As mainstream classes fill to bursting, the vital personal relationships between student and teacher are in danger. RugbyWorks coach Tom explores why showing a human side when working with vulnerable young people in Alternative Provision is so essential. 

A recent US study of 300 college students has shown that teachers who seem ‘authentic’ get the best results. It concluded that when teachers display their human side through personal stories, jokes, and even admitting their mistakes, their students perform better. Above all, authentic teachers succeed through compassion; caring for not only the academic but personal needs of their students beyond the classroom. As a result, respondents reported ‘higher levels of learning and deeper understanding in learning experiences described as authentic’.

At first glance, these findings seemed so obvious to me that I wondered why a study was needed to demonstrate them at all. But I soon realised I was missing the point; theory is one thing, practice is another. The number of secondary school children in England being taught in classes with 36 or more pupils has trebled in the last five years. As classroom numbers swell, room for authentic teaching is being squeezed out and young people are the casualties. This study is important now more than ever, and the RugbyWorks young people we work with are proof of it.

 The number of secondary school children in England being taught in classes with 36 or more pupils has trebled in the last five years.

“I hated it at my old school,” Anna from Tooting once told me. “They didn’t listen to us, I felt like they didn’t care about me, I was just a number”. Her life outside the school gates was chaotic and her behaviour inside them began to reflect it. She was struggling personally, resorting to self-harm in her more difficult moments. What she needed most was the authentic, individual attention outlined above. Without it, she became lost in the crowd. Her behaviour worsened before she stopped attending school altogether. Ultimately, her school had no choice but to exclude her, without the time or resources to address the root causes of her behaviour. Anna’s story is typical of many young people we work with in Alternative Provision (AP) schools.  It’s something Tony, the head teacher at one of our AP schools in west London knows well. “Every child (in mainstream) represents x amount of a percentage point in terms of league tables. There's not as much chance to focus on individuals the way we can,” he explained in an interview with Guardian.

“I hated it at my old school,” Anna from Tooting once told me. “They didn’t listen to us, I felt like they didn’t care about me, I was just a number”.

As he suggests, exclusion from mainstream education can actually be a blessing in disguise for these young people. With small classes and understanding staff, AP finally offers the specialist attention they need. “A lot of them love it here,” Phil, the PE Teacher I work with in Wandsworth, told me. “They like the familiarity; they call me Phil not Sir. In small groups, we can be less formal and this definitely aids their progress. Of course there still have to be rules, but there’s never any telling off or shouting, we just know that doesn’t work”.

Ever since I started delivering RugbyWorks to students like Anna, I’ve learned a lot from teachers like Phil and Tony. We’re incredibly fortunate to have their expertise and knowledge at our disposal, they know our young people better than anyone. Our programme absolutely depends on mirroring their personalised approach. Working with small groups of 6-12 young people on a weekly basis, we have the chance to do just that. Our success hinges on how well we can get to know each student. Perhaps more importantly, it’s how well they can get to know us. Appearing authentic isn’t just preferable in this situation, it is vital with students whose trust has so often been betrayed.

As the research suggests, sharing personal stories and details of our own lives is integral. I’m always surprised at how apparently trivial moments can forge these relationships and be the beginning of something for our young people. One student in particular that we work with at Wandsworth comes to mind as an example.

 Our success hinges on how well we can get to know each student. Perhaps more importantly, it’s how well they can get to know us.

We’ve been working with Elijah since the beginning of this school year. His father left home when he was young and this trauma was compounded by the death of his mother shortly after, leaving him in the permanent care of his sister as a guardian. Elijah has always been a challenge for us, closed off and almost suspicious of our intentions.

This all changed one day when we were chatting with his keyworker, Alex, about Caribbean food. Elijah interjected, sharing the fact that he enjoyed cooking at home with his sister, preparing the hearty Caribbean home-cooking he affectionately calls ‘hard food’. I mentioned that I’m a keen cook myself and that I also live with a chef. For the first time, I saw a brief, unguarded interest in his eyes. As we talked about the idea of him setting up a food truck to serve the people around our office in Shoreditch, that flickering light grew brighter. For the first time, we spoke about his future plans and suggested taking this interest forward. We have since been working to get him work experience with Lexington Catering, one of our employability partners, this summer; something he seems genuinely excited about.

Elijah had never spoken about himself or his home life with us before. It was a big moment, but looking back it was a long time in the making. For months, my co-coach Phil and I had shared jokes, told stories about where the scars on our knees had come from and shown an interest in his progress, chipping away gradually at his defences. While we may not have felt it, he was getting to know us in his own way.

 Getting to know our young people, for me, is both the biggest challenge and the greatest reward as a RugbyWorks coach.

We hope he will take the opportunity to explore his passion and will follow his progress as we mentor him for another year when he leaves this summer. Who knows – you may one day enjoy a plate of yam and dumplings from his food truck!

Getting to know our young people, for me, is both the biggest challenge and the greatest reward as a RugbyWorks coach. In an attempt to be authentic, we have to tread a fine line while remaining professional. Above all, we all learn as much about ourselves from these relationships as we do about our young people. As this study has revealed, creating these bonds is invaluable to the development of students. We are lucky to work in a way that the authentic approach is not a theoretical luxury, but a practical necessity. Sadly though, we are privy on a daily basis to the fact that in the challenging landscape of mainstream education, it is becoming increasingly rare.

You can read the full version of Tony’s Guardian interview here: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/teacher-blog/2014/apr/27/headteacher-behaviour-management-learning-students

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