Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Teaching disturbed children

Some years ago I taught woodwind to students aged 11 to 18 in a special school for children who were being given one last chance. If this didn't work out for them their next home would be secure accommodation of one sort or another. Some had been traumatised by severe abuse at home, some were from good homes but were chronic offenders and others had mental health issues that gave rise to antisocial behaviour. In short, they were challenging.

Enter me. At the time I was teaching woodwind in a number of private and state schools, as well as privately in a desirable part of town. My expectations of my students, and of myself, were high. Success meant achieving good marks for my pupils in their Associated Board exams. If one of them had an issue with an aspect of their technique, or made a mistake in a piece, I would point it out and together we would address the problem.

What I wasn't used to was students who would assemble their saxophone with the crook (the top part) pointing the wrong way week after week, students who wouldn't accept they'd made a mistake in a piece of music and would fly into a rage if I even suggested it, students with attention spans shorter than a chocolate commercial, students who storm out of the lesson shouting and swearing and students who weren't in the mood that day so decided not to come.

I spent the first few weeks wondering how best to explain to my employers that these kids were unlikely to pass their grade one exams any time soon. When I finally plucked up the courage I discovered that they didn't care. They were interested in giving their students a new experience. They wanted to add value to these kids of a kind that a pass or fail at grade one couldn't measure.

And so I began to see things differently too. I learned to tell when a very angry fifteen year old was in a receptive mood and when to forget the clarinet and listen to her rail against the world instead. I learned to savour moments such as the first time a boy whose body, the visible parts anyway, was covered in burn scars, put the crook on his saxophone the right way round without prompting. I learned to appreciate the gradual increases in his co-ordination skills.

It won't surprise you to know that my attitude to teaching 'normal' students changed as a result of working at that school. People learn for all sorts of reasons that are not goal-oriented and to assume they all aspire to greatness is a mistake. My students in the special school were extreme examples but the principle is the same: strive to find out what it is they need and add value where you can. For most of your students that really is the best thing you can offer them.

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