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By  Ben Masters

Ben Masters

Turning points

If they happened to us, we remember them. If we were one of the lucky ones. It may have been a teacher, a friend of the family, perhaps even a peer. These moments arrive unannounced, often in the most ordinary of settings: in a classroom, in a corridor, amidst the thrum of the playground.

I am talking about those formative conversations, those turning points in our school lives, perhaps at a moment when our lives hung in the balance.

A kindly mentor figure suggested the then impossible:

‘You know what, you’d be perfect for university … You’re into debating, have you considered studying Law? … Why aren’t you staying on to do A Levels?’

You may not have been thinking about A Levels or university at the time. You might have been thinking about that disappointing grade or lunch or the person you quite fancied but didn’t dare look at let alone talk to.

You were generally just ambling along in life, a little adrift, a little unsure of your footing if the truth  be told. Someone might as well have suggested a trip to the Moon or Mars. Or asking that pretty girl or boy out.

Can you imagine how different your life would be had it not been for those quiet words of encouragement?

But amidst the whirr of school life, I wonder whether there is always the time for these moments. I speak as someone who taught in schools for 20 years.

I wonder whether teachers have less and less time to take pupils aside and make this connection.

Sometimes it takes outside influences, the kindness of strangers. And this is where Articulacy comes in.

My training week

Last week I went to King Edward VI Community College (KEVICC) in Totnes to learn more about life as an Articulacy tutor.

I was in good hands, shadowing journalist and children’s author Kate Sermon, who was tutor for the week.

What does the week entail?

A dozen or so pupils are taken out of lessons to prepare for the English Speaking Board examination. For this they have to give a talk on a hobby or interest, recite a poem, and read from a novel, as well as ask and answer questions.

Difficult enough tasks in themselves, but especially difficult all together, and in front of peers, and add to the mix the fact that the programme focuses on those who possess as yet untapped potential: those lacking confidence, the quiet ones, those lost in the din of mainstream education.

We are all a little nervous of public speaking in certain contexts. In front of a classroom of kids, I am happy to drone on for England, all in the name of spreading my love for its language and literature. Put me in front of the whole school for an assembly and I am less at ease. For those hand-picked for the week, it is their worst nightmare.

The week gave us a great chance to promote aspirations

Some are chosen because they haven’t won life’s postcode lottery. They come from ‘less affluent’ areas. If you don’t have books at home, it’s not easy to talk about your favourite book.

To my mind, one common thread with successful people is that they are avid readers. The pupils were asked to bring in books for the second day, but looked at the floor sheepishly when asked to produce them in the morning session. Kate, prepared for every eventuality, magically produced a stash of fiction. She chose books that had succeeded on the silver screen and won the pupils round this way. She soon had them devising engaging and convincing introductions to the books. It is interesting how old favourites of yesteryear remain firm favourites today. Roald Dahl still rules the roost. For one thing, his prose is so readable, the rhythms so full of zest. And then there’s his delight in wordplay and made-up words.

The primary aim of the week is to boost confidence and teach communication skills.

To even countenance the examination, the pupils must learn how to overcome deep-seated fears and, often, feelings of inadequacy.

Life skills such as learning to break down big challenges into bite-sized chunks came to the fore.

Straying outside comfort zones was a key theme of the week. And the importance of play.

Fun and Games, and Hide and Seek

Games foster listening skills, discipline and creativity; they allow one to take risks and flirt with failure in a safe setting. They also lead to group bonding, teamwork and trust. It remains a source of fascination how those who threw themselves into the ‘games’ went on to thrive over the course of the week. And Kate had some great games!

KEVICC’s wonderful theatre was an exciting space, too exciting for some. Think Parkinson’s Law. Like work, young people fill up the space allotted to them. I don’t remember suggesting hide and seek as a warm-up activity but it became popular. For the more nervous, it wasn’t a game! And there were so many places to hide. Funny that Kate and I didn’t think to hide ourselves, but then we had the Staff Room.

When some went into hiding, Kate had that horse whisperer’s way of bringing even the most reluctant back to the fold. One minute they would be packing their bags to give up and go. Five minutes later, Kate had them laughing, seeing how far they had come, ready to have another go.

Kate is doing a PGCE next year. She’s a gift to the classroom. It is wonderful and reassuring that the profession still attracts candidates of her calibre.

A year’s teaching rolled into one week?

Without free lessons, it was intense, especially the two-hour session before lunch at 1.35! I repeat, lunch at 1.35! But then there was no marking, although Kate had to write reports on each pupil at the end of the week. We needed the evenings to catch our breath, and to reflect. In all my 20 years, I can’t remember such a roller coaster journey. It all felt like a year’s teaching rolled into a week. It is best compared to the days before the school play. And I have done too many of those!

Many of the children presented, in teacher speak, ‘challenging behaviour’. In the spirit of euphemism, let’s just say that they were reluctant learners, the recalcitrant, the school’s recidivists. THE UNREADY. We lost a few pupils over the week. Lost in the sense that they returned to their lessons. Though there is also the sense that some of them were a little lost, uncertain what school had to offer them and what they had to offer school. You can take the horse to water, but … never a truer word. One was dismissed for the good of the group: he was taking up too much of our time and had been given too many ‘final final chances’. We spent too much time managing his behaviour rather than teaching him, and indeed the others. Maybe he will learn from the experience; maybe he will know to make more of the next opportunity that comes his way.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. And that was the case with many of them. One-to-one really suited some. They luxuriated in and thrived with the extra time, care and attention. Rather than compete with other pupils in a busy class of 30+, they were allowed time to share and explore their difficulties. We, in turn, had time to coax and coach and nurture. We could experiment, make one or two mistakes in approach, and work out which ones worked best for each of our charges. A ‘one size fits all’ policy least suits education. These moments were our opportunity to have those formative conversations where a little praise plants a seed. I remember one boy saying to himself, in a bemused tone: ‘I’m enjoying this.’

These moments led to fascinating insights into the lives of young people today.

And their perception of the world of work and the world at large. Two student ambassadors accompany us over the course of the week, and this gave us the opportunity to raise the subject of university aspirations. A hot-seating task to develop listening and interviewing skills led to some interesting questions. One boy asked for a phone number, but our students deftly batted this request into the slips.

I am always surprised – though I shouldn’t be – at how certain media soundbites stick: ‘crippling student debt’ was one.

And yet children who hadn’t really considered university were asking questions about it by the end of the week. I was sad to walk away from KEVICC on Friday. I wanted those conversations to continue.

We enjoyed some fantastic success stories.

Damian, who could barely sit still on Monday and Tuesday, gave his presentation on Friday morning, and patiently listened to the other talks.

When I helped Tim choose a poem on Monday, he held it at the very tip of forefinger and thumb, as if I’d handed him my hanky. He half-joked: ‘I can’t read.’ He then went on to learn it by heart by the same time the next day – and before anyone else. You couldn’t script it!

I was delighted when David, who struggled with his diabetes much of the week, missing a day in hospital, came alive when talking about robotics. He spoke movingly of how his mother had bought him a kit when he was nine. Again, one thinks of the power of suggestion, of how these opportunities spark up the tinder. You never know which ones will catch light.

Who would have thought that Samantha, who struggled all week to write her talk, and then did not want to deliver it once it was written, would go on to get a Distinction? A keen footballer, she spoke about gender inequality and women’s football. In her case, the week revealed a barrister in the making.

To conclude, I’d bring Donna centre stage. Keen to be an actress, but unsure quite where to start, she was sold on public speaking from the outset. Articulacy offered her the perfect opportunity to hone her natural talents and inspire others in the process. She was our leading light, our pacesetter.

Her topic? What could have been braver or more personal? She spoke openly about her experience of being adopted. Her mother was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when Donna was two. Losing all movement in the left-hand side of her body, she was unable to look after herself let alone her three daughters of 1, 4 and 6 years of age. Faced also with an abusive partner, the girls’ father, she had to give up her daughters, who went into foster care. At the end of her speech, I could see the Deputy Head Mistress at the very back of the auditorium wiping away a tear. Donna deservedly received a Distinction.

Results don’t matter but those who took the examination all ended up with Merits or Distinctions, rather than simply a pass grade.

I am now an inducted member of the Articulacy team/family

It was a wonderful week and the first of many, I hope. I always feel that you learn more than you yourself teach. You don’t get out what you put in. You get it back in spades.

Thank you, Julia Ward, Ali Shorer and Leanne Fennell for this opportunity. Thank you to Kate Sermon, who guided me through the induction, teaching me so many things along the way, including poems to inspire even the most unwilling, some great games, a little horse whispering and much more besides.

Thank you also to another Kate, Kate Frater of KEVICC. She organised rooms and laptops, and took time out of her own full timetable to troubleshoot, popping in and out all week, and dealing with a full spectrum of issues, missteps and mishaps, all with a smile on her face.

I look forward to my first ‘proper’ week in February when I go to All Saints Church of England Academy in Plymouth.

(Note that names have been changed to respect the privacy of the pupils.)