An open invitation was extended about two and a half years ago by Dave Whitaker, the executive principal of Springwell Learning Community during his session at Northern Rocks and today, I finally made it there, to be amongst the students and staff.
Springwell is an incredible place, open, honest and true to its philosophy of giving every child and young person the best possible start in life through unrelenting, honest and highly effective use of unconditional positive regard. And I saw it, and felt it, before I even walked through the door.
Walking from my car there was a queue of taxis dropping students off from far and wide; the catchment area for the school is the whole of Barnsley. Every single student was welcomed with a smile and personalised salutation by vice principal Danny Ross and care team leader Luke Mitchell swiftly followed by two more adults greeting all who entered with a smile and acknowledgement. Students arrive alone or in twos, therefore this group welcome is something really quite special reminding students where they are and reimersing them back with open arms, smiling faces and compassion in their eyes.
After a tour around the school as students were making their way to their classrooms, settling themselves for the full day ahead, I was delighted to be delivered to Primary Class 2 and Mr Teasdale with whom I spent a marvellous day filled with adventure, heartfelt honesty, some tears but lots and lots and lots of love. Despite my arrival the students remained totally focused, entranced even, on the settling starter activity for the day whilst industrious teaching assistants prepared breakfast.
I’ll be honest, it’s been a little while since I was last in a primary setting so I was excitedly-nervous but the ever smiley Mr Teasdale came bounding over, welcoming me with bright, smiling eyes and warmth that you might struggle to see this close to February half term. But which I would later discover permeated through every space, flowing freely from every adult that I would meet. A surprise visitor to his class for the day and Mr Teasdale wasn’t at all phased despite being halfway through his NQT year and so very close to half term. This was a usual day and it would be business as usual.
Breakfast time commenced and here the class sit together and have breakfast whilst Mr Teasdale reads to them, a new and specially selected story to help inspire their minds whilst munching on toast and other breakfast goodies, made to order by the wonderful teaching assistants. One student had chosen to not take part in this morning ritual, remaining curled up on his chair and table scowling so I headed across to speak to him. He might not want to take part but I wondered if he’d let me chat to him, and happily he was. The conversation started decidedly one sided with sideward grumpy glances towards me but slowly he uncurled himself giving the occasional nod to my questions and suddenly burst in to conversation divulging his love of spiders and inviting me to see the giant tarantula residing in his home. I politely declined but having opened up I asked if he was now ready to join the others and he smiled, nodded and headed over.
As the last remnants of breakfast were swallowed by the students, Mr Teasdale reflected upon the previous day highlighting positives and praising effort, rewarding four students for progress made, kindness towards others and positive behaviour. A lovely start to a new working day where students are reminded of expectations but so richly and purposefully praised. The winner of the trophy for the day was rightly proud as Mr T handed over the prized possession as his classmates, utterly delighted for him, genuinely expressed their ‘well dones’.
Next stop I found myself in a phonics lesson so I placed myself between two lads at the back. Mr T leading from the front forcing the group to make swift connections in previously learned graphemes and phonemes, building on their prior knowledge without any lost time. His expert questioning technique and wonderful manner created a purposeful, competitive yet safe environment so the students could think, have a go, thus flourish and grow extending their skills with each step.
Before I knew it we were moving on to drama using our voices and physicality to develop understanding of aspects of the ghost story that students would storyboard later in the day. Mr T handed the reins over and was an active member of the class, which the students loved, especially when it was time to become a terrifying zombie. Mr T made a great zombie as did several of the class. Vulnerabilities were exposed through expertly linked trust and emotion exercises yet this was a fun and memorable learning experience for all. One that students would be expected to draw upon later in the day when creating their masterpieces. Mr T and his expertly trained teaching assistants provided the support needed, to encourage students to get involved and take an active rather than merely a vocal part in the session’s activities. Each adult tirelessly cheering in support of students bravely stepping out of their comfort zones but if it became too much and vulnerabilities were exposed revealing themselves in refusal or frustration; support, care and positivity were swiftly administered perhaps even a hand held and the learning for the rest of the group never stopped.
Breaktime came and students were asked if they wanted to go outside or stay in, they had the choice and the staff scattered to the four winds as per the students wishes. Staff are there to support the students, there was no break for them in the staff room to catch up on last nights tv or to find out who had yet to receive a valentine’s day card. Staff are with the students from when they arrive in the morning from 8:30am until they depart around 3pm. This is what happens day in, day out at Springwell.
I was drawn to one lad who had chosen to stay in who was carrying a huge box full of Pokémon cards. As I headed towards him, he tentatively acknowledged my presence and let me sit beside him. As the trainee teaching assistant (in her second year and first week at Springwell ) continued preparing resources for after half term, this young man began to show us his Pokémon collection, opening up and becoming more confident as he spread out his beloved cards across the table. Despite both of us being very new to him, he welcomed us in to his Pokémon world asking if I had any cards. Sadly I didn’t but he continued to educate us regardless. I took the opportunity to ask details and the pronunciation of the names of these exotic beasts building on the phonics session earlier to which he obliged, taking time to sound out more complex and mysterious creatures. He was happy to do so overcoming anxiety in the process. He didn’t want to look daft, and bless him he tried to distract me with additional shiny cards but after a little gentle persistence, he came through.
Before we knew it Mr T was back and we were back on the learning train no time wasted despite protestations and some refusal, we went ever forwards not leaving anyone behind. Skilful use of music denoted the end of one activity and a flawlessly calm start to the next. The students were well versed in this quickly packing away, removing coats and heading back to their desks ready for the next phase of the day.
For these students, transitions, the activity change and moving from one space to another are potential ‘flash points’ and extremes that any mainstream teacher might rarely see, can quickly surface. Students are dealt with swiftly yet in a way that takes them from the immediate space so learning nor their peers are distracted. This is done positively, with care and with love, to protect the individual student or others from injury or harm. After a short while, students return calm and their learning resumes, no grudges are held, no comments made, not from staff nor peers, nothing but a calm, caring and genuinely positive tone of voice and body language are used to welcome them back. When a student returns they do so when they are ready and not before, when the anxiety and upset, the tears and the adrenaline surge have dissipated. Students are never left alone in the process and the time they need is very individual but this is supported and given positively and unconditionally.
Throughout the day I was asked by students to assist sanding wheels to help one lad build his canon and then directed to help colour to provide appropriate camouflage for his DT project, invited to play dinosaur ludo during break, was written in to a ghost story as a sidekick, invited to bake in a small group with one of the fabulous TAs and was almost gifted a prized Pokémon card. To my surprise, I was approached by an anxious student for help, once he’d taken my hand he dove under the sink, taking me with him until he felt safe enough to return. I was also asked to go back next week by three in the class, when I told them I’d be at my own school they said I should ask my headteacher to let me off. Suffice to say I had a brilliant day, the students in Primary 2 showed superb resilience, unwavering care for one another, grit to keep going despite things not quite going their way, surprising calm when a peer became overwhelmed and enraged. Steps forward were made, they stayed in school all day and all took part in each learning activity be it reading, writing, practical DT or Elements, attending therapy sessions then quickly immersing themselves back in class to the task set.
These little people are incredible considering their vulnerabilities and range of extenuating and individual personal circumstances. All of this is learned through a totally immersive experience; seeing, hearing, feeling constant positivity, authentic care, incredible calm and buckets and buckets full of love. The staff at Springwell have the highest of expectations placed upon them because it’s what the children need in order to access school, a curriculum and perhaps for some, to function, which they have been unable to find in mainstream education, at home or in their experience prior to their arrival here.
When I first heard the term ‘unconditional positive regard’ it was three words which burst in to life and instantly had me thinking about my classroom and my students, but at Springwell you can feel it, in the classrooms and learning spaces, along the corridors through to the sensory spaces, see it in every staff members face and posture from reception and office staff through to the senior leadership team, hear it calling from kindness displays and in voices used throughout the day by all. It’s a really special place created by the amazing team of staff there in support of the very challenging and complex youngsters they spend their days with. It is abundantly clear for all to witness that the array of teachers, TAs, care workers and therapists; the entire staff believe wholeheartedly in the children and the children know that someone believes in them too and that, is quite remarkable.
Student voice is always important and you can always trust students to say it like it is. You know it’s a place that students love to go to, not because it’s school and they have to, but because they feel cared for, valued and loved. Whilst on sanding duty one young man shared with me that his favourite colour is ‘light blue’ and when asked to describe it further he pointed proudly to his polo shirt saying ‘Springwell blue Miss’.
Huge thanks to Mr T and Class 2 for welcoming me in to the class, to Mr Ross and Mrs Watts for the allowing me to come in to school so close to half term, and to Mr Whitaker for extending the initial invitation to visit in his Northern Rocks session which can be seen here. I had a truly memorable and thought provoking day at Springwell and I smiled all the way back to Bristol.