By Claudette Brown
Date Posted: Monday, 15 June 2009
Claudette Brown was born in Birmingham, England and she is of African Caribbean descent. She is the mother of two teenagers. Having qualified as a Nursery Nurse (NNEB) she worked in a local primary school that was attended by some of the most deprived and disadvantaged children and families in Birmingham. In the 1980’s she moved to London where she worked as an agency Nursery Nurse across many local authorities before taking up a post as a Nursery Officer in a Day Nursery for children under five. Later she became a Senior Nursery Officer before moving to work in a Family Centre, where she worked with parents and in the wider community. She completed a Youth and Community course and l worked as a Youth and Community worker with young people and adults. In 1998 she began studying for a BA in Education and Social Policy and while studying she she worked as a Family Support Worker for Homestart, a national voluntary organization providing home support for families. On completing her degree Ckaudette took up a post as a Learning Mentor in a London Primary School.
Becoming a Learning Mentor : a personal journey
This article is about my personal journey as a Learning Mentor working in a London primary school. In this article I will reveal what led me to take on this role above all other options that were open to me after gaining a first class honors degree in Education and Social Policy. The role is very broad and far reaching that it is impossible in a short article to give it the justice it deserves. I have chosen to present a series of case studies of my work; I feel that this would give you a more vivid and insightful account into the role its challenges and of course its rewards. The names in the case studies have been changed for obvious reasons.
What led me to become a Learning Mentor
Before I became a Learning Mentor and before I’d gained my degree in Education and Social Policy, I had held several professional posts working with children, young people and families but I worked predominantly with families with children under five years old. For over a decade I had worked with and supported families deemed as being `vulnerable families` with children ‘in need’. Throughout these years I have said goodbyes to many children and their families and wished them well as the children went to school for the first time; the start of a new era. In every case at this transitional point I found myself asking the same question, who will be there to support these children and their families when they enter school? Surely many of the difficulties these children and families had experienced and presented were not just going to disappear.
Four years on, I am now a Senior Learning Mentor a which is a new role I have been asked to take on. I now have the primary responsibility for ensuring the implementation and development of the role in my school. I have been able to extend the Learning Mentor’s role and remit beyond its standard requirements by developing initiatives for wider work practice that are highly sought after beyond the school and beyond the borough in which I work. This has required me to give presentations and to deliver training sessions to senior school staff, Learning Mentors and Teaching Assistants across the borough. I even had the opportunity to publish an article about the impact of some of the initiatives I implemented in the school in the Race Equality Teaching Journal, Autumn 2008. It is evident that my decision to become a |Learning Mentor has enriched me intrinsically, if not materially, as both as a person and as a professional.
What do Learning Mentors do?
Although during the last ten Learning Mentors have become more recognised and established as a professional group of people working predominately in schools across England,it remains a role which is little known amongst the well established caring and health professions. At best they are often vaguely understood to be just another group of support staff whose role is not too clear.
“The most successful and popular strand is Learning Mentors. The creation of these posts has been greatly welcomed and has enabled the majority of schools to enhance the quality of support, they offer to disaffected, underachieving and vulnerable pupils…… Learning mentors are making a significant effect on the attendance, behaviour, self-esteem and progress of the pupils they support… [learning mentors are] successful and highly valued” (Ofsted, 2003 p46).
The Learning Mentors’ role is to provide a complementary and supportive service to all staff in school and external agencies by working with pupils and their families whose difficulties are providing significant barriers to learning. The learning Mentor’s role may include using strategies to:
The Learning Mentor’s role is key to promoting the aims of the Every Child Matters outcomes and is now embedded in the ‘School Improvement Plan’ of many schools. Although there is a standardised job description, the role of Learning Mentors is to respond to the needs of their particular school. Given this, the role can vary considerably between different schools.
What kind of person becomes a Learning Mentor ?
Learning Mentors come from various backgrounds, with varying degrees of educational qualifications. My view is that it is not so much the qualifications that make a good mentor, but the willingness to make sincere commitments to those who most need their support. Taking time to build trusting relationships from which children and their families can feel empowered. Opening up doors of opportunities and helping to look for new ways of responding to longstanding problems is at the core of the Learning Mentor’s work in trying to meet of children and their families for whom these doors have been closed for too long. Perhaps I can better demonstrate this with some case studies.
Francis was referred to me because she has learning difficulties and has low self-esteem. Francis wa aware that she was not achieving academically as well as others in her class. This has impacted on her self perception and her view of her ability to make progress and achieve. In school she often displayed a poor sense of self-identity, confidence and esteem; she often struggled to make friends.
My initial sessions with Francis were very slow and centred on very informal discussions. During these sessions, Francis presented as a pupil whose conversations and self-identity were dominated by the various supports she gave to her mother in caring for her three younger sisters and how well she carried out her household chores. In relation to her school work, Francis often said that she couldn’t read as well as her friends, but loved books and wished that she could be a better reader. She said her friends were given much harder work than she was given to do. When asked how she felt about this, Francis said “It makes me really sad because I feel stupid and different”.
Over the course of two terms Francis worked with me, she attended two weekly one to one sessions,(one to one sessions with children are a common feature of the Learning Mentor’s work), lasting between 30 to 40 minutes. Francis joined the Learning Mentor Library and she to take books home on a regular basis and she read to me on many occasions. Francis said “I’ve never read so many books before; am really surprised that I could do this”. The glee on her face said it all. Francis later joined my after-school parent and child homework club. She commented, “Coming to the club has meant that I didn’t have to struggle at home and my mum didn’t have to feel bad anymore about not being able to help me”.
Francis and I no longer have one to one sessions. She now attends my lunch-time drop in session (running lunch time clubs and be available over lunch-times to support pupils is a key part of the role) where we can keep in touch and it’s a place where she can come to if she needs support.
Jessie was referred to me by her class teacher who had observed frequent conflicts between Jessie and her peers. Jessie had been tearful on many occasions, particularly after lunch-time; she was often reluctant to tell her teacher or lunch-time staff why this was.
It was evident at the beginning of my work with Jessie that she was struggling with a number of friendship issues. Following a number of informal discussions, I began using a friendship programme* with her that centred on looking at various types of friendships, identifying personal qualities in a good friend, coping with conflict and how to make and sustain relationships. Jessie worked very hard in these sessions. She was able to move from being a pupil who presented as lacking awareness of, and valuing her own needs in relation to others. She became able to identify and acknowledge that she had many of the qualities needed to be a good friend. Further discussions with Jessie about her friendships and interactions with others, particularly when there was conflict, showed her to have a tendency to adopt a very passive position; Jessie told me in one of her sessions “ I’m afraid to show my true feelings because I don’t like arguments and my friends might dislike me and then I would have no friends”. It took a long time for her to accept that she was not responsible for her friend’s behaviours or feelings and to acknowledge the value of her own feelings.
* Learning Mentors often use a range of programmes such as SEAL (social and emotional aspects of learning), Anger-management and Developing Social Skills to support pupil’s social and emotional development. I often use these programmes with groups of children and in one to one sessions.
Much of the Learning Mentor’s work is with children with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Ahmed was referred to me because he often made angry and violent outbursts towards children and teachers. He would also run out of class several times during the day and refuse to work with his class or independently. Ahmed had been taken into care along with three other members of his family.
Given the volatile situations Ahmed created and the danger Ahmed posed to himself and others, I first had to establish a safe place in the school where Ahmed could go to whenever he hit crisis point. Like many children in the school, Ahmed loved my room; it was warm, peaceful and had many therapeutic resources. The next thing I did was to set about building a trusting relationship with Ahmed. I did this by inviting Ahmed to spend some of lunch-times playing games with other children in my room. I also made in-class visits and would have lunch with him twice a week. Over several weeks there were slight improvements in Ahmed’s behaviour. Whenever he ran out of class he came immediately to my room. He was often so angry and unable to control himself that on these occasions I gave lot of newspaper to tear up and play dough for him to bash in order to help him release his rage. Once Ahmed had calmed down I was able to talk him through what happened and how he was feeling.
My next step was to set-up a behaviour support plan involving Ahmed, his class teacher and the SENCo. We set two targets for Ahmed that we hoped would help him to stay in class even when he was angry. In order to give him opportunities to reflect on his behaviour we asked him to record his feelings in his own diary and to draw them as well.
Although Ahmed still struggled to manage his feelings and behaviour, he worked well and co-operatively on his diary and so consistently met his targets. Ahmed was out of class less often made and made greater efforts to work. His anger became less intense he was able to calm down more quickly.
When I started working with Stefan’s family, he had already had a long history of poor attendance. He was absent from school two days a week on a regular basis, often on Mondays and Fridays. His punctuality was also poor; he frequently arrived at school after 9.30 am. Despite the involvement of the Education Welfare officer and threats of legal measures, Stefan’s mother still failed to make sustained improvements in his attendance. Stefan loved school and was a bright and popular member of his class.
My relationship with Stefan’s mother began when I was about to implement a weekly parent and carers coffee morning session at the school. At the same time I had implemented a Breakfast Family Reading club that started at 8.00 am. The school at that time had very little in place in relation to meeting the wider needs of parents. With two new initiatives in place I approached Stefan’s mother to become a volunteer in helping with the coffee mornings. Although initially she appeared keen, she was often unreliable. However, with persistence she begun to attend the coffee mornings where she met with other parents, and had an input into the planning of the sessions. It was this informal contact that gave me insight into Stefan’s mother’s needs. She was isolated from her family and had suffered from depression for sometime. When she felt depressed she felt she had nothing to look forward to and would wake up late having been up most of the night.
Contact with Stefan’s mother was frequent and informal, often at the beginning and end of the school day and during the coffee mornings which she turned up regularly for. Stefan by this time had made some improvements in his attendance, but it was by no means good enough.
I started holding drop in sessions for parents; Stefan’s mother would attend and it was during these sessions that I was able to address her son’s poor attendance, her responsibility for getting her son to school and the importance and benefits of regular school attendance. Whenever Stefan was absent I would call his mother to find out his whereabouts and if there was no reply I would make a concerted effort to follow up the matter with her. Stefan was now in year six and lived local to the school. It was at that point that I offered him a place in our Breakfast Family Reading club. His attendance at the club meant that he was on time; this also had a major impact on improving his attendance. What was surprising, was that Stefan’s mother also attended with him and often helped in running the club. Stefan’s mother commented” I feel so depressed especially if I have nothing much to do, I look forward to the coffee mornings because I have made new friends and have learnt a lot” “Stefan really enjoys the breakfast club and he has encouraged me to come along”.
Stefan’s improved attendance had a huge impact on his attainment, achievements and social development. Whenever Stefan is absent from school, his mother complied with the school’s procedures by calling the school and providing a note explaining absences; she was no longer faced the likelihood of fast track prosecution. Stefan’s mother stopped attending the Breakfast Family Reading club; however, she continued to attend the weekly coffee morning session.
I am very proud to say that I have been a Learning Mentor. The scope of the role is fascinating and has helped me to think outside the box when seeking ways in which to support children and their families.
The positive feedback from staff, parents, children and professionals from various external agencies has been so rewarding. `good enough care` is about commitment, sincerity, developing and sustaining relationships, and empowerment. Progress made, no matter how small should be acknowledged and celebrated because it matters most to those we seek to support.
I hope this article has given you some insight into the role and work of Learning Mentors
Ofsted (2003), Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones Management and Impact