This week, I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a conference. The conference was entitled ‘Healthy and effective learners: the contribution of Initial Teacher Training’. I was asked to speak at the beginning of the day to discuss my experience in school, my experience of PSHE training and to give some examples of how PSHE affects my day-to-day life as a teacher. It got a fairly good reaction from the crowd of people, so I thought that I would share it on here and see what sort of reaction I get. I have always known how important pupil health and wellbeing was, but this day really opened by eyes to the fact that wellbeing and attainment are two sides of the same coin. I will endeavour to share more about the day when I get a moment to write it all up; I would like to do the important topic justice and not write it up in a less zombie-like state. So for those interested, here it what I had to say on the matter:
Last week, I was teaching a lesson on using persuasive devices to create an effective argument. To try to enthuse this particularly large and disengaged class, I decided to use the ago old topic of boys v girls. I hoped that this would make for a lively and insightful discussion. Instead, the majority of the boys in the class actually opted to argue that girls were the better gender. When I asked them why, they gave me a few reasons, including that girls can cook and clean. I believe example highlights just how important it is that PSHE is a part of every day teaching.
Ardent feminist that I am, I of course challenged these students, and when pushed for further reasons, they also added that they thought girls were more intelligent and less distracted, which lead to an interesting discussion about their own learning styles and perceptions of themselves. This was a conversation I hadn’t planned for when devising the lesson but had potential to lead to opportunistic discussions on broader personal, social and health issues.
This leads me on to talk about my own experience of teaching so far. I am a school direct trainee English teacher, which means that I am based in one school for the majority of the year. The school that I teach in is an outstanding school and has a high percentage of pupil premium students situated in one of the more deprived areas of Southampton. The students are lively, bright and not afraid to tell you exactly how it is.
My experience so far has been challenging at times, but very positive. I was a cover supervisor before starting this course and because of my experience, I was lucky enough to be entrusted with some of my own classes from the first day. As an English teacher, I see these students nearly every day, so we have developed a strong working relationship. I know their strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, learning styles. I think it is a privilege to be able to work and interact with these interesting individuals every day. The best part of the job is definitely seeing that moment when a struggling student finally gets it. The next day, they may have forgotten it again, but for that moment there is nothing better!
There have been times where I have felt my own health and wellbeing has suffered as a result of teaching. I’ve been sat bleary eyed at 11:30 at night trawling the internet for the right youtube clip to engage my bottom set. I’ve had a student scream obscenities at me because I wasn’t helping her enough and actually storm out of not just the classroom, but the school. I’ve also had one awful moment where my SEN nurture class were so out of control I turned to the TA and said ‘just get someone, anyone!’ It is moments like these that have really affected my own physical, emotional and social health.
I leave most days feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, only to have to stay up late marking or planning for the next day. At the beginning of this term, I set myself a personal target of doing one thing a day for myself that was for my physical or emotional wellbeing or both! This may sound small but even that is sometimes a challenge. Sometimes this is to go to the gym, or to my yoga or dance class, sometimes this is to go and see a friend for coffee or to read a bit of my book before bed. I always try to have one day of the weekend to myself, but for example, last weekend I had an assignment and a formal observation to complete by Monday. So I worked through the majority of the weekend. It’s a tough year and I keep being told that it will get easier. Until you start this year, you can’t understand how much it can take over your life. It is so easy to just keep working non-stop as there is always something more that could be done but it’s important to also look after yourself as well as doing your best for the students you teach. I make a to-do list every night and from that list, I highlight the things I absolutely MUST do tomorrow, and what can wait until later. I find this helps me to prioritise and not get weighed down with all the different tasks.
In terms of the teacher training course itself, it has been extremely comprehensive. My training is split between the lead alliance school and the university and the course is structured really well. Every other Friday I attend University and the other Friday is with the alliance school. With the lead alliance school, most of the time is focused on general pedagogical strategies as the group of trainees are from mixed subjects. At university, we divide our time between specialist curriculum sessions, assignment sessions and other specialist days, such as the Health Day or the upcoming CPD day.
Things that have been helpful to me in terms of training and PSHE have been behaviour management sessions that have focused on why different types of behaviour occur. Also, I learnt a lot on my primary placement, particularly observing the bond between the students and their teachers. It helped me to understand the needs of the younger ks3 students. Also, I am completing an assignment on how low ability classes interact during group work, which has challenged me to think about strategies to help them socialise and stay on task. I think everything we have done in training has somehow linked to holistically supporting pupils and therefore to PSHE.
In contrast things that have sometimes been less useful in terms of PSHE have been the constant reference to the OFSTED criteria. I once got feedback from a lesson that could not be outstanding because one student did not make progress, despite my best efforts. This particular student has autism and was being evicted from his home that week. There seems to be little room for manoeuver in terms of considering some of the wider personal, social and health issues students may have when it comes to the phrase ‘all students must make rapid and sustained progress’
One thing that barely crossed my mind as I was applying for teacher training was how important and how much of a role health education would play in my day to day teaching life. There is not a day that has passed that I haven’t encountered a health related issue with my students, whether that is a personal problem, social issue, physical or mental health or something outside of school.
For example, I have a student in my year 7 class who has severe OCD. Some days he will be fine in my lessons and others he can’t make it through the door without tearing up and having to wash his hands. All of this is made worse by the fact I don’t have a permanent classroom, so he has no consistency. I’ve been in contact with the school nurse and his parents but there is no miracle cure, we just take each lesson as it comes. Trying different strategies has been such a learning curve for me; I now keep baby wipes in my teacher tin to wipe the table before he arrives. Learning about his condition from him, the nurse and his parents has been a form of health training in itself. This is possibly an extreme example, but situations like this are not uncommon. Many students come with their own individual health issue of some kind and I think it is vital that trainee teachers understand the right ways to react, the right people to refer to and the right things to say to the students themselves.
It is also important to know these things when it comes to social health, such as bullying. I had a student disclose to me that he was being subjected to awful, relentless bullying that had been going on for years. The hardest thing that I found was having to see him in so much distress and to then not really being able to do anything about it at that moment because there was no evidence as it was often very subtle. The bullies obviously point blank denied it. He had also erased all evidence on cyber bullying because he couldn’t bear to look at it. I had no idea how to deal with this, but I went to my mentor and started the ball rolling, informing pastoral leaders and calling home. I think just talking to me about it helped him. I think it is important that all schools tell trainees explicitly what their procedure is for cases of bullying and that trainees know what they need to do as it is easy to get caught up with the moment and find yourself at a loss of how to act.
I mentioned the Health Day that the University of Southampton hosted for their trainee teachers. This was an interesting and insightful day that gave me a new perspective on how PSHE is an integral part of every day life. Up until this day, I hadn’t fully understood what SMSC meant; it was just a box on my lesson plan I would absent-mindedly fill in. After an interesting session on this, I discovered that actually, SMSC is incorporated into nearly every aspect of my teaching. When I was teaching The Boy in Striped Pajamas, for example, every time we discussed the context of the book or how Shmuel might be feeling, I was actually questioning and developing the students’ moral perspectives and also their cultural understanding of that point in history. Whenever I plan group work into my lessons, which is frequently, this is contributing towards the students’ social development. This does not change the way that I teach, but by being aware of the wider implications of my teaching, I feel, has made me a more well rounded teacher.
Another session I found useful was the School Aged Public Health. This was a session that gave an overview of public health in schools in the Southampton area. There were only a handful of us in this session as others had opted to attend yoga or pilates, which I would add is an excellent option for looking after teachers’ own wellbeing. I found the Public Health session particularly engaging due to the location of the school I work in. I discovered that the area of my school not only had the highest poverty rates in Southampton, but also had the highest rates of childhood obesity AND those underweight.
Although I was aware of the deprivation surrounding the school, I was still shocked by these figures. As a teacher, I cannot explicitly do anything to change these figures. But there are some things that I think teachers can do. I model healthy eating habits – if I am on duty I will eat a cereal bar or an orange. I also challenge the students about the unhealthy food that I see they are eating. I saw one of my students eating a birthday cake for her breakfast. It was not her birthday. She is severely underweight and her diet is so poor, it is no wonder she has horrendous ADHD. I now communicate with her tutor if I see her eating sugary treats in the morning and she confiscates them during tutor time. She is also having regular meetings with the school nurse and has been referred to the doctor for weight monitoring.
The Health day was extremely helpful, interesting and comprehensive. It communicated the importance of PSHE to all teachers from a perspective that I had not considered before. I also think that my school have been very good at training me in how to teach PSHE, how to deal with health related issues that might occur and what procedures to follow. I would stress to all trainees to not overlook the importance of health education because it is an integral and inevitable part of the job.
My hopes for the near future are to pass my training year, hopefully as an outstanding teacher, and to have a successful start to my NQT year. I am really looking forward to having my own tutor group next year as it will be a great way for me to put my training and experience into practice. I would also like to take on some responsibility for teaching PSHE at my school and I have volunteered to plan some of the PSHE sessions for extended tutor time.
The Health day and also preparing for this talk as inspired me to look in more detail at the curriculum requirements for PSHE teaching in schools, so I would like my school to benefit from this. As a result of the Health day I have been inspired to work for my PSHE certificate that I hope to receive at the end of the year. Further into the future, I would like to spend some time teaching abroad to get a view of how different cultures teach their students. I am torn between wanting to be a Head of Department or becoming a pastoral leader. I am open to all routes, I am just looking to experience as much as possible in the world of teaching.