When I worked, many years ago, in industrial chemistry, I and my colleagues knew (absolutely knew) that we’d made a difference to people’s lives – because the detergent bars we designed proved better than the competition.
When I changed career and became an actor specialising in comedy, I could be certain that I’d impacted on people’s evenings – because they laughed out loud. And believe me, there’s no better sound than an audience laughing with you rather than at you!
I don’t often get that kind of instant gratification nowadays, because the work that I do working with children and young people sows the seeds of change – and those seeds take time to grow and need others to nurture them once we’re gone. But occasionally I’m lucky enough – and privileged enough – to find out a little bit more. And reading in the Education Guardian online recently how Cambridgeshire’s Swavesy Village College has been working with some of its more challenging students, I was reminded of a recent encounter.
Because it wasn’t so long ago that I bumped into a young man (let’s call him Peter) – we’d worked with him when he was in Year 9 and on the very edge of permanent exclusion. Peter couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes, hated being told what to do and saw resources only as ammunition to throw at his classmates. And he was far from the only member of the cohort to react in this way – which was why we’d been asked to work with them and support them in unlocking their aspirations.
Whilst we took active and immediate measures to reduce negative behaviour (by introducing fast-paced activities involving independent choices and few resources!), we did, of course, make a few wrong calls. So although I’d long championed circular arrangements of chairs for whole-group discussions, Peter and his peers proved me wrong – they simply couldn’t handle the amount of eye contact this offered them. So we asked the students what they thought, then reconfigured to seminar-style seating. Perfect! The students appreciated not being desk-bound - but no longer felt they were on show. And, importantly, they felt empowered by being part of the decision-making process and valued the time and energy we were investing in developing meaningful and individual relationships with them.
As the programme progressed, and choosing from a menu of options, the students decided to share their learning about “skills for learning and life” through the medium of film. Whilst Peter wanted to appear in four of the six films, he wasn’t sure that he’d “have the time” to learn all the lines. The choice was entirely his, although we could support him with memory strategies, he would have to make a decision. And he did.
The filming day came – and Jo and I arrived at the studio to find Peter there before us. Not only was he confident in his lines, but he’d brought along with him an array of possible props (although he’d entirely forgotten about costumes …). As the day wore on and his peers acted with him, lit him and filmed him, he grew tired – but the lines still came out. Six films in one day ... and six films that are now being used across Peter’s borough as a teaching and learning tool!
So, to go back to beginning, Peter’s now in Year 11. He and the rest of the cohort (all in danger of exclusion a couple of years ago) are all still in the same school – and thriving. I didn’t recognise Peter at first – he’d grown by more than a few inches and his voice had lowered by an octave or two. But he remembered me: “Jackson!” he bellowed down the corridor
“You’re why I’m still here! I’m in Year 11 now, and I don’t get into trouble any more – or not as much, anyway!”
And that will stay with me – because a comment like that is worth any number of best-selling detergent bars!