Why we need to understand pupils' backstories

June 27, 2017, 10:09 a.m.

Illustration for Why we need to understand pupils' backstories


I had an inspiring meeting last week with a headteacher of a London primary school. Their clear warmth, passion and commitment to the pupils was something to be admired and applauded. This school provides a number of extra provisions to support their pupils and help them to meet national standards in English and maths in their SATS.   As well as this important financial investment, the headteacher had also taken the time to know and understand pupils individually and the challenges they are facing on a daily basis at home. The list of challenges was a long one - of things that children of that age shouldn’t have to cope with.

This meeting made me reflect on what we do at Action Tutoring and the pupils we support, thinking beyond the hour we see them for at tutoring.

Despite the stories I heard, I left the meeting with a massive smile on my face, as for me it is encouraging to know that there are teachers and schools who are not only committed to tackling educational inequality, but go above and beyond their role to address the holistic needs of a pupil. A disadvantaged pupil not only needs education, but empathy, respect and understanding, they need to be taught social skills, time management and organisation skills, as often the responsible adult in their life may not have the capacity to do this.

Prior to working for Action Tutoring I worked for the children’s charity Kids Company, supporting some of the most disadvantaged children in London. I worked as a ‘Flourish Nest Leader’ and my role was to support the social, emotional and educational needs of 50 (on average) young people. A large part of my role was undertaking home visits, where I would hear about how they were experiencing equally challenging situations, yet when I saw these children at after-school club, you would never know from looking at them what they were coping with.

What I learnt from this experience is that children are extremely resilient. It is easy to forget or not realise that their family life at home may be extremely difficult. Their ability to cope, carry on, smile and play is astonishing, but the trauma and stress will manifest itself in different ways. The child or young person will respond by displaying difficult behaviours or strong feelings, such as developing a strong attachment, or being unable to focus on a task.  The knowledge I gained in this role has stayed with me, and I have put it to good use as a Programme Coordinator.

The meeting with the headteacher reminded me how important it is to be empathetic when dealing with what we may deem as ‘challenging behaviour’. As both a Programme Coordinator or tutor it is easy to forget (I know I have) that there is often a backstory to a young person’s poor and inconsistent attendance, or their lack of punctuality and engagement. At the end of the meeting the headteacher told me she thought what Action Tutoring is doing is amazing: engaging inspiring volunteers who, in turn, have managed to engage their pupils to commit to the programme. I have had many conversations with teachers where they have expressed their surprise that certain pupils have attended most Action Tutoring sessions. The reason they commit is because they build a trusting relationship with an adult who they had no relationship with before. Being shown respect and commitment from a tutor means a lot to a pupil, even if they never show or say it explicitly. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to watch this in action, to see these pupils enjoy and be engaged in their learning. It really is the best part of my job.

I want to thank all our volunteer tutors not only for your commitment, patience and resilience but for your ongoing enthusiasm and efforts to inspire and motivate the pupils we work with. Every young person deserves to have the same opportunities in life no matter their background, and every tutor is helping to give a young person that opportunity. A truly massive thank you!

Written by Emma Hooper, London Programme Coordinator

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