Two young men from my high school class killed themselves. One leapt from a prominent Melbourne landmark.
I had a friend who was sexually assaulted waiting for a train. He regularly relived the experience, unaware that he was safe in a classroom. He screamed and flailed at those who tried to help. We became real good at spotting the signs he was about to go under.
Not only was I aware of self-harm, I witnessed it. Some drug-induced, other times brought upon by family dysfunction or depression.
Eating disorders, drug addiction and sexual abuse were all experienced amongst the hundred or so of my graduating class, who walked across the school hall stage in November 1997.
I didn;t have a deprived or rough upbringing. Quite the contrary.
I attended a private boy’s school in Melbourne’s east, the sort that costs half a million or so for six years’ education. It wasn’t the tough, macho environment of rugby and cold showers that suggests. Rather, it was a fairly gentle place with stellar arts and drama departments.
Our school was well equipped to deal with issues of student mental health. It had a number of staff counsellors and great links to mental health professionals. The needs of every student were well documented and tracked over time.
Yet for all the hard work, some students did fall through the cracks. Some fell spectacularly, violently.
I couldn’t help but recall those experiences as I taught at a coastal English school, seventeen years later.
I was presented with a Year 7 class, deemed ‘unteachable’ only four months into their secondary education.
On top of the usual hotpot of SEN requirements, it was a group of kids from one of the poorest council wards in England. They experienced, daily, an unbearable amount of deprivation, neglect and dysfunction.
I don’t joke when I say that five minutes in their presence would regularly lead to an hour or more documenting issues of concern.
Hours were spent separating children who were hellbent on injuring their classmates for a percieved slight, coaxing others out of a hiding place as they hysterically wept. Years after my own experiences, I again saw the tell-tale marks of self-harm and had to step in to prevent it on several occasions. A good day, I’d confiscate a cigarette lighter. A bad day, I’d take a condom or something sharp, meant to cut and harm. Several students disappeared for long stretches, too afraid to come to school. Others had the pale, haunting look of hunger and neglect.
Help for these kids was spotty at best. Occasionally someone would come in to usher one of the children away, only to have them burst back into the classroom minutes later, yelling ‘I’m not fucking going with them!’.
Sometimes I would get an email – from someone different each time – giving vague instructions as to how to approach a certain child. Behind the words were intimations of the horrific stuff that had been happening at home.
The day I left the school, this class was one of the final ones. I explained why I was leaving – this was a temporary cover position – and wished them well.
I will never forget the response – tears, pleas to stay, some hysterical. Other students actied out violently, kicking furniture and doors. I remember talking a particularly fractious child out of ‘banging out’ one of the SLT.
I didn’t take any of this response as a reflection on my teaching abilities. This wasn’t my ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ moment. ‘Rather, I understood that this was just another plank of stability being taken away from underneath a very vulnerable group of children.
I still think of this group often. I ache to know how they turned out. They still occupy a place in my heart.
Despite the tears, the fury and pain, they were only children, with a thousand endearing quirks that shone through. One student was an amazing artist, another had incredibly sharp wit far beyond his years. I regularly witnessed acts of incredible kindness from several of them.
I came to love them.
The main reason I still carry this class around with me is this: for all the differences in our nationality, our social class, our environment, I felt a connection with many of the serious issues these kids were facing. I recognized them from my own school days. I understood them, I had lived them.
To see the contrast between how my peers and I were supported and these kids was heartbreaking.
I was reminded of this class yesterday, when I saw the responses to an article by Natasha Devon, the government’s recently-axed expert on children’s mental health. She had stated that teachers often need to be therapist one minute, social worker the next.
Much to my surprise and dismay, much of the response from my teacher peers was negative.
Some only read the headline and railed against what they saw as wanting teachers to take on yet another role, that of counsellor. Others perversely claimed some teachers wilfully practiced a dangerous form of amateur psychotherapy.
Most disappointingly, still more tossed it around as part of the ‘trad’ vs ‘prog’ debate.
What was clear that few had actually read the article – Ms Devon didn’t want teachers providing mental healthcare. Rather, she was making a case for more funding to schools.
Devon was calling for funds to employ professionals to better treat young people in the environment they spent most of their time away from home, at school.
As education-related opinions go, it was far from radical.
What irked me the most was an abrogation of responsibility from the responses.
There was a general sentiment that we, as teachers, should in no way be expected to assist students suffering a mental illness.
On one hand, I can understand this. Working closely with a vulnerable student leaves us wide open to all sorts of claims and damaging allegations.
‘Best leave it to the professionals’ is a safe view. It protects.
However, it is one that smacks of moral cowardice.
It ignores that students suffering mental illness will feature in every single one of our classes. Some will come to us with a diagnosis, others will develop them over time.
It asks us to turn a blind eye to the severe, pressing and damaging issues that students face as they work towards the qualifications.
More importantly, it asks us to forget that sometimes, we, as classroom teachers are the only champions that some kids have. They can’t or won’t connect with parents, social workers or medical professionals, but instead attach themselves to us.
A teacher should never offer counselling. A teacher is not a psychotherapist or mental health worker. There are safeguarding measures and processes for reporting concerns in every school. They must be followed.
This is all obvious.
However, why not make another choice?
Instead of turning a blind eye, would it not be courageous to join the fight for more funding for mental health workers in schools? To write letters, to protest, to campaign alongside parents and community groups?
Instead of using it as some sort of ideological football, wouldn’t it be braver to make the issue of student mental health needs one that the government could not ignore?
Instead of derisory or cynical tweets, wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to press and press until the help students in English schools so desperately need was available to them?
We come in to teaching to impart knowledge, curiousity and the skills needed to function in the adult world. We cannot do any of that if our students are prevented from learning due to mental illness, neglect or the dysfunction around them.
We must make it part of our job description to advocate for our charges and ensure that they are receiving the help they need. To do otherwise ignores not only the reality of the life in schools, but shirks our moral obligation.
There’s nothing I can do for that Year 7 class of mine. Given my time again, I would have made more noise, demanded more assistance for them. It is something that I regret, terribly.
I wonder how often that sentiment is felt by teachers across the country? How many students do we wish we’d fought harder for?
Let’s not let it continue to happen.