Heads of Year deal with everything from teenage pregnancy to family deaths. It’s disheartening to watch the childhood of some pupils taken away by the sudden and painful grip of adult issues. The anecdote that follows made me reflect upon my practice and called into question my intentions as a Head of Year.
The little girl in Year 7 was cute, she was cheeky and challenging, her smile took her out of trouble’s way on nearly every occasion. We battled over uniform and make-up, then smoking and truancy and I never let on how much I liked her spirit. It was Year 9 when her whole life tumbled into the unknown, when her mum died suddenly. She came to school as normal, she told us in a matter of fact way. I rushed to hug her but she stiffened. In the days that followed, she moved in with her father who she barely saw from week to week, from month to month. The sparkle in her eyes faded as the circles underneath grew.
Her attendance dropped dramatically and I had no choice but to inform Educational Welfare. We arranged a meeting with her father and they both sat there, the schism between father and daughter palpable. They didn’t know each other. She confessed she had been staying awake at night- she wasn’t tired, she said. She couldn’t sleep because she was thinking about ‘things and stuff”.
She never wanted to talk about her mum not to me or to anyone. We offered support but she rejected it all. Deep in my heart I knew she was too horrified to sleep in case she forgot her mum or relived the night of her death. I wanted to hug her, to help her, I spent hours thinking about different ways to reach her. She came in late most mornings, sometimes nearer the afternoon. She didn’t complete her homework, fell behind in coursework and her attitude towards staff worsened. I tried many different approaches probably verging on psychotic but nothing seemed to affect a change in this heartbroken girl.
I asked a male teacher to mentor her, to check on her and he did so every day. We differed in many ways, I found him too soft with girls and harder on boys. He was often quite ‘pally’ with pupils but to his credit he was liked and respected. My student often beguiled him with her smile and he would mediate when things became tough in classrooms. Mr_____ gave her trust and respect but also the negotiable boundaries she needed in her turmoil.
I stepped back because my way wasn’t working and a good Head of Year should be able to recognise when a pupil needs a different tact. Sometimes, you have accept that someone else can access a disaffected pupil and you can’t. Don’t force relationships with students, they are either organic or they are not. You should never be afraid to ask for help especially from long-serving staff or ones whose beliefs seem to be the opposite of yours.
Being a Head of Year places you in the spotlight of the School. Some staff will look at your role and think, ‘yeah, that’s easy. I could that’ or staff will look at you and be in awe of your relationship with students. It is a hard job to be sandwiched between the SLT and staff. You very rarely are thanked for doing a wonderful job and most of your decisions will upset someone at sometime, but be careful not to let your ego get in the way of a student’s needs.
Be ready to put aside your own feelings and emotions because even though you maybe miffed at your perceived lack of success, success comes in many guises. Ask for help. Find a mentor. I am lucky, I have always had two or three close members of staff to ask honest opinions from. The decisions which you fight against the most are often the right decision for the student.
She completed school and with exam success, she is at college studying and she apologised for being ‘a cow’. I apologised for being a maniac Head of Year, to which she replied ‘but at least you kept trying with me and never gave up’.