You Belong Here
Exclusions. It's an aspect of education that will draw discussion and opinion, but must always maintain a professional eye. It can also be one of the most stressful and challenging aspects of headship. As a headteacher, your job is to understand the child's circumstance and history, to shoulder responsibility, and to work strategically with your team towards a viable and positive outcome. It's important that your staff team know your threshold, your views and your rationale, despite not always accessing the full story.
With your views clear, and a strategic and supportive pathway, you can then set yourself up for success. Your team can be positioned to identify every positive indicator and to stay solution focused and philosophical otherwise. The objective here is to try to ensure that the school setting and the child can move forwards together.
There's a lot of discussion about exclusions at the moment. I always felt that it was my job to make it clear that it was not an option because we became a go to school for families where there had been a history of heat and stress. Most weeks we had enquiries or phone calls brokering moves for children who were running out of time.
A young man arrived having been previously excluded. I felt confident that we could help him. There's little point in thinking otherwise because the next job is to express this optimism to the team.
'Optimism is the most undervalued attribute in teaching. It should be assessed on interview and strengthened together from here. We all recognise and understand realism, but optimism is what drives the school. Tangible, even before the school doors open.'
On his first day of school we had a settled morning. In the afternoon I was tipped off. I set out into the corridor to consider my strategy with our learning mentor. We entered a game of cat and mouse, while he dashed around the corridors red faced, removing clothing.
By the end of the afternoon he was exhausted. No child would every choose to be in this situation. We had simply observed, peering around corners, to make sure that he was safe. All the while he peered back, wanting assurance that we were there.
'Our staff knew what my opinion was on exclusion. For me, it was never an option. I would gladly support all staff with their behaviour management because it's one of the reasons why I felt that I was a good fit for this school. We made sure that we would always seek solutions together and that we would never start any day relying on wishful thinking.'
At 3pm, he agreed to follow me to a small time-out room and he sat down when I asked him to. I had his shoes in my hands and I carefully began to put them on him. As I did this I talked to him and he listened, breathing heavily and wiping the tears from his eyes.
I told him that he wasn't going to be going anywhere and that this was his school.
At this point I didn't know him very well, but it seemed like the thing that he needed to hear. He had backed himself into a corner and he now needed time, patience and support. Our commitment to him needed to be explicit.
In the following days we talked very honestly. I made clear the expectations but in the right way. I learned that he couldn't read, which is not uncommon in these situations from my experience. We read together, and I told him that we would help him to be able to read and that he wasn't the only one. We began to laugh and he became the boy who knocked on my door, pretending to be in trouble, but with a book full of proud comments and stickers. I even watched him build and sail boats on Lake Windermere and fly through the sky on zip wires.
And when he did eventually leave us, it would be 4 years later for high school.
'Adversity, as we know, can often bring the most profound sense of job satisfaction. Anyone who looks at our school postcode would know that it's not always going to be easy. And yet most days, most of the time, our staff could make it look very easy, no matter who came through the door.
Now that's when you know that you have the right people for your school.'
The WIN / WIN
Optimism is all about the win/win. There aren't many situations that don't have something positive that you can take from them. We can all talk about what we would prefer, or what is acceptable, but we soon learn that we can't have things all our own way. The child's circumstance should dictate how we handle situations.
I think that I'm a pretty strict teacher when needs be, because my views and expectations are always made fair and clear. I would tell children that my job is to have high expectations because they deserve it, and that if I saw anything less, I would let them know. Combine this with a desire to know and like someone, and you're well on your way to creating the right conditions for meaningful and positive outcomes.
Our staff team were just amazing at welcoming such children into our school. We worked with a sense of pride and expertise. We would often stop to acknowledge the challenges and to commend and thank each other for our mutual support. This can be a very powerful way of creating a strong team. Every year we held a spring conference off-site somewhere nice. We took time to evaluate the community that we served, the children that we worked with, and the challenges that we faced. The wins are relentless. When staff talk about their careers and their memorable moments, it would be common for these to centre around a child in need. Stories about children who were struggling to cope in the world but had achieved small and yet significant things, because of the love, care and expertise demonstrated by our staff.
This situation was not exceptional. We had an incredible track record of seeing children succeed after a managed move, exclusion or a 'jump before pushed' scenario. Whilst these outcomes can provide job satisfaction, they can be life changing for children and families. At some point in their lives, Mum's and Dad's feared the worst, a life without chances and the prospect of other unhealthy outcomes and influences. For such children, their self-regard would often lie in pieces strewn across the floor. Without any self-worth, it can be hard to learn and hard to create sustainable relationships with others. And so we were in a position to change these perceptions. To change a parents view of the future and to change a child's view of who they are and what they could achieve.