National Union of Teachers’ Annual Conference

I attended the National Conference a few weeks ago and was hugely moved by the speakers and the messages they shared. The fragility of the mental health of our students and staff was one of the issues that came through loud and clear.

Below I’ve listed some of the information that I believe, will clearly have an impact on the mental health of staff and students.

Testing and mental well-being

  • Christine Blower used the term “drill and kill” to refer to the overzealous use of testing
  • Are schools becoming exam factories? What’s happened to learning being fun?
  • Christine Blower also talked about the fact that parents have the power and the choice to do as she did, and remove their children from KS2 tests. Many parents may not be aware of this.
  • When ANY child fails, staff are being advised to make them repeat the test! Repeat, repeat & repeat again! Will their disability, learning gap or lack of knowledge go away if we keep testing them? Testing is not a magic wand that results in higher attainment!
  • A member spoke about a visually impaired child who could complete writing tasks when allowed to write in print. He needed a magnifying glass to read it back, but he could manage this. He’s doing really well! However, ALL children must be able to join their letters, so she’s being told to insist that he does the same. This makes him frustrated and unwilling to write.
  • Where’s the sense in blindly forcing this attainment standard on all children? Shouldn’t there be different standards for the many children who can’t cope with the existing ones? One size cannot fit all!
  • One member spoke about using a stopwatch to show that her 7 year olds can read 90 words in a minute! How would you perform if someone used a stopwatch while you read? Another box which needs to be ticked!
  • What are the tests for? If they were for the benefit of children, or if they helped them have better life chances; teachers wouldn’t oppose them. Sadly, this is not the case.
  • All the tests achieve is to show pupils what they DON’T know. They result in children being labelled negatively, and often puts them off going to school. They no longer want to learn.
  • We heard about children self harming or making themselves sick because of testing. Are you aware of the fact that an increasing number of children are doing this?

The above points cause anxiety, frustration and the dis-empowerment of students. How can that not effect their mental health?

Academies and mental well-being 

  • The inequality gap is already, and will contnue to, increase in academies.
  • Members spoke about children with SEN and EAL becoming second class citizens as academies don’t and won’t, want to take accept them in their schools
  • We also learned of cases where they ARE accepted, but they’re put on different rolls, so they don’t affect their league tables.
  • We heard that the children who were accepted, at BEST, were separated from the others and they are taught by a higher level teaching assistant, as opposed to, a fully qualified teacher!
What kind of message does this send to these vulnerable children? Will it improve their self esteem? Will it make them less anxious? Will they feel included? All of these things will effect their mental well-being. Adults who are meant to educate ALL children, will be instead part of a system that segregates and penalises them.

Anti-Islamic attitudes and mental well-being

  • Alex Kenny spoke about Prevent and said “You are creating sense of otherness and making it harder for us to keep our young people safe”
  • Prevent is a witch hunt of Muslim children who have been labelled as terrorists before they can speak!!! One child was under suspicion because be pronounced ‘cucumber’ wrongly. He was 2 years old! They thought he said ‘cooker bomb
  • As we know, children often spell words incorrectly. One member spoke about a child writing a story and referring to an uncle hitting him. Most teachers would raise that as a safeguarding issue. However, what was picked up, was the child’s spelling error for the word ‘terraced!’ It resulted in the child being interviewed by police, because he wrote ‘terrorist’ instead of ‘terraced.’
  • Teachers are being encouraged to label first and think later!
  • Sir Michael Wilshaw has said that he will downgrade a school if face veils are a barrier to learning. Why has he chosen to focus on this specific barrier, IF it is one? What about other more urgent barriers, such as, poverty, fear, housing, bullying, lack of support.
  • I have tweet about this using the hashtag #TooYoungToBeLabelledATerrorist

How can any of this not effect the mental health of staff, parents and children?

I can imagine Muslim children being too scared to write about anything in case they spell it wrong. I would also understand ig they wanted to avoid speaking in case they pronounced a word in a way that made others label them a terrorist. If they didn’t have the maturity to work that out themselves, I’m sure their parents would tell them to be quiet in school, and write as little as possible, for the same reasons! Unfortunately, this is not just a scenario that I have foreseen, but it’s actually become a reality! Members reported that children are being silenced to avoid suspicion!

Poverty, housing and and mental well-being

  • The Welsh Government wants to improve funding for children in Wales BUT the Barnett Formula keeps them the POOREST in Europe!
  • The government expects children to learn and perform well even though they’re working on moving them out of the richer areas and rehousing them in poorer ones.
  • Members spoke about children disappearing without notice as families are forcibly rehoused overnight.
  • Some children have moved BUT not been lucky enough to get a school place! Is their right to education not important because they’re poor?
  • In terms of emotional well-being, these families don’t get a chance to say bye to any of the friends they’ve made or speak with staff whom they may have formed a relationship with.
  • On a different note, how can teachers meet performance related targets when children disappear without notice?
  • Jeremy Corbyn spoke about the fact that 1/2 million children live in poverty and 1 million families are dependent on food banks.
It is clear that poverty has a negative impact on physical and emotional well-being.
How would you function if you were in this situation? Would you live with your bags packed in case you had to suddenly leave your home and be rehoused somewhere far away? Would you fear that if you didn’t, you’d lose some of the few belongings you had?
How would feel about the Government placing poor families together, so they’re out of sight in richer areas?
Would you feel as if you didn’t matter to anyone? To the friends made at school and to the staff who cared?

Services to support children with mental health issues

  • Bullying this has been proven to effect mental health but cuts means that needed resources aren’t available.
  • Cahms only deals with emergency cases but even then, a child who was self-harming was told to wait 2 weeks for an appointment. She had taken an overdose prior to being referred.
  • On average three children in each class, have mental health issues.
  • In some schools, staff are being trained as learning mentors to support children with mental health issues, to help them transition, to deal with grief and so on. However, they’re unable to deliver this needed mentoring because they’re re-timetabled to support the increasing amount of the children whose support is being reduced or cut completely! Schools can’t afford to meet the increasing needs being placed on them, whilst their funding keeps being cut!
  • A member spoke about the families where the children are given breakfast and lunch at school. The adults in these families dread the holidays, because they don’t have the ability to feed their children during that time!
  • If all schools become academies, they will HAVE to go to the private sector for educational psychologists, SEN support etc. Will they have the money for it? Will they have the desire to use their funds on these types of services? Will they choose to stop supporting those who are in desperate need of these services?
This is a dire situation which can only get worse as austerity cuts continue!
.

There are many things in life that we can’t control but this isn’t one of them. Let’s share this information, empower ourselves, motivate others, be vocal and stand together to fight for a better tomorrow. 

My first experience of skiing

A friend of ours arranged for a group of us to go skiing. There were a range of abilities within the group. Some of us had never been skiing before, nor had we practiced on an artificial ski slope, others had been on an artificial slope but done nothing else, a few had been skiing a couple of times, there were a couple who were advanced skiers, plus one who went off-piste because he was a pro.

Teaching the beginners

As a group, we had agreed that the beginners and intermediate skiers should have group lessons with instructors. We had about 5 group lessons booked that were nearly 2 hours long and 4 private lessons that were 1.5 hours longs. The latter would be more focused as we would have 2 smaller groups because there would be 2 instructors.

Before the beginning

The first part of our journey began with the equipment, which nearly all of us had hired. We needed to go to the store and get boots that were the right size. At first, just getting the boots on and off felt like a workout, but this changed as we got used to them. The staff then used the information we had shared when we booked the gear, to determine which skis and poles we would need. Some of us hired helmets from the store too.

The first lesson

The first lesson began with us putting our boots on and carrying our skis and poles to the meeting place. Then we got on what became known as ‘the magic carpet’ to get to the slope. This magic carpet was an escalator. I have forgotten a few of the details, but I recall the instructor taking us to the pre-nursery slope. There was a rope which pulled us up the slope, so that we could practice sliding down the slope. Slowly we began practicing the snow plough which was a way to help us control our speed and direction. Then we began taking turns and trying to manoeuvre around a few cones.

The varying abilities became apparent

By the end of the first lesson it was clear that some of us (including me) were picking up the skills we needed slower than the others.

About half of the group were moving between cones from further up the slope, while the rest of us were trying to master turns and slowing down from half way up the slope.

I told myself that it wasn’t a competition and that we all progress at different rates. This self-talk was the way I avoided getting sucked into thinking that being competitive and succeeding fast, was more important than learning at my pace, and having fun.

The second lesson

The group started off practicing what we’d been learning on the pre-nursery slope and this is where perhaps, the teacher was put in a tricky position.

Half of the group were ready to be introduced to the green slope, whereas the other 4 could have done with staying on the pre-nursery slope a bit longer.

We all went to the green slope. We had to travel through a tunnel that had an escalator within it, and then ski down a longer slope.

I think everyone fell a number of times but we got up and tried again. We fell on snow and we were wearing lots of padding so we were fine!

Waiting

The half of the group who possibly weren’t quite ready for the green slope, spent a lot of the lesson waiting for the teacher. This was either because he suggested that we wait for him and then ski down while he watched and supported us; or it was because we didn’t want to do it without him.

Getting close to understanding how it feels for a student to be waiting for support when there’s 1 teacher with a large group

As I was waiting, I felt bad for the instructor. Why? He had to challenge, watch and guide the half that were grasping the technique more quickly. Watching took time, because the slope was fairly long. Guiding us meant he had to wait for us to stop and then share ways we could improve. He also had to constantly assess us so that he could tell us what to do next, so we were challenged. He also had to keep a look out in case we fell over, because nearly all of us couldn’t get up without his support. This may have interrupted times when he was watching, assessing, or even speaking with others. He had to remember that some of us were waiting for him at the top of the tunnel, and he couldn’t leave us there too long, or we’d spend most of the lesson waiting. However, skiing with us individually took a lot of time, during which, he also needed to assess us, give us tips and challenge us when we were ready.

He really could have done with having someone to help him with either us, ‘the support group’, or ‘the advanced group.’ I found myself being on the reverse of what I have done since 2001 i.e. teach, and I realised that this might be how children feel when they were waiting for help in class, but there’s only me to manage 30 (or more) children, without a learning assistant or parent volunteer!

There are pros and cons to every situation. We weren’t children, so we could manage ourselves. We could rationalise what was happening and be better behaved. In a class, the physical area that the teacher needs to cover is much smaller and less laborious on the body, when compared with skiing up and down the slope. In these scenarios children often find it harder to wait patiently, remain motivated and maintain good behaviour.

Our first private lesson

I picked up on the fact that the group teacher handed over to the private instructor. It was also interesting to be on the other end of self assessment. We ask the children to tell us how they think they did at the end of an activity and we sometimes ask them to decide whether they think they are ready for a harder activity or if they need something similar to what they were doing!

I realised that in this specific situation, I trusted the teachers far more than myself! I felt unable to confidently assess myself and place myself in a group. I wasn’t sure which group would be a better fit, and I think this was mostly due to the fact that I spent a lot of the lesson waiting. Had I been able to practice more on the green slope, I might have had a clearer view on which group was more suited to my level.

Interestingly enough, the instructor wasn’t sure either! I seemed to be on the border of beginner and more advanced. However, I think they picked up on the fact that I’d feel safer in the beginner’s group and so that’s where I went.

The beauty of having less students

I loved this lesson and felt I was the happiest and progressed more too. In this lesson, there was one teacher and only four learners. We had more time with the instructor, more individual guidance, we were more relaxed, we felt safer and we had less people around us so our attention was more focused.

As a teacher, I am very aware of how much of a difference it can make, when just one child is away. But that’s from a teacher’s perspective. As a learner, it was definitely noticeable!

The third group lesson

This is when we all began on the green slope and us beginners were more confident and willing to tackle it! The others went on to going on the button lift so that they could ski from higher up the same slope. By the end of that lesson, most of the beginners could get to the bottom of the green slope without falling over. It was great!

Were we too quick to judge

We later realised that many of us had wrongly assumed that the beginners were ‘learning slowly.’ Apparently, the instructors had been discussing us and the dilemma that the group had created! Us beginners were progressing at a good pace and we were on schedule for they thought we would be. The others were progressing faster than the instructors expected and were about a day ahead.

This leveling business must have bothered me a little, because hearing that made me feel a bit better. The lessons continued, and we began to enjoy it more, feel more confident and achieve more. It was a fabulous experience!

I learned more than skiing during these few days!

  • I got an insight into how learners might feel when class sizes are too big
  • I experienced how hard it can be to assess your own progress and level of attainment
  • I witnessed the importance of teachers handing over to one another
  • I caught a glimpse of how learners compare themselves to others, which might result in them under assessing themselves, which can lead to under-performing, low self-esteem, under-confidence and poor motivation

I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you picked up from this experience.

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