EducationThe Secret Teacher

‘In every school there are students like John who hunger for fewer disruptions to their timetabled week’

No two students experience school the same way. A heightened awareness of that increases our chances of spotting who needs us most

John struggles with going to school, but school is not the problem. Classes are always fine when the teacher is there, teaching the class and everyone is doing what they are meant to. But this doesn’t happen nearly often enough.

On any given day there are reasons for a teacher not to be in school: matches, sick children, appointments and a multitude of other reasons entirely irrelevant to John. Except that they are not irrelevant because of the significant impact the teacher’s absence has on John and his classmates. In every school there are students like John who hunger for fewer disruptions to their timetabled week.

Melissa desperately needs the extracurricular offerings her school has in place. It is a school driven by achievement, one which emphasises the importance of wellbeing and strives for balance in what it permits. There are clear structures in place around match schedules, and if the impact on the core work of the school timetable is too great, the match cannot happen.

Priorities are clear and everyone is aware of them. The decision-making is both fair and transparent. Melissa gets to enjoy the extras her school offers without fear of any detriment to her core work as a student.


Furthermore, getting to enjoy the extras is something she earns. Students who attend school regularly and demonstrate engagement in line with what is possible for them receive a clear message that these things lead to opportunities to represent the school at sport, or other activities. Students do not get to treat what the school offers a la carte.

David sees no point in trying to be good. The school’s punitive measures seem to have been designed with him in mind, and they will be thrown his way regardless of how hard he tries. His older brothers made sure of that when they established the family reputation during their time at school. David knows he is not like them but has given up trying to prove it.

There are teachers at the school who have already clearly decided his fate and their influence is surprisingly strong. David stands no chance there but school elsewhere is not an option. He wonders if his parents have written him off too. They always speak supportively and encouragingly but he would like them to do more. It is not easy to follow their advice and try to stay out of trouble when trouble seems destined to find him.

The day-to-day lived experience of school for our students has its foundations in school policies and approaches. In John’s case these foundations are not solid. There is too little in the way of structure and a degree of casualness that simply cannot be afforded when working with minors. Duty of care burdens schools with balancing the pressures of a teacher recruitment crisis and the legal responsibility to deliver a level of care commensurate with in loco parentis.

John’s growing uneasiness about school has nothing to do with the core business of learning, and everything to do with teacher absenteeism. The unpredictability of what could happen on a substitute teacher’s watch is massively stressful for him. The messers know how to take advantage in those situations, and what they get up to is not what John goes to school for.

If there is one thing all young people are fully aware of, it is who cares about them

Melissa’s school has been progressive at prioritising a holistic education that preserves the full value of the academic. This is a rare achievement, as many schools face criticism for being too academic or not academic enough, either too extracurricular in focus or sorely lacking in growth and learning opportunities away from the school desk.

Planned staff absences are carefully rotated in Melissa’s school so that the same teachers are not absent too regularly. Classes missed per subject are noted to ensure that the same teachers and subjects are not always impacted. Staff replace each other strategically, placing more emphasis on the reputation of their subject department than on finding the nearest exit.

Collectively working towards the preservation of teaching and learning time has reaped huge dividends in the form of confident and independent learners. Covering classes requires collaboration, communication and a commitment to fairness. It is precisely this positive set-up that turns students gently away from valuing freedom over self-motivated independent learning. In such a school the freedom to choose what to do results in very effective teaching being the considered choice staff make, and this has the positive knock-on effect of building highly successful learners.

Restoring a young person’s broken spirit is a tough task and takes considerable time. David’s background means he needs a strong sense of connection with his school far more than the average teenage boy, and yet his family’s reputation has primed teachers at the school to turn against him before getting to know him as an individual.

He needs school staff the most and has them available to him the least. This conditions him to have similar expectations of society, which conditions his attitudes and behaviours towards rebellion and rejection of others. A school ethos emphasising the equal human value we share prompts reflection on how we treat our students and gives youngsters like David an equal chance of a good education.

Lived experience of school is very complex, as is adolescence. Facing the two together is what a secondary school student does every day and no two students experience this the same way. A heightened awareness of that alone increases our chances of spotting who needs us most, and when. If there is one thing all young people are fully aware of, it is who cares about them. And for us as teachers the duty of care brings with it a duty to care.