An hour from a day in the life of the school that you never knew existed
In mainstream staffrooms across the land there are pockets of staff muttering about ‘that child’. You know the one? The one causing havoc across the board. There might be more than one in a big school, it might be a pocket of ‘them’. The concencus is that they need to go elsewhere to somewhere ‘better suited’ for ‘that type’. Specifically they mean the type of young person with an aptitude for causing absolute and total chaos in class and out. Of disrupting lessons, or terrorising teachers and peers alike. Have you ever considered what life is like in that place considered to be better suited for that type of young person?
You go to work in the morning knowing that you are in a small school of maybe 40–50 pupils and that all are exceptionally challenging and that when in a group they can be even more so. The type of staff member you find at the SEN setting is, by and large, different to the one in mainstream. They take things a lot less personally because they have to and they are a much more close knit team because they need to be. The staff I work with are brilliant at checking in with people during and at the end of the day, particularly when it has been a tough one. It’s how we survive, de-compress and re-set to be able to do the same again the next day and the next.
Occasionally you get ‘one of those days’ where multiple pupils hit crisis simultaneously and the scenes that follow would look like total carnage to the untrained eye. We had one of those days this week. The trouble with those days is that you can’t remember it all, you just retain snapshots and episodes of the day. Here’s my recollection of part of the morning from ‘that day’ this week.
The musical tones of Pachabel Canon fill the classroom and Alan, the first of the pupils to arrive bounces into the room asking to do the ‘laptop version of work’ (an online literacy intervention) and I happily oblige. He turns down breakfast, as is the norm for him. Pupil number two, Kian, arrives in a rather more muted manner. Head down, not making eye contact he heads towards his desk and pulls out a book of wordsearches that are part of his morning routine. He accepts breakfast with a gruff “if you like” when it is offered. This is a breakthrough. A victory. The first time the boy who brings no lunch, buys no lunch and accepts neither breakfast or lunch has accepted a meal. The background music has overtones provided by the tap of Alan on the keyboard and the clink of Kian’s spoon on the bowl. Ten minutes later Steve arrives. He appears tired and sulky, sitting at his desk and giving the TA his breakfast order. This deameanour lasts seconds before he launches into bullying behaviour. The insults are hurled at Alan who is initially oblivious to them as he is engrossed in his literacy work. Steve ups the anti, getting louder and moving closer to Alan, the arrival of his breakfast not proving to be a distraction in the least. The teacher intervenes, providing the voice of reason but Alan is single minded in his efforts, moving closer to try and add physical intimidation into his vitriolic mix. A pen is launched, followed by a dictionary and a ruler, with Alan protected by me getting between him and the incoming stationary. Steve becomes aware of the arrival of his breakfast and retreats to his desk to strengthen his energy reserves.
The clock shows 9am and the lesson is due to begin. The setting of the lesson objective being Steve’s cue for a second onslaught directed at Alan. He looks to Kian, trying to recruit him but Kian declines, remaining captivated by the wordsearch. As Steve approaches Alan I, for the second time, place myself between the two of them seating myself on the edge of Alan’s desk. Not put off by the physical barrier Steve’s verbal abuse begins. “Your Mum’s a whore.” “ You cunt.” “Who still calls their parents Mummy and Daddy you retard.” “I fucked your Mummy last night.” The onslaught gains momentum as both teacher and one of two TA’s try to guide Steve out of the room. Steve resists loudly but despite this the lesson starts. The functions of the skeleton is on the menu for Science. Teaching young people with complex needs is, as the name suggests, complex. With Steve being reasoned with and cajoled in the direction of the door I am free to teach Alan and Kian. Kian likes to pace whilst he commits things to memory so our routine is to give him a thirty second burst of information and to give him time to pace around the classroom while Alan gets a much slower input of information followed by a short question to answer verbally or in writing whilst Kian has his knowledge checked and the next piece of input delivered. Of course you will note that this is a system that works with the two of them. Steve, when he is in, works very differently. He needs my second TA sat with him guiding him towards using a pen to complete tasks. Then there is Mark who is a very loud character, his noise often triggering Lenny who likes peace and quiet and who can generally be found to be wearing ear defenders which dull the sound and seem to also block out my dulcet tones which makes teaching that bit harder. Finally there is Zachary who is obsessed with the second Gulf War and to have a fighting chance of engaging him your opening line needs to involve the term ‘Gulf War’ or similar. Zachary has a reading age much higher than the others, almost double in fact. This brings its challenges with differentiation. For today though there are just the three boys, two if you factor in that Steve has just departed, loudly declaring to the TA that she is a “cunting fuckface”. Bonus points for creativity and going beyond the basic fould language that flows so readily off his tongue.
The teaching of Alan and Kian carries on and for the next twenty minutes peace reigns in the classroom and aside from the exceptionally low pupil numbers it could be an outstanding lesson in any mainstream classroom. The classroom door is flung open, crashing into the wall behind it with a bang and a dull plop as a lump of plaster drops to the ground. Steve has returned. First he flies at Alan and when his path is cut off by the sychchronised movements of teacher and TA moving together from opposite directions he dives headfirst into the sensory corner, arms outstretched towards the electrical trunking. Within seconds he has ripped three pieces of it off and a radio message for advocate support has been sent across the airwaves. Cynthia arrives to help calm things and momentarily her calm, quiet manner takes effect causing Steve to hesitate. She reasons with him in tones so quiet they are barely audible whilst simultaneously passing various bits of electrical trunking to me over the top of the bookshelf. A look of glee fills Steve’s face as he gives a good tug at the electrical wires. A second message, an SOS if you will, is radioed and a TA simultaneously dispatched to collect SLT in case they didn’t pick up on the urgency of the situation. Cue the arrival of Mark who starts school slightly later than the others. He hesitates, taking in the carnage around the room before letting off a round of fucks and heading out to change into his PE kit (he doesn’t like his uniform). Steve makes a sprint across the classroom, dipping his hand into a staff members handbag en route and grabbing several pieces of fruit which are lauched at various people. Thankfully his steadfast refusal to take part in Physical Education Lessons has resulted in a hugely inaccurate throw and Kian, great sportsman that he is makes a dive to his side to catch a banana that may otherwise have caused Alan injury. A brief lull is filled by the continuation of the lesson and minutes later pupils troop out of the class for their morning break.