” Winning the Pearson Teaching Award has helped me to dream bigger and be ambitious.“
Winner, the Award for Excellence in Special Needs Education, 2016
Currently Head of Performing Arts at Cricket Green School
Winning the award was absolutely fantastic. I felt completely overwhelmed – but in a lovely way. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without the support of lots of other people, it was very much a team effort and in some ways it was as if I was just the one who lifted the trophy for the whole team. Since winning the award I’ve appeared on BBC Breakfast TV and interviewed by Louise Minchin, I was offered a Head Teacher’s job and I’ve been asked to speak at seminars in London.
THE JOB, CHANGES AND CHALLENGES
When I left school I did part of a primary school degree then left and went to work as a children’s entertainer on a cruise ship, then I wanted to get into Kids TV. Having done some work in schools a friend asked me if I could help out at Cricket Green and honestly it was the coolest experience. I just didn’t want to leave. I became interested in counselling after seeing the impact drama and art therapy can have on the young people at our school. So I completed a Psychotherapy degree and set up a small counselling service. The knowledge and insight I gained from the study has had a positive impact on the way I teach and interact with both pupils and staff alike. It made me so aware of everything else that is going on for the young people in my care, just under the surface.
I’m now head of performing arts at Cricket Green but started here as an assistant 9 years ago. I did on-the-job training to complete an Education degree and become a qualified teacher. I have been using drama in the majority of my lessons since I first started at the school. Drama, music and art are just amazing ways to help pupils access the curriculum. Many of my pupils have spent years in mainstream settings, never being able to achieve levels close to their peers in academic subjects. However, many pupils have come to our school and unlocked talents they have in the arts that perhaps they never knew existed. We’ve performed Shakespeare, produced music festivals, made films and put on numerous productions on the main stages of local theatres. There have been many occasions when members of the public and parents and pupils from other schools have no idea that we are a special school and that the pupils that have just been entertaining them actually have a range of complex and diverse learning needs – that gives me a real buzz!
The children I work with have diverse needs, many of these pupils also joined our school with their confidence and self-esteem at rock bottom. Our aim is not to view their learning difficulties as a barrier, instead to encourage the things that they are good at as well as help them to work as part of a team and develop social skills and communication. Our aim has always been for them to leave our school feeling that they are important, that they can recognise their own unique talents and that they absolutely can achieve.
However, the reality is that quite often we as a school will build these young people up but then a lot of the services and provisions begin to taper off once they leave. There have been numerous examples of capable ex pupils who have returned to our school for a visit several years on, only to report that they had finished a college course and now spend their days doing nothing at all. This for me is a great sadness, and a waste of potential.
There’s an initiative in America called Project Search, it’s a scheme that aims to get learning difficulties to get into employment. It works with in house training schemes which break down small tasks that perhaps you and I might take for granted and breaks them in to smaller more manageable tasks. These are then practiced until they are secure. Only then will new skills be attempted. The hope is that, these skills will be transferrable to other work places and the young people work their way into paid employment in a job that suits their particular skills. This initiative is now running throughout the UK and we as a school have close links with St George’s hospital which has Project Search based there. It has been running for five years and currently 74 percent of all trainees have gained employment either inside or out of the hospital. This is versus a national average that is closer to two percent of those with learning difficulties gaining employment.
I’m currently doing a Senior Leaders course and, as much as it’s nice to teach drama, really my engagement with Project Search has made me think about the bigger picture. As a result, in the future I would like to set up and co-ordinate a similar scheme, teaching young people functional skills and helping them work towards paid and meaningful employment. In an ideal world a new learning centre tailored specifically towards this. Obviously still with plenty of drama, music and art thrown in for good measure. I think that winning the Pearson Teaching Award has helped me to dream bigger and be ambitious.
Luke is a former pupil with autism I taught several years ago. Prior to coming to Cricket Green he was out of mainstream education for 15 months because he was bullied relentlessly because other pupils did not understand him. He has now left our school and has just completed his second year at university studying drama. He is currently on course to get a 2:1 in his drama degree. He is also volunteering at our school helping me teach my drama lessons.
I was fortunate that I have loved the school I first worked in, but I would say to anyone else who is just starting out and having a tough time, I would say it does get easier and also schools vary so much that if your current placement doesn’t feel right that doesn’t necessarily mean the next school will be the same. If one school isn’t right for you try another until you find what feels right. I worked at several Primary schools during my initial degree and it felt ok. Several years later I worked at a number of Special schools and it just felt right. From there, ten years on I now work in special needs school which I absolutely love.
THE TEACHING PROFESSION
I would say the profession needs to look at teaching what is relevant to young people. They are all so unique, with different interests and talents that the more our curriculums reflect this the more positive the outcomes. In the case of Special Needs settings I feel that there needs to be a more universal approach, with increased emphasis on preparing young people for adulthood from a much earlier age. Such as communicating wants and needs, likes and dislikes, life skills, developing hobbies and interests and employability.