To develop as a person, you must encounter something that takes you out of your comfort zone
The aim of this blog is to outline why some experience in an SEMH school is essential for all teachers.
As I enter my fifth year teaching in an SEMH school, I realise that my teachers training programme barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding Special Educational Needs. Furthermore, there was very little insight into the potential barriers for learning. This isn’t criticism on my training providers. If you completed a school’s direct programme or a PGCE, there just isn’t a great deal of time to study SEN in detail. On the contrary, no amount of theory can match the experience of being in the classroom and teaching!
Even as a SENCO, I'm aware I do not know everything to do with Special Educational Needs. However, I do know a fair amount about Social Emotional & Mental Health, otherwise known as SEMH. This is my specialism. All the students I teach have an EHCP (Educational Health Care plan) with SEMH identified as their main Special Educational Need.
What is SEMH?
Once upon a time, children who demonstrated temper tantrums, defiance and destruction of property were labelled 'naughty' or 'badly behaved' .
It was then highlighted that these negative behaviours were the result of an underlying special educational need. These poor behaviour choices were linked to the emotional development of a child, which lead to the diagnoses of BESD (Behaviour, Emotional, Social Development) and EBD (Emotional Behavioural difficulty).
The environment a child is raised in is also considered to significantly impact their social, emotional development. This can also lead to poor mental health [a concept rarely associated with young people]. Rather than focusing on what negative behaviour choices the children made, there was a greater focus on why they're demonstrating these behaviours.
The terms EBD and BESD were replaced with SEMH (Social Emotional Mental Health) in the SEN Code of Practice 2014.
Here are some reasons why every teacher should get some experience in an SEMH school:
1. Smaller team of staff
When I worked in a 3-form entry mainstream school, it was very easy to be isolated as a teacher. Sometimes this made the experience of teaching a lonely one. In an SEMH school this is far from the case. The schools are typically very small, as the pupils enrolled are a fraction of the pupils you would get in a mainstream school. Therefore, the staff size is smaller than what you would expect in a mainstream school.
Depending on the type of special school you work in, your day can be emotionally and physically draining. In a special school, everyone relies heavily on the support of others so it’s unlikely you will feel like you’re doing your job alone. From the receptionists to the caretaker, everyone is a valuable member of the team. In some cases, it feels like you’re a part of a family.
2. Smaller classes
Some teachers may not admit this, but how many of us would actually choose to teach 25+ students? I know I wouldn’t but that's because i've had the experience of teaching no more than 9 and I love it.
In many specialist schools, you will find the classes are smaller compared to a class in a mainstream school. The numbers may vary depending on the type of special school, but you shouldn’t expect more than 10 pupils in one class. With fewer pupils to manage, there is more room for flexibility and creativity. There’s no shame in stating that less student also means less marking, unless you’re pretending you enjoy marking. More importantly, you can have a more pupil-centred approach to planning with the smaller number of students.
3. A pupil-centred curriculum
This is one of the reasons I love teaching in a specialist school. Many specialist schools will follow the national curriculum or at least use it as their foundation. The wonderful thing about special schools is the understanding that your curriculum must be tailored to the needs of the students you have. This allows for a bespoke curriculum that is accessible to the children and caters for their specific educational needs. There are great teachers who are doing their best to do this for their students with SEN. However, when there are SATs and GCSE’s to prepare for, it’s understandable why teachers are under pressure to teach the curriculum in a particular way. This may also explain why a number of pupils struggle to be engaged in a mainstream school.
There are aspects of a young person’s education that need to be developed further. I’m talking about the social, emotional aspects of learning such as Social skills, Teamwork and Managing Feelings. Many teachers do not have the training or experience to teach this in depth. Even if they do, are they always given the time and trust to execute this? There are aspects of the national curriculum that are necessary but if a child is emotionally unavailable to learn, how can they access it anyway?
4. More time and less pressure.
My last point leads beautifully to my next. Time. Is there ever enough time?
When I taught in a mainstream school, it felt like there was never enough time.
Not enough time to do my marking.
Not enough time to prepare resources before the school closed.
Not enough time to execute the teamwork activity you KNOW your class need, to avoid another bust-up at lunch time.
In a specialist school, meeting the emotional needs of the children is balanced with supporting their academic progress. The key to this balance is time. The only thing that can affect this is pressure. We should always feel some degree of pressure to do our jobs the best we can. However, staff shouldn’t feel so much pressure that they sacrifice creative lessons for boring ones because there's no time. In a special schools you will often feel there is enough time to find ways of getting the best outcomes for your students.
5. A home for the vulnerable
The beauty of an SEMH school, in comparison to many PRUs (Pupil Referral Unit) is there is no pressure for that child to be reintegrated back into the mainstream school. It can become their home for the long term. This is a contentious issue for some educators because many of us feel that school’s should be inclusive of all children. I use to think this too.
The harsh reality is many of the pupils referred to an SEMH school have struggled to engage in their previous schools. In some cases, the school has tried everything they can to support the child, before they accept they can’t meet the needs of the child. The key word for me is school. An SEMH school isn’t a temporary setting that keeps a child for a period of time.
This school is for them to stay as long as they need to.
6. Professional Development
To develop as a person, you must encounter something that takes you out of your comfort zone. This is where growth takes place.
An SEMH school is certainly the place to grow.
I used to think I was patient before but after four years teaching in an SEMH school, I’m on another level now. Seriously. There’s nothing you can say to offend me that l haven’t heard from an unapologetic 8 year old in a bad mood.
Your understanding of different behaviours, the factors that cause them and ways to best support them are just a number of things you learn as a teacher in an SEMH School.
An SEMH school is also one of the best places to refine and enhance your teaching skills.
It’s never boring. One minute you’re teaching your perfectly planned lesson and one bad look from one student to another can change the direction for your lesson, just like that.
However, the lesson must go on. If that means rapping the time tables whilst de-escalating a fight in the corner of the class, you’ll find a way.
These are the moments they never prepare you for in your teachers training but you learn to adapt and laugh about it in your staff meetings.
After some time in a specialist school, there’s no doubt you’ll become the most adaptable, creative and self-reflective teacher.
In my biased opinion, you’ll be the best version of yourself as a classroom practitioner.
It’s important to note that my positive experience teaching in an SEMH school doesn’t take away the positive moments I had in a mainstream setting. Despite my bias views ,I recognise it's dangerous to bunch all special schools together. It's important to consider how school culture, leadership and work-life balance can impact people’s experience in their school.
However, after visiting a number of special schools and speaking to professionals who work in those settings, we do share similar sentiments about our experience. It may not be your cup of tea, but even a day in an SEMH school will change your whole outlook on what education can look like for the most vulnerable students.