Pastoral Care vs Teaching and Learning
What is more important – excellent pastoral care or excellent teaching and learning? We all know there isn’t a simple answer to that question and trying to find one would have you run around in circles in the vein of the chicken and the egg. What is the core purpose of a school? Education. Okay well that means teaching and learning is the more important. But without good pastoral care many can’t access even outstanding teaching and learning systems. But without teaching and learning there is no system to access… it could go on forever!
In reality there is no need to ask, or answer, the question. We know that, in schools, striving for excellent pastoral care and excellent teaching and learning (alongside every other demand of our time) go hand in hand. When thinking about the ‘battle’ between the two I reflected on my own experiences on a day-to-day level and the smaller battles between the two that cause frustration and create angst. As a teacher with plenty of pastoral experience I am still frustrated when students are withdrawn from my lessons to resolve a pastoral issue. I know precisely why they are removed, the difficult balancing act pastoral staff need to undertake, yet I still curse the lost time for a GCSE student or the disruption to a lesson. I know the reality; I understand the need and I even do the same thing. If it’s tough for me to square the circle here – I can understand why others would feel frustrated at our interventions as pastoral staff.
I’ve said before that all pastoral roles are not created equal. In some schools pastoral staff are the white knights of the community, riding into situations and swiftly resolving them, heralded for their support with their names shouted from the rooftops in celebration. In others we are a nuisance, seen as a distraction from the core purpose, who should be the swan on the lake furiously paddling underwater but not impacting the image above water. I’d wager most people reading this paragraph can think of occasions where you have felt like both the hero and the nuisance in the space of a single day (or perhaps more like a single hour!).
To acknowledge that there is a struggle between these two sectors is necessary. As I said above – with all of my pastoral experience it still bothers me to lose precious learning time to pastoral issues. We have to try and do our utmost as pastoral staff to do our incredibly necessary jobs and also balance the needs and demands necessary for excellent teaching and learning. So how do we achieve a balance?
Intrusions to your lesson can be incredibly frustrating – knocks on the door, students being removed, a quick chat with Harry or a message to read aloud. Each one takes time away from teaching and learning – and the more of them you are exposed to as a teacher the more frustrated you become, the record for disruptions to one of my lessons currently sits at 12 and I hope that’s never bested. It’s difficult not to blame the source of those intrusions – bloody pastoral staff! I have been sat in meetings where I am grilled about the performance of a Year 11 student, and why they aren’t doing better, only to have them removed from the next lesson to investigate an incident. I remember a particularly disruptive Year 9 set that I taught in their tutor group who would take a good ten minutes to settle at the start of the one time I saw them each week. The nature of the group meant that someone was always taken out of the lesson – often they would bring back with them a metaphorical hand grenade to throw into the room like shouting that you know Chanelle is a grass and she’d ‘get got’ after school. Good luck with the rest of the lesson!
What can we do to try and balance this out? If I know that I am going to be investigating an incident related to that tutor group, for example, and that I am going to need statements from a number of those students it would serve me well to go and collect the first student myself and let the teacher know that, unfortunately, there’s going to be some disruption as I remove a number of students one after another. This avoids student 1 being removed and then returning with a post-it for student 2 etc. with an unaware teacher cursing the person who keeps interrupting and having to catch-up every student who returns. It makes it slightly less disruptive for the teacher, but the key is the communication – there is at least an understanding that this isn’t ideal and an apology for the impact on the lesson and as a teacher I can plan for it.
The important part of the example above is communication and will be, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme throughout this post. Having an awareness of our impact on classrooms in this manner is so important.
Developing your presence as a member of pastoral staff, or as a wider pastoral team, facilitates increased communication at a variety of levels. One of our goals as pastoral staff should be to share the incredibly useful knowledge that we have developed about students, that teaching staff may not be exposed to regularly. If we want to develop a culture of understanding around the pastoral needs of the school community, we can’t keep this information to ourselves and we need to vary our approaches to disseminating it.
How many whole school morning briefings or CPD sessions have a pastoral focus in your school? How many of those have a specific focus on the students in your community? Some CPD about how best to work with boys is great… how about some CPD about what works with our boys in particular from the people who often get to see the bigger picture – bloody pastoral staff! It can be 5 minutes of information about 5 boys flying under the radar in Year 8, 3 students who have achieved something fantastic in an extra-curricular environment – what opportunities do we have, or do we need to make, to ensure that staff are clued in to what we do?
There are obviously occasions where we can’t share sensitive information, but this shouldn’t stop you trying to share as much as you can. Just talking about those five boys flying under the radar may help their teachers but it equally raises their profile to those who don’t teach them. It might spark an idea in somebodies head for an intervention or remind a member of staff of something that worked a couple of years ago.
Pastoral care isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a secret society. We are the advocates for the students we mentor, lead, sanction and celebrate – we have a duty to share the information we gather about them and the knock-on effect is that the wider teaching staff can better understand the students in their classrooms.
Understand the Curriculum
As a Computer Science teacher, I teach a tough subject that is difficult to pick up if you haven’t started at the same time as everyone else. One of my biggest bugbears is when a new student appears on my register, because the group size is small, and it looks like there is space, as often that’s setting someone up to fail. In lots of schools there is one group of people responsible for these decisions – bloody pastoral staff! Now a valid criticism is that it might be a failing on my part not to have flagged this up to pastoral staff but it’s one example of how developing your own knowledge of the curriculum that’s taught, for the students you work with, pays dividends in the future and avoids that angst. The great thing about the focus on curriculum in schools is that in most there are now easily digestible curriculum mapping documents that, as a member of pastoral staff, you should be able to understand and utilise. A learning walk for your year group becomes more powerful if you know you are walking into History and that this week, they are studying Roman architecture, and that in the 2 weeks prior they have been looking at Roman cities. This gives you the ability to see whether your students are engaging with the learning material that is being presented to them and also gives you the ability to offer praise where you see positives.
Knowing the subject needs/curriculum for those you are responsible for also gives you opportunities outside of the classroom to open up conversations as well as giving you the opportunity to challenge issues. There is also the chance to share your knowledge of potential issues with teaching staff – if I know for example that in ICT a Year 8 with recent experience of sexting is about to cover this in an e-safety topic then I can flag this to the teacher and help them to tactfully deal with something that could have otherwise been an issue.
The Two-Way Street
With communication being vaunted as key it is important to emphasise that this is a two-way street. There are so many opportunities to work with teaching and support staff to develop our knowledge of strategies that work for students within our area of responsibility. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the all-consuming eater-of-days that is pastoral care that it’s hard to step back and look at what’s working within small microcosms of the school. That group of girls that hate each other and would quite happily push each other off of a cliff and into a gathering group of sharks? They are all engaged and doing great in Maths. Why? Spend some time investigating. We need to be able to spot where there are areas of success and disseminate this into the wider school. Not only does this save us time as pastoral staff but it also opens doors to bring staff further into pastoral life and develop that culture of understanding that stops us being cursed under people’s breath as ‘bloody pastoral staff’. Part of this also necessitates an engagement with faculty-level data – if you aren’t looking at behaviour, achievement data etc. for specific faculties for the students you work with – why not? You should be able to make comparisons and spot trends, identify hotspots for poor behaviour or areas where it’s alarmingly quiet for Cole from 8DG. Interacting with faculty data also allows you to open up those conversations with teaching staff that you may not have had otherwise.
We always have opportunities to share best practise when it comes to Teaching and Learning – how often do we do this for pastoral care? How many opportunities do you create for staff to discuss strategies that work with particular students, to collaborate on things that work and strategise on how to improve those that don’t? Part of minimising any battle between pastoral and teaching needs is in building mutual understanding – visibility is key in this. How many times have you had a conversation with a member of staff who is shocked to find out a piece of information about a challenging student? How often will staff curse the pastoral team because a student ‘got off lightly’ without a full understanding of an incident. It’s up to us to ensure that information is shared.
Requests for Student Information
Round robins, email circulars and requests for student information come at teaching staff at a mile-a-minute in schools at the moment. Whether it’s for a pastoral meeting, a SEND review or any other meeting on our varied calendars – teachers have a lot of admin to do when it comes to informing us about our students. All of the information gathering procedures we send out are necessary, and often vital, in ensuring that we are reporting an accurate picture to any number of stakeholders including parents, social services, the police and many more. That doesn’t change the fact that it’s a tough task to keep up with sometimes as a teacher – even for one who recognises how important they are.
We are bound by the forms sent to us by external agencies when it comes to requesting that information so there isn’t much we can do to help here. What I would encourage you to do is to reflect on how you use the information gathered for internal meetings and how you collect that information. A lengthy document that tells you a great deal about a student might be really useful – but when the only ones you receive are from the long suffering Mrs Jones in English, who always diligently fills them out perfectly in the 2 day window, are they doing the job you want? Would you be more successful asking for 3 strengths and 3 areas for improvement? Would a virtual form with drop downs be easier for your staff to fill in?
Do the pastoral team all run meetings in the same way – it’s a question worth asking to ensure that you aren’t wasting teacher time. In a previous school the pastoral admin team would send out a round-robin for every pastoral meeting and then pass these along to the Heads of Year. For some these would be the centre piece of the meeting and for others they were worth a cursory glance. I’ve sat in meetings before, reading round-robins that I’ve asked for, and reading out 2/8 responses that are half-way decent and thinking that most of the information isn’t particularly useful. We must make sure if we ask for this information, we are using it in the best way possible so that we can report back to staff how it’s used and offer thanks for the feedback.
Ultimately there will always be some friction between the needs of these two areas. We have to ensure that we build a culture in our schools of understanding. The more we share about the work that we do, and the more we communicate the reasons why, the easier it is to accept that much of the work done around pastoral care is necessary and unavoidable. The job of pastoral staff is taxing, tiring and sometimes thankless – hopefully some of the above ideas and questions will help to make push the narrative that pastoral staff are are bloody great.
As always feel free to get in touch with me @connoracton on Twitter.