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Primary Education News
News Why I became a teacher: I wanted to work with families and break down barriers to learning
Sue Richards-Gray has long been fascinated by what stops some children from learning. She tells Emily Drabble why working with the whole family can have the biggest impact
It's interesting to look back from this point in my life and see a pattern of interest and themes now I have been teaching for 30 years.
I started being interested in how people learn way back when I was at secondary school myself, in Wolverhampton. I was lucky enough to find learning easy but I noticed some of my friends struggled. What stops some people from learning? It was a question I was always asking. When I was in the sixth form, I volunteered in a special school and was interested in how you can get people to do more if you build a relationship with them.
I went to university in Cardiff and studied English literature. Then I did a PGCE at what is now Brunel University in London, I trained as a middle school teacher, thinking I could be more creative in a primary school but wanted to retain my subject specialism.
My first job was in a village primary school in Essex called Churchgate, a small community school where most of the children felt safe, confident and had family backing. Then I did VSO in Sarawak, Borneo. I taught English in a secondary school. Each class had 50 children, mostly they lived too far away to come in every day, so they would board in very basic accommodation term time. I managed to build up relationships with many of their families, even visiting their homes despite many of them being over eight hours walk away.
When I came home I got offered a job in Wolverhampton teaching what were then known as the remedial class. It was not a happy place, the children were put into that 'sink' class regardless of their specific difficulty or their year group. I taught them maths, English, history, and geography. They didn't want to be there and I'm not sure I did either.
Then I moved to Christchurch primary school in south London. In my year 6 class I had eight children with special needs. It brought me back to questioning how I was meeting those needs as their teacher. I was really inspired by a support teacher there who suggested I think about working in a special school.
That's when I moved to Elm Court, a special school in south London. I became early years coordinator for children aged five to eight. The children had a wide range of special needs. I was team teaching 14 children, and everything came back to making a difference to the individual; who had a problem learning and how could I help?
I wanted to do further training in understanding children's behaviour and looked at courses and came upon the Caspari Foundation course for teachers and educational psychologists. I had to be in therapy myself and study a baby from newborn to one year and an older child every week of their life for a year. The school supported me, I did it in the evening and weekends and got one afternoon off a week to do the clinical work.
My training and experience changed the way I taught. I was thinking about the whole child and where they were coming from and what their experience was. I became particularly interested in the notion of attachment developed by John Bowlby and ideas of containment. This is basically the idea that if you feel safe you can take risks and learn but if you don't it's hard to learn; you're too busy looking over your shoulder to see what's coming at you. It's the role of a parent to make their child feel safe, but what if parents aren't able to do that?
After my course I focussed on therapy at Elm Court for more than a decade. While I was doing that I realised there is so much you can do at school or as a therapist with families. It seems obvious that families are important but it is surprising how little this is worked on in schools.
I've worked a lot with Child and Adolsecent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) over the years in schools and realised some families don't like the idea of it because they think it labels them or their child as "mad". They don't turn up to CAMHS appointments which can be miles away. At Elm Court we decided to set up a one stop shop where parents could come into the school for therapy once a month and meet and talk. They could refer themselves or teachers could advise them to come if their children had emotional or social blocks to learning – it was a real success.
Now I work as a therapist with Schools and Family Works. What we do in schools is close to family therapy based on the Marlborough model of multi-family therapy groups which were originally set up to help families with anorexia and schizophrenia - but in an educational setting.
We work with families a group to help children who have blocks to learning. This might be children who are very withdrawn or particularly disruptive. I go into several different schools and work with a member of the senior management team, as well as parents and children from an average of eight families, so it's quite a big group. All the family is welcome but very often it's the mother and the child. We meet once a week for two hours in school. It's structured and it's safe.
We work on school-related tasks and activities and talk about children's learning styles and how things are going and experiences of bringing up children. There can be cycles of deprivation in families that stop children succeeding through the generations. We also talk about what's been difficult that week - families often haven't spoken about these kinds of things before. What we are providing is the reflective space that is needed to process complex emotional difficulties. That space is rarely available to families living in areas of high deprivation or to families whose children have additional needs.
As a therapist I listen and observe: is there a power imbalance? Is the child screaming at the parent or vice versa? We base our work on big targets such as we would like to see 'Jenny' functioning in class, or going to bed and getting up on time for school or being able to talk to friends and not hit them. We play structured games. Parents start to be a resource for their children and for each other. I see the therapy as a bridge for families and schools. Teachers don't have time to spend with families in this way to find the space to breath, to grow. Usually parents are called into school when something extra terrible happens. But to get in there before, when families aren't coping, is very important.
I think families are crucial for learning. That's the conclusion I've reached through my chequered career. A child needs a whole package and a school needs awareness of the whole child - that includes their families they don't come on their own. If there's damage with the family's relationships that has an effect on the child and it goes in circles.
I feel most comfortable with my new role because I know that this is really making a difference and that education doesn't exist in a vacuum. I think there's a danger that we separate education too much from real life and that really concerns me. If I'd known all this when I was teaching full time it would have helped me immeasurably.
Resource: Family game
Sue Richards-Gray is a primary teacher and a therapist for School and Family Works, part of a team of practical therapists with an impressive track record of helping families of children with additional needs.