.
The secondly and equally valuable idea came to Tomsett after reading about the development of the Apgar test for newborn babies. The Apgar test is a quick method to check the health of a new born, combining 5 indicators on a scale of 1 or 2, with a total possible score of 10. (I remember when my own son was born in 2010 seeing the attending nurse score Max as a 9 out of 10 – a score which calmed me down no end!) Tomsett has developed his own version of the Apgar test designed to help tutors spot students whose mental health may potentially be at risk. Again, it is a simple idea, easy to implement and provides a basis for discussion in school.
While the various experts may not agree on everything, one common conclusion is that schools can only really raise concerns. It is not their place or wothin their expertise to diagnose real mental illness. This is something that resonates with me, as at various points throughout my career colleagues have come to me to discuss students and share their personal views of why a student is the way they are. A smaller subset are those who classify anything beyond the usual by identifying a student as ‘lazy’ or ‘difficult’. In those cases my immediate reaction, which I work hard to hide, is to think it says more about the teacher than the student, but until we leanr more any judgement is rash. Just as dangerous are the times colleagues have intervened in ways that only make the situation worse. Always it is withn good intentions, but it is important for all of us as teachers to remember that we are not psychologists or therapists, so what support and advice we do give is both general and pragmatic. And as Tomsett and Bennett both say in their own ways, sometimes the best advice is to encourage a student to see the task through to the best of their ability. Whether successsful or not, trying to do our best in any given situation is the greatest challenge we can set ourselves. You never know, we may surprise ourselves.
Tomsett, J (2017). This Much I Know about Mind Over Matter… Improving Mental Health in Our Schools. Crown House Publishing Limited, Wales.
Apgar Score [online image], (2013). Retrieved March 19, 2017 from http://www.thenurseslockerroom.com/2013/02/pedia-notes-apgar-score.html