Reflections of a Head Teacher
Two Years A Head…
Earlier today I was very proud when a 12 year old student came to see me with a special award from one of his teachers for standing up and explaining to a younger child why it was wrong to use the term ‘that’s so gay’ and the damage it can do.
The Holmewood School is a tiny little community, tucked away in North London, that specialises in educating 7-19 year olds with High Functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as those with additional complex emotional or mental health needs.
A few years ago this particular young man might have been one of the first to make such a comment but today he’s a different boy and this act prompted me to stop and write down why.
Our students have been on so many journeys in their short time in the education system. Many have faced multiple exclusions and placement breakdowns, long periods out of education, rejection, social exclusion, tuts, whispers and comments from the public as well as a significant dose of bullying. By the time they arrive at Holmewood they’re exhausted, angry, distrusting and stripped of self-esteem and confidence. Before any learning can take place it’s our job to rebuild that foundation and slowly begin the task of putting them back together and helping them know who they are.
As I sit on the buddy bench and look out across the playground I see kindness in every corner. For children with social communication disorders it’s beautiful to see how important traits such as friendship, sportsmanship, faithfulness and respect are to our students.
So how do we create kind schools and kind children? How do we make sure bullying is eliminated in our schools? How do we make sure our children are tolerant, accepting and understanding of each other’s needs?
It starts with culture and it starts from the top. Kind leaders, kind teachers, kind teaching assistants and kind children. Our belief is kindness must permeate through everything we do.
When I arrived as Head Teacher, almost exactly two years ago, one of my first tasks was to spend time with every single member of staff and every single student. In that time, I wanted to get to know what they valued about our school; what they found special; what made them tick and feel motivated; and what they wanted for the future of each young person. Together we spent several months deciding on our core values and what we finally agreed on now truly underpins every action, every choice of word and every thought we have:
Acceptance Self determination Positivity Integrity Respect Excellence
Every day at Holmewood I’m proud of my staff. Their creativity, imagination and drive to make a difference to the long term lives of our children is clear in everything they do. Reflecting back on my first two years as a Head Teacher allows me to share with you some of our best ideas in the hope that you too might try some. Whilst some are big and may require time, planning and organisation, others are tiny and may even seem insignificant. However, it’s these little subtle choices we make that really have the most impact.
Morning Health and Wellbeing programme: students and staff choose from 20 minutes of running, yoga or meditation three times a week to help put them in the right frame of mind to do their best.
Outdoor education and education in the community: learning outside brings so much joy to our children. Being around animals in particular helps them feel happier, calmer and more ready for learning.
Random Acts of Kindness Week: students and staff spend time learning about the power of a kind act and how it intrinsically makes both parties feel good. A week of secret acts of kindness by our whole community follows. From apples on the teacher’s desk or mysterious notes of appreciation in a work tray, to generous donations of books from parents and offers to hold doors and make cups of tea.
Mentoring programmes set up for individuals: peer to peer or staff to student, having dedicated time to get to know someone that bit better and letting them know you’re there.
Psychotherapy for students: a safe place to explore their thoughts and feelings.
Social clubs and special ‘Holmewood games’ that have grown from just two or three children in a group to 15-20!
Reflective supervision for staff: giving everyone a place to explore their own thoughts, emotions and reactions to the hundreds of choices and decisions we make for our children each day.
Continuously challenging the opinions, thoughts and words of others: whether it’s unconscious labelling of others abilities, taking time to explicitly teach how to give a compliment and why it’s important, or lessons on ‘using gay the right way’. Teaching our children that it’s not okay to be a bystander and that ignorance only and encourages bullying and inequality.
Autism awareness lessons and celebrating World Autism Awareness Week: a chance to celebrate and learn about our differences. A chance to meet inspirational and successful adults who are living the lives they want to live. A chance to share the strengths and benefits of autism with the wider world and break down barriers.
Open-mic events: termly performances in a relaxed, non- pressured setting that allow children the chance to watch others showcase their talents whilst building the courage and confidence to give it a go themselves.
Promise auctions: an opportunity to raise money for a charitable cause relying only on our individual strengths and interests. Whether it’s baking and sharing a chocolate muffin together, taking someone on a tandem ride, writing a story of someone’s choice, giving a Pokémon lesson or making a pet rock for someone, there’s a way for everyone to get involved.
Making time to play…whatever your age: whether it’s inside or outside, in the science lab or at the farm, in the playground or in the community. Not being afraid to be silly and get stuck in is something we value highly at Holmewood.
Special awards for kindness, empathy, perseverance and risk taking – valuing these just as highly as academic achievement and progress.
Through these events and many many more our students learn to stand up to what is wrong and show confidence in their own beliefs. They do the right thing because it’s right – not because they want to please or want to be seen a certain way. They respect, understand and value difference and that’s what makes our school and community so special.
It’s been a wonderful and exciting two years. Some people say teaching is about imparting your own knowledge to young people. However, those that really know and understand teaching will agree it’s not so simple. Teaching is a two way partnership and good teachers will quickly tell you about just how much they learn from their students. Every day I learn so much from the fabulous young people at Holmewood. They are dynamic, imaginative, creative, funny, intelligent and inspiring. Every day I learn about them, about myself, about humanity and about life….and I look forward to many more years of learning with them.
Lisa Camilleri Head Teacher
The Holmewood School