Cultural clash: knowing your students

I enjoyed Shaun Allison’s recent post around relationships, which really are at the centre of the school universe. It made me think about one of my areas of responsibility: the progress of disadvantaged students. Now, laying aside the fact that someone in an office someplace has decided that the ‘gap’ is now the ‘difference’ creating a mental agility workout and increasing workload, for me this is why I am committed to comprehensive education. Indeed, I am blessed to work with a team that are really wound up by educational inequality and aim to help get rid of it.

I thought about my time at Exeter University. Each November the 5th we used to get a taxi to Ottery Saint Mary to watch the locals run around with beer barrels, coated in tar and straw and set alight.  As you do.  This seemed bonkers to me at the time. And I’m Welsh. The thing is, culture is strange. Decoding cultural behaviour needs an understanding of the context in which it sits; it strikes me that many teachers may not have a real understanding of the culture that some young people experience that inhabit our classrooms and corridors. Similarly, the handshake has come to symbolise to me the cultural gulf between disadvantaged students and others: some students can’t shake hands properly and, digging deeper, lack the understanding of the cultural conventions that surround the workplace and getting on in life.

In short, and running the risk of derision from some, teachers need to be parents to some groups of students.

This makes dealing with young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds really tricky. There is no silver bullet and it is a brutal slog to get some of these students up and running. Of course, it’s about honing classroom craft and taking a human approach to education. In other words, treating young people as humans.

Here are some ideas that are in use in our school, where the attainment of this group of students continues to close when compared to national figures. Of course, they are strategies that can be employed with any student, but have been found to be effective in our setting and run alongside a raft of other interventions:

Challenge all absence

As a tutor, have a conversation about any absence. Remember that there may be no one at home that fully grasp the importance of getting in to school. This needn’t be punitive but should be supportive. As a classroom teacher, ask yourself how you plan for students that are absent. How are they integrated back in to your lesson? Are they made to feel welcome, supported and nurtured, or do they feel lost, behind and confused?

Be a professional

Many band about trusting teachers and we do that by allowing any member of staff to make a referral for pupil premium funding. Over the past three years there have been many, small, cheap and effective interventions made by our staff that have been timely. The brilliant thing is, I never know what ideas are going to come next. This is important because, at the end of the day, the progress of every student is the responsibility of the teacher. If we are to follow that though we also need to provide the CPD and resources to help them deliver upon that.

Know your students

Look beyond percentages as young people are individuals before they are an intervention group. Use seating plan software such as Classcharts to know the characteristics of your classes. Seek out their best work in the school to benchmark against and find out about their prior attainment. Speak to them and find out their interests, I get students to write something about themselves during the first lesson, giving me a connection to them as they walk through the door. All in all, young people aren’t homogenous so get away from planning, teaching and treating them as part of the Borg collective. This isn’t about learning styles. It’s about knowing individuals.  It’s not about planning thirty different lessons, but about having human conversations.

Homework

If a student doesn’t hand in homework, find out why. Check that story and then change the way you set homework for that individual. Yes, you could teflon shoulder that to the pastoral team but why not show the student that you care. In our school, many students from disadvantaged background do not have a place to work at home, nor someone who can support them through the homework, especially at GCSE. Others lack parents that pack their bags for them and model how to work well. Some parents, like my own upbringing, are so busy holding down three jobs that they don’t have time to help. This isn;t saying that parents are evil – far far from it. Just that if it isn’t working, change what you do instead of blaming the child.

Feedback

This isn’t marking. It’s about conversations. Check the work of pupil premium students every lesson. Make a point of speaking to them about their progress. Give them feedback, praise and ways to get better because it’s likely that they won’t get that at home.

Contact home

Don’t wait until they’ve wracked up three missed homework assignments, contact home positively. The parents of this group of students are less likely to engage with school. They are less likely to arrive at a parent’s evening (I’ve always thought they are a pointless PR exercise). They are even slow to respond to official summons. Use the feedback and conversations to get in touch with home in a positive light. Get the parents on side and they are more likely to be supportive. Most parents that I work with are fantastic, they just need a little signposting.  Take the opportunity to go on a home visit, build bridges.

Keep expectations high

The trend to move students onto vocational courses has, rightly, been stopped.  This group of students are just as capable of making strong progress, they just need a little bit of help. What teachers can do is unlock their potential. Not for the government goal of improving social mobility, but because we are teachers. We can give hope and the means to achieve exectations. And that is what we do.

Photo credits: Handshake: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dhendrix/6644037141
Tar barrels: https://www.flickr.com/photos/dlharries/5167443628
Maouri https://www.flickr.com/photos/harrymoon/4079075358

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