I first met Sarah* when she came to me in year 8, as part of a challenging middle-to-low-ability set who were known for their poor behaviour. She had a huge chip on her shoulder; for her, school was a negative place where she felt constantly judged.
She had spent much of year 7 on some form of report and being closely monitored by the head of year, thanks to her poor behaviour across the school. She was prone to angry outbursts of swearing, name calling, refusal to comply and general temper tantrums that would disrupt entire lessons and unsettle whole classes. She was known for storming out of lessons, sometimes leaving the school site entirely.
I could see she’d built a wall around herself, one which wasn’t easily going to come down. She had been labelled “naughty” and felt she had no other option but to fill that role. While she might have appeared like an angry little girl, to me, she seemed vulnerable and unhappy. There was work to be done.
I refused to give up on her and instead did a delicate dance around her outbursts.
In our initial few months together, she constantly challenged my authority and we often butted heads. It had become a pattern for her to come into lessons and not complete any work so I started pushing her. She thought I was ‘picking on’ her and she often told me that I was a ‘rubbish’ teacher or swore at me when I challenged her effort or behaviour in lessons. But I knew she was capable of more so I continued to push her, encouraging her to ‘give it a go’ and to avoid distracting people around her with her anger and foul language.
I got a lot of backlash and it was an uncomfortable few months at first. I refused to give up on her though, and instead did a delicate dance around her outbursts. Her behaviour stemmed from a fear of failure so every time she shut down and refused to do a task, or lashed out at others in a fit of swearing, I worked with her one-to-one, scaffolding the tasks to make them accessible. For every act of defiance, I defused the situation with a smile. For every angry outburst, I accepted her fury before channelling it into something more productive. Crucially, I didn’t react. I didn’t judge. I challenged her to be better, to push herself harder, and to face difficulty head on.
Slowly, things started to change. When once she would have lashed out at me or other students – or shut down in the face of a challenging task – she began to turn inwards. Her head would bow over her work and she’d shut out those around her.
Her work, and progress, improved straight away. She began to see that she was capable of being so much more than the ‘bad student’. The harder she worked, the more she improved; the more she improved, the more her self-worth increased. Having spent much of the first term scowling at me at every opportunity, it warmed my heart when she started coming into my lessons with a smile on her face.
I taught Sarah the next year: she had improved so much in year 8, she was placed into a top set group. You have no idea how proud I was that she’d achieved this feat. Sarah herself expressed doubt that she ‘deserved’ it, but I was quick to reassure her that she’d earned it.
She hadn’t quite escaped her ‘naughty’ past, though. One day she came into my lesson in tears. She threw a report card onto my desk and looked at me hard, the challenge back in her eyes.
‘What’s this? Why are you on report?’ I asked her.
‘Because I’m bad,’ she said. ‘I hate school. I suck at it.’
I took one look at the report, which asks teachers to comment on the student’s behaviour at the end of lesson, and wrote ‘Superb as always’ in the slot for my lesson. I handed it back to her.
‘But you’re supposed to do that at the end,’ she said.
‘Come on. I know that you’ll be excellent for me. You always are,’ I replied.
A smile lit up her face as she took the report card from me. For the next two weeks I did the same thing every day. I filled in the card with kind words at the start of every lesson, saying how amazing she’d been. And she never disappointed.
Near the end of the year, Sarah stayed behind after lesson.
‘Miss,’ she said, sheepishly. ‘I just wanted to thank you for all you’ve done for me over the last two years. You really believed in me, and I’ve grown up so much because of it.
‘I think you helped me to be more mature. I haven’t been on report since that time earlier this year, and it’s because you believed in me. I knew I could be better. So thanks.’
As she walked out of the room, a grin on her face, I had to hold back the tears. It’s moments like this that make me proud to be a teacher. If my support can affect one ‘Sarah’ each year, I feel like I’ve done my job.
* All names have been changed.
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