when ‘sanctuary’ takes on a whole new meaning

The final part of my MA was focussed on how I consider my classroom to be a sanctuary for all my students, for whatever reason they may need at any time. After completing my MA in August, and exhibiting my sculpture to represent the idea of sanctuary, I returned to work in September, taking on a whole new bunch of courses, groups and levels at the FE college I have taught at for the last 7 years.

We plodded our way through the autumn term, gradually getting to know each others little foibles, and as teachers watching these children begin to grow and change into young adults. Yes, they tested us and the boundaries along the way, but they also challenged us to be better teachers, and made us laugh too. Some decided college wasn’t for them, which is fine too, and so in the last week of term the ones still there are the ones who tend to see it through.

I had always assumed I was still getting to know them, it had only been 14 weeks, and having 94 new students it takes time. Some have strong characters, some have big issues to deal with, but we were gradually learning how to work together to get them through the course.

I know I am not an Ofsted perfect tutor as my primary focus will always remain this idea of sanctuary, in whatever way the students need on any given day. My classes have been described as manic, with students making massive focussed progress within the session, but still lacking in terms of certain hoops we are expected to jump through. But, I would rather control my classroom in a way that means sanctuary is at the forefront consistently, rather than knowing I had ticked boxes off.

On Wednesday this week, at 10am, an hour into my first session, my head of school came to take me out of the classroom to ask how the students were behaving. One of my students commented that I must really be in trouble if I was getting taken out! But what happened next is something no teacher should ever have to face, and what transpired was that one of the students from the group had died. My head of school assumed that social media would have got the story round faster than the police informing the college, but my students were still completely unaware.

I was asked to wait to tell them so one of the managers could come over with the counsellor, and so I returned to my classroom, and busied myself with tidying the cupboards, fortunately a reasonable job that the students wouldn’t have thought odd at the end of the term.

I sent them on break, and met my head of school, the manager, the counsellor and the student support officer. Shortly after break we went to the classroom where the students were now working with another member of staff, who also knew what was going on. The manager broke the news to the group in a very factual and simple manner and the shock wave hit the group hard. Whilst I am a teacher I still find it a personal challenge to address a group as I’m shy by nature, but I felt there was something missing from what they had been told and began to reiterate to them that every single adult in that room was there for them, whatever they needed, we would all gladly help, reassure and accommodate.

What we hadn’t quite anticipated was that the other group I was meant to be with, which the student who had died used to be with, would find out simultaneously thanks to someone coming over who was also a friend of them and had been told by other friends.

To be honest, you could feel ripples of shock going across the entire college. It was easy to forget that the whole class from school who would have known him would have then dissipated across the various subjects in the college.

For the remainder of the day I worked with as many of the students as possible, letting them respond in whatever way they needed. Some wanted to get on with their work, and talk about other things. A huge number were naturally terribly upset and tearful. One went into a genuine shock as he had never known anyone who had died and simply didn’t know how to process what he was feeling. Some spoke to the counsellor individually, and parents came to pick up the ones who were so distraught, including the lad who was his best mate.

Suddenly, I felt very connected to all of the students, although if you’d asked me the day before I would have sworn I had only scratched the surface of really knowing them. It was tough to know which way to turn, or how best to support them, but we muddled on through together. I was genuinely surprised, which I shouldn’t have been, at the compassion they showed each other, ones that I had worried wouldn’t cope well with it stepped up to be the most sensible and reassuring. They truly did amaze me. I realised that evening that even though it seems such a short time, that if you are a genuine teacher, who takes time to notice peoples characters, not just the negative side of the challenging ones, that you will have got to know them more than you appreciate.

I’ve always found it quite odd to have the students for a year, and then off they go and you may never hear from them again, but somehow I already know it will be harder to let these ones go. I know we’ve got time for them to annoy me again still, after all they are cheeky teenagers, but right now, and right after the christmas break I will be more patient, and I will continue to build up the sanctuary walls, as when it came to it, that was all that mattered.

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