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Is your youth work damaging teachers?

Tom Wade gives the inside scoop on how to support teachers on National Teacher Appreciation day

It was the evening of a long weekend and I found myself in a cramped mini bus full of youth workers heading back down south after a successful youth worker event. Although I am no longer a full time youth worker I’d managed to arrange with my work for the weekend to be free and I was over the moon to be back in the youth work world once more.

After about an hour the conversation turned to the various experiences these youth workers had working in schools. It became apparent quite quickly that the consensus in the mini bus was that teachers are a little rubbish, even actively bad with young people. It was at this moment that I began to awkwardly slink into my cramped chair with my secret. I was now a teacher. 

Teaching at its heart is a fantastic profession. No two days are ever alike, and there isn’t another profession where you come into contact with as many young people on a daily basis and have the opportunity for such brilliant conversations and experiences. However, it is also the second or third most stressful job in the UK, depending on what report you read. Well over 2,600 per 100,000 teachers report work-related stress, depression or anxiety alongside low pay and too much marking. The image of teaching isn’t always the best one. And to be fair, some days have left me feeling like that. But if you ask the average teacher, I think you’ll find that below the admin and enforced curriculum changes they genuinely love their job and young people. 

Let me tell you a story. Take it as a warning. I was approached by a local Christian organisation to see if they could come and take some lessons for me, after all I’d “probably enjoy the chance to have an hour off!” I reluctantly agreed, slightly wary of parting with my sixth formers for one valuable hour. Please note, teachers do not like giving up exam classes. But after agreeing on the topic of heaven and hell, I was happy enough that it fitted into my core curriculum.

The lesson started well enough with my students enjoying the chance to grill a real life Christian. I have always kept my personal beliefs a secret to ensure neutrality in my teaching of all religions. Suddenly, one question derailed the lesson somewhat and I found myself listening to this wonderfully eager youth worker explain to the class that the world is only 6,000 years old. Before I could give the signal to get the lesson back on track, a student raised her hand and asked the dreaded question: my nan was an atheist – is she in hell? The room seemed to move in slow motion and before I could put down my coffee mug and dive across the room to take the question bullet, the youth worker cheerfully responded: “Well yes, of course she is.” 

I did not invite that organisation back into my lessons. I couldn’t take the risk. It tainted my view of youth workers and for several years I spurned all opportunities for good youth workers to come into my lessons.

Jump forward a few more years and I found myself teaching at a much tougher school. I had students spit in my face on my first day, I was the only member of my department and I would regularly find myself in tears as I drove in to work. Then I had a meeting with Tim. Tim was from a local church and wanted to get involved in the school. I decided to put aside my prejudice and meet with him to see how he wanted to help. 

It became very apparent in my first meeting that Tim was brilliant. He smiled lots, his unwavering enthusiasm and desire to do more than just pop in to teach the odd lesson was refreshing. Tim wanted to get involved in the basketball team, lead assemblies, help on school trips, support students who were struggling. And best of all, Tim was free! Throughout my time at the school he was a weekly visitor and to my knowledge, he still is today. The students quickly gave him the nickname ‘Nice Tim’, a positive sign from these year 11s.

Tim completely changed my perception of what a youth worker can do in a school today. Here’s some advice on how to be more like Tim.

Know the teachers

If you’re looking for an inroad to a school, the head of Religious Studies is probably your best bet. Ask for a meeting. Then keep asking when they don’t respond at first. Hang out in the staff room so you meet other teachers as they run in and out to get their coffee fix.

If you know the teachers you will have a greater understanding of who teaches what and their specialisms. Also, bring us cake. Then we’ll agree to anything.

Know the students 

This might seem fairly obvious but if you’re looking to teach a lesson, then ask to get a rundown of the class. The teacher will know who is on the SEN register, who is part of their disadvantaged student program, who needs stretching and challenging and who is most likely to give you grief. The more you know about the class beforehand the more you can prepare. 

Know the curriculum 

If you’re looking to get into a school to teach some lessons then ask the head of subject what exam boards they follow and what their schemes of work are for years 7 to 9. Turning up with a prepared list of lessons you can offer and where they fit into schemes of work will make the teacher much more likely to invite you in. Alternatively, why not offer to be the ‘real life Christian’ happy to answer questions and engage in friendly debate around different topics. 

Know your theories

If you’re planning on teaching a sixth form or GCSE lesson you’d better be prepared. The students you encounter will be able to debate Thomas Aquinas and his influence on the Catholic Church whilst considering if Freud’s perception of sex holds more weight than Augustine. If you’ve not done your reading they will enjoy tearing you apart. Once you’ve got the schemes of work from the exam board make sure you get reading!

Know the school 

Do you know what the schools most recent OFSTED report was? Do you know what their targets for the year are? This sort of information can give you lots of opportunities to get involved outside of the classroom.

Be consistent and regular

Turning up once a term for a lesson can be great, but if you’re committed to being in the school on a much more regular basis you will see relationships with students and teachers improve exponentially. I know youth workers who will pop in for a lunch time to spend with teachers or meet with students weekly for mentoring. Those sort of commitments will see make everyone trust you more and be willing to embrace any ideas you might have in the future.

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