David qualified as a primary school teacher but left straight after his PGCE teacher training.
He now teaches a Person-Centred counselling course to adults at a further education college.
I did an Educational Studies degree beforehand and spent most of that familiarising myself with the likes of Carl Rogers, John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, AS Neill, George Dennison etc, and being familiar with that stuff made it particularly hard for me to ‘plug in’ to the logic of mainstream schooling.
I’d kinda deconstructed the whole thing in my head before I’d even done a day of teaching, and it was hard to put that stuff to one side once I was in the classroom. I think if I’d trained first and then read that stuff, it may have been easier to make it work.
I’ve since retrained as a counsellor. In this job I am teaching people who have chosen to be there, which makes a big difference to me. I’ve been here nearly a year now and I love it.
You can read more about my reasons for leaving the teaching profession in an article I had published in 2013.
It’s quite a tricky question to answer. The best I can say is that it just resonates with me on a very deep level. When I read Carl Rogers especially, it was as though he was expressing ideas which had always been in the back of my mind but which I’d never found the words for. That was a wonderful experience, and it’s a large part of why I’ve ended up being a counsellor, as Rogers himself developed person-centred counselling before turning his attention to education. I think his ideas about education were really just an extension of the ideas he developed during his clinical experience as a person-centred therapist.
Trusting in the person and in the process is an accepted and uncontroversial part of person-centred counselling – it only seems to be controversial once you attempt to apply it wider than the single-person environment of the counselling room. I suppose taking that approach and applying it when running a school makes the political implications more obvious, while in the counselling room with a single person, it’s much more subtle.
It’s hard to say in a brief space because it’s quite fundamentally at odds with my own views of how people work. Since leaving teaching I’ve worked in schools as a play therapist, and I also briefly managed a mental health service in a school, and I was able to get on with it by just being pragmatic with the pedagogy and focusing on the mental health stuff which was what my job was about. I’ve learned to be pragmatic so I’m wary of banging my drum too much – I’m in the habit of focusing more on what I can contribute in the positions that I’ve been in.
I should say though that a significant number of young people that I’ve worked with – especially in secondary schools – have expressed quite clearly that it’s school itself that contributes towards them struggling.
The idea that the nature of school itself can contribute towards mental health issues is an interesting one, and in my roles in schools I’ve not been in the habit of pulling back far enough from it to really think about that too much as I usually had another client in a few minutes, and I needed to be in the ‘here and now’, so to speak.
As an aside, I’d say working as a counsellor does help me be pragmatic about things – you can’t ultimately control or direct the person in the counselling room, so you just need to do what you can to help them find their own answers. The job really trains you to get in the practice of focusing on what you can do to help with the immediate situation directly in front of you, and not disappear off into abstractions and idealism, which for me can often bring on a sense of futility that reduces my ability to actually do stuff.
I might not be able to fundamentally change the system or fix the client’s problems but if I can do what I can with the person or situation in front of me, even if it’s a tiny difference in the grand scheme of things, it still counts for something.
There are a lot of people in state schools that really, genuinely care about the kids they’re working with, and they’re working incredibly hard to do what they can for them.
I suppose I should also say that there’s a gradual increasing awareness of kids’ mental health issues, and as negatively as I might feel about a lot of mainstream schooling, there’s definitely something to be said for some kids having a safe place and a routine – for some kids that alone is very helpful, especially if their home life is chaotic. That might seem to contradict what I’ve said above but it’s hard to talk in generalities with these things – some kids hated it, some kids saw it as a safe haven compared to what else was happening for them in other areas of their life.
Give the teachers flexibility over what they teach – if the kids are interested in something, be able to adapt the curriculum around it. I think some schools do this but I didn’t experience it myself.
Give the kids some choice over what they learn. They don’t need to go off the deep end with it, but I think some flexibility and choice on a day-to-day basis for the kids, even if it’s just in the afternoons or something, I think could count for a lot.
I’d also want to encourage schools to emphasise to their kids that exam results reflect your performance displaying particular skills in a particular setting, and aren’t a fundamental measure of your worth or your intelligence. I think that’s likely to ease the anxieties of some of the kids, though I’m not sure if that’s likely to happen much when schools themselves are under so much pressure in a similar way, but there you go.
I was aware when writing my article that many people may cast everything I’ve said to one side as being far too idealistic and completely unrealistic. I can only ask that these people consider, in a scientific spirit, whether there is any truth in what I have been saying rather than simply dismissing it as uncomfortable to think about.
If enough people start thinking about these issues then we can begin to figure out how to take things forward. Unless the problem is recognised and discussed, there can be no chance of overcoming it.