Who’d be a pastoral leader?

Written by: Daniel Sobel | Published:
I couldn't agree more. Prioritising our own mental health is certainly a wise choice that can ...

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Schools are having to take on more and more responsibility for the pastoral care of students, meaning that life for the professionals in this field is increasingly challenging, says Daniel Sobel

It’s 7:45am and you are already swamped with catch-up paperwork from yesterday – a referral form, team around the child meeting minutes, and then there’s the 17 emails from staff and nine from parents you need to respond to, and all this before you go down to breakfast club to see if student X has actually turned up as he had promised.

The coffee in your mug is now cold but you down it anyway, it’s caffeinated drink number three of the day.

At break time you have a line of students outside your door complaining, crying – including those who have been sent to you by those teachers whose automatic reaction is always to refer everything to you.

More coffee quickly downed, you zip through the line and then head off to teach a class, which you get to just in time.

There’s lunch time patrol in the playground, meeting a parent and two members of staff to follow up about student Y, who has been persistently terribly behaved. You suspect he is being abused at home and you’ve followed your protocols, but it is not a priority for anyone in CAMHS and there’s only so much you can do on a safeguarding hunch.

This student is the focus of your attention as he has been removed from his afternoon teacher’s classroom and landed at your door. You know he could well have overdone it this time – punching a student, throwing a chair in the classroom, and storming out.

You think to yourself, “surprise, surprise, it happened in teacher X’s class”, raising your eyebrows to yourself. You bring him into your room for a chat and you sip coffee – number seven of the day (although you haven’t been counting).

There’s a serene moment of calm as you ignore the emails pinging, phone ringing and door knocking and you are focused on this troubled student, who you actually quite like.

You wonder to yourself why on earth he can’t just keep his head down and get on, and why teacher X always seems to provoke this child.

After 40 minutes of calm and a quite enjoyable chat with this troubled student you think to yourself: I really enjoy chatting with students in need and helping them out. Against your better judgement about whether this system is really going to do any good whatsoever for this student you place him in the exclusion room and get back to 11 phone calls one after another, answering another 12 emails, and then you hear the school bell.

It’s the end of the day for the students. But your life is just getting busier. You go into three back-to-back meetings.

In-between you take student Y in to see the headteacher, who warns the student that this is really the end of the road and the last time we will tolerate this (or any of those other phrases you’ve heard so many times).

You call his single mother, who you think is a nasty person and no doubt has all sorts of anger and mental health issues. She comes charging into the school and launches a tirade of abuse at you.

You go to your special place in your head and engage full thick-hide mode as she verbally batters you. You strike when the time is right, closing down her anger and complaints and enforcing school policy.

You calmly explain that the meeting is over and she needs to leave before things escalate and you have her escorted off the premises.

It’s 6:15pm. You pop into the head’s office to catch up on the case and return to your desk for coffee number eight. You get home at 8pm and unload your car full of books that need marking. You collapse into bed at 11:30pm.

You know you are doing something amazing, but it is all the admin that you can’t stand. The endless, boring, predictable and frustrating meetings. The paperwork and emails and forms and referrals and systems that seem to get in the way. You know the bits you like – helping the students. Even helping the teachers in person is good when it is not at arm’s length via an impersonal email.

You know there is probably little hope for student Y. He’s gone. He’s not the first student you really liked and desperately tried to help. You know there is something that is wrong about teacher X and yet he doesn’t get called to account. You know student Y is probably suffering at home with his mother and whatever personality disorder she has. There seems to be nothing you can do to intervene now.

I know (we all know) that you do an amazing job and you literally save children’s lives.

Aside from this not inconsequential point, I also want to say that for you to be effective on this merry-go-round, you need to adhere to one golden rule, a rule that Paddy told me on my very first day as a new SENCO.

I went to visit him in the next door school as he was soon to be hanging up his hat in retirement and I knew I could do with some advice.

He said in a heavy County Down accent: “To do this job well Daniel, you need to always prioritise your own mental health.”

Of all the suggestions and advice I have come across, this is the one sage point that is an absolute must.

Of course, in my best practice articles for SecEd I do try and share with you the tips and tricks of how to turn these archetypal days into calmer, more predictable experiences.

However, there is nothing more important and foundational than prioritising yourself in all this. For without you, the children under your umbrella would suffer even more.

  • Daniel Sobel is founder of Inclusion Expert which provides SEND, Pupil Premium and looked-after children reviews, training and support. He is the author of Leading on Pastoral Care, which publishes later this month (Bloomsbury Press). You can find all his articles for SecEd on our website via http://bit.ly/2jwoKP8

I couldn't agree more. Prioritising our own mental health is certainly a wise choice that can bring out the best not only in us but also in our students. They look up to us for their daily dose of motivation and strength. Contentment at heart and smile on face can create unimaginable wonders in the lives of our children.
Thank you for this thought provoking article. Worth reflecting!

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