In the 80s social workers had a slightly bizarre dress code.
They could wear any colour they liked as long as it was the wrong shade of brown.
The uniform was adhered to so closely, I reckon it must have been either enforced or incentivised in some way. It was so apparent, that an eight year old me sussed it out over the two days it took to place me and my younger brother in foster care for the first time.
During the process, we met various strangers, all well meaning, some nurturing and others friendly and funny. Growing up in an abusive home had taught me to be wary of adults and scan faces and body language looking for deception. I was surprised and bemused to see authenticity shining through the staff who were clearly committed to living the brand of being human first and professional second.
They reminded me of Mr Zaleski, my teacher.
As A Teacher, You’re An Ordinary Hero
Our social worker just didn’t make the cut. Clad in spectacularly off-beige flares and living on a diet that seemed to consist solely of lollipops and pickled onion flavour Monster Munch, I’d already decided he didn’t share Mr Zaleski’s hero status. When he informed us that we were off to a new home, I told him I wanted to live with Mr Zaleski – a natural choice as someone I knew and trusted. But, ‘Junk Food Charlie’ explained that we would be moving to a new school and the bottom literally fell out of my fragile world.
I was ambivalent about leaving my parents but not about my relationship with the teachers at my school.Those adults were my lifeline.
All that indicated I was of any value was built in that classroom.
Mr Zaleski let me stay in for a few precious minutes at lunchtime to continue a chess game he had on his desk. I lost every time (what with him playing to win and showing no mercy and all) but at the end of each game he’d nod and smile kindly as he told me I was improving. Those lunchtimes were a much needed constant in my chaotic and uncertain life. Whatever was going on at home, the chess set would be in my classroom reminding me I mattered to someone.
Mr Zaleski took the time to notice that what I needed a million times more urgently than my times table certificate was a human connection. Luckily he decided he could deliver both.
What he knew then, and I realised later, is that healthy relationships with authentic adults would be the crucial element that tipped the scales in my future.
The Power Of Being Human First, Professional Second
Air, water, food and shelter are basic human needs and I survived times when air was the only thing in abundance. While poverty has its own challenges, neglect is the real kicker.
As humans we are pre-programmed to seek out and make connections with other humans. We like to be with people who share our story, our beliefs, our values. This need for connection is especially strong when we’re young. In my vulnerable state the eight year old me reached for the one source of validation and only good connection I had. The one with my Year 4 teacher.
Even with parents who know how to nurture, children need multiple spectacular adults outside the home to flourish. For some children those adults are the key to accessing a positive foundation. In my case, my teachers were battling years of negative reinforcement and, with that depth of damage, their consistency was critical. They had to be human first.
Once the physiological basics are met, humans need to know that they are safe.
This is enormous. And the defining factor of your impact as a teacher of a child living in chaos is the depth to which you establish this.
Only those of us unfamiliar with a chaotic existence have the luxury of taking safety for granted. What Mr Zaleski (and other teachers like him) did was commit to getting off automatic himself in order to and seeing school life from the perspective of a mini human who has learned to love as if nothing of certain. He gifted me a wealth of opportunities for connection, which is the cornerstone of embedding ambitious resilience.
Teaching is about relationships
I was caught in a loop of needing connection, which meant that I was constantly reaching out to the adults in school. However, without the articulation required to explain my deep need comprehensively to those with no understanding of what life was like for me outside of school, this came out as disruption, hysteria or withdrawing into myself. All the while I willed them to ignore my words, disregard my actions and instead, read my mind.
In the classrooms where belonging relied on my behaviour, the connection, and my ability to grow, was stilted. The onus was on my to make the first move – behave ‘properly’. Having not spent time around positive examples that I could assimilate I was not entirely sure what ‘proper’ behaviour looked like. Looking around I guess it involved having a different accent and clean clothes. Just being working class with middle class teachers needed a fair bit of translation. I felt like I was playing a game with nonsensical rules that everyone but me had a copy of!
In the absence of a good, healthy and mutually beneficial connection we compromise. At home, I accepted that I was worthless. In the classes with an absence of connection, it was clear that I could matter, as long as I could blend in and make myself appear more ‘acceptable’. In my early relationships with guys I accepted my only value was sexual.
What had been embedded in my psyche played out as predictably as an episode of Danger Mouse.
Be A Serial Interrupter
What saved me from a life of destruction were the teachers who ‘did a Zaleski’. They refused to compromise the reason they became a teacher in the first place . Regardless of what their ever-changing role required, they held their WHY as the central driving force. That WHY kept them authentically engaged and allowed them to make connections, not because of what they said or did, but because of what they thought and felt.
They were nothing more than human first, teachers second and I owe them everything I am.
This video made my heart swell. Not because of the dramatic change of events after Barrack Obama left the Whitehouse. Not even because of the good old fashioned 1970s racism I was subjected too after Brexit.
Because of you.
You and teachers like you who take the time to ensure they are less human doing and more human being.
By simply taking an interest in your learners you are validating, acknowledging and empowering an awareness of self that is inaccessible any other way.
Every comment, look and smile that comes from your authentic self, paves a possible golden path out of mindset poverty for children like me.
As you watch this, take a moment to think about all the ways you create connections with and for your learners. In doing so you literally embed bravery. Remind yourself you totally ROCK and go be awesome in school today.