Emma's Story - Bring a Child to Therapy
Emma is an NQT who has been working in a Year Two class in a three-form entry primary school
When Emma started her new job as an NQT she was excited to be told that all NQTs at her school were provided with monthly Bring a Child to Therapy sessions. She hoped she would be able to continue the kind of reflective practice she had done in her tutor group when she was training for her BEd.
As the date of her first session approached, though, she had begun to feel uncomfortable about her 'NQT' label. She had got a 'First' for her BEd, and had received 'Outstanding' observations in her practice, so expected to be competent from the word go. Being labelled an 'NQT' made it feel like she was not a proper teacher yet, and more than anything she wanted to be seen as normal and competent, not needing any extra support.
On the day of her first session Emma found her initial excitement had turned fully into resentment. She approached the Bring a Child to Therapy session as a necessary evil, similar to the Tuesday afternoon NQT training sessions she'd had to endure which were aimed at people much less advanced than she was. In addition there was a book scrutiny just around the corner and it wasn't long until her second observation of the term, and she knew she had to show improvements from the last. This was coming at just the wrong time.
But their first session wasn't as bad as she'd feared. She had been told to prepare her thoughts about a few children that she was struggling with, and her therapist - Phil - had briefly gone through these with her. In all honesty it felt good to talk, but she didn't feel she'd really learnt anything, and was distracted throughout by the nagging thought of the planning that was unfinished, and the marking she needed to catch up with. As soon as Emma left the room she was back into the daily grind and soon forgot about her session.
Emma entered the room in a very different mood for her second session.
"Thank God you're here this week," she said as Phil opened the door to her, her face flushed with emotion. "I don't know what to do and I need you to help me out, I've been threatened with a formal disciplinary and they're talking about not passing the NQT year, and I just feel so let down, and I can't stop thinking about Rajesh and what's going on right now and I still can't get over the meeting. It's still going on right now and I can't bear to think what they're saying about me". Emma's voice cracked and she grabbed a tissue as she took a deep breath in, holding back the tears.
"Wow." Phil replied, trying to remain calm in the face of this whirlwind. "I can see there's a lot that's right at the surface for you at the moment. I'm afraid I didn't quite catch what's been going on, so just take a moment to gather yourself and then when you're ready, tell me what's happened". He waited patiently while Emma took some more deep breaths, before telling him her story.
"It started a couple of weeks ago when I noticed that a boy in my class - Rajesh - oh, he's so sweet and sad and I just can't bear it. He's in there with them now and I feel so powerless to do anything, I can't understand how it's ended up this way because I only wanted to help and - "
"If it's ok, it'd be useful for both of us if we stick to the story first so that I can understand what's going on," Phil interrupted, noticing how Emma was becoming flushed again, and finding it hard to keep up with the chaotic case presentation.
"Oh, ok, sorry. I'm not usually like this," Emma tried to grin through the tears that were pricking her eyes again, "I don't know what you'll think of me, being a stupid little emotional girl like this."
"I don't experience you that way," replied Phil, "and there's nothing wrong with expressing emotions, but if we're going to get any deeper insight into what's happening for you, we will need to be on the same page. We can pick up what you said about being stupid and emotional later on, once you've told me the facts, if that's ok?"
"Yes, yes that's fine. Well I guess the important thing to start with is that I'd noticed Rajesh had come in smelling of, well, you know, he smelt of wee a couple of times. Not just a little bit, but, you know, old stale wee. And he didn't have lunch a couple of times that week, so I, you know, I had to help out."
"You felt that you had to help Rajesh out because - "
"I felt I had to help because he needed it. He obviously wasn't being looked after at home, and I wasn't about to let a child in my care suffer because his parents are too lazy to do anything for him. I mean really, how much effort does it take to wash - "
"Ok, let's just shelve that for a minute, too. I'd like you to just stay with the facts just for the moment. You had noticed that Rajesh had unwashed clothes on and didn't have a lunch packed for him, so -"
"Well he did have a lunch but it wasn't much - just a chocolate bar and a packet of crisps."
"Ok, so he had unwashed clothes and a lunch that you didn't feel was adequate."
"Feel was inadequate? You sound just like them! Questioning me and criticising my judgement!" Emma shouted. "Why won't anyone believe me. I saw him! I know him better than anyone! He's my little Raj and I know there's something going on!"
They both sat in silence for a moment. Emma looked accusingly at Phil, then down at her feet.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to blow up like that. I've just had a bunch of this all week and threats and I don't know what. I thought you at least would be on my side."
"I'm not on anyone's side, but I am here to help you understand yourself, and all I've done so far is repeat what you've told me. I appreciate this is a really difficult time right now, and I want you to feel safe feeling angry or annoyed with me. I'm grateful that you expressed that rather than hiding it. But I do need to hear from you exactly what happened. It sounds pretty important for you and for Rajesh that we both get clear about what's happened and what we might do about it."
Emma continued to explain what had occurred over the past two weeks. After she had noticed Rajesh's inadequate lunch, she gave him some of her own, including a few sweets from her treat jar. He often stayed in at lunchtime because he had, she explained, been bullied by the bigger children, and preferred to stay in doing jobs for her. While he was there she had asked him about home, and he had told her "Mummy and Daddy don't look after me any more, since the baby's come. I have to make my own meals and do my own washing and I don't get any dinner if I do it wrong."
"At the end of the school day I called the parents in and told them what I'd done. They were apologetic but didn't really understand, I think, what I was saying, but I did my best, and they did say they'd make sure he had clean clothes in the future, so - "
"I'm just going to interrupt you for a moment," Phil said, "to remind you about our contracting in the first session and what I told you then about child protection issues and me passing on information if I judge that a child protection issue hasn't been adequately dealt with. Does that make sense?"
"Oh." Emma looked deflated. "So you are on their side. You think I messed this up too?"
"I don't know, but our top priority always has to be the child's safety, so I wanted to remind you of that. I'll only pass on what is relevant to any child protection issue, nothing else. Now, if it's ok, tell me what happened next."
Emma sat in silence for a few moments.
"Well, he didn't turn up on Wednesday or Thursday or Friday, and I was a bit worried, but to be honest - I know this sounds awful and I sound like I'm a bad person, but I forgot about it until after school on Friday when I meet with Sian - the, well I guess she's the acting deputy. Well she asked about him being off school - apparently they were worried about him already - and I explained the meeting I'd had with the parents she properly flew off the handle. I've never seen a teacher like that - so angry!
"I was shocked and I can't really remember much after that. It's like I was numb. She made me write it all down - pretty much what I've told you, and then just walked out and left me there. I didn't know what to do, so I just sat there for, well, it must've been twenty minutes just feeling, like I said, just feeling numb, and then I guess I just got up and left. There and then on Friday, without any of my books to mark or anything, and drove straight home. I don't know how I didn't crash I was so angry, and, well, you've seen how much I cry when things get too much!" Emma was crying again, and laughed as she pulled the last tissue out of the box Phil had provided.
"I can," said Phil, "and it sounds like there's so much in what you've said that needs to be unpicked and understood. I'm especially keen to understand how this has impacted on you emotionally, and how you understand the decisions you made. However, we do have limited time today so if it's ok I'd like if you told me the rest of the story first."
Emma ran through the events that followed: a formal meeting with the headteacher and Emma's mentor, a "telling-off" by the child-protection co-ordinator, Rajesh returning to school but refusing to talk to her, and finally a meeting which she knew was happening right now between Rajesh's parents and the headteacher.
"It's all just a pile of crap. I'm finished. I don't get it, I just don't get it how it's gone so wrong! I was doing so well - no-one ever had to come into my classroom like they did to the other NQTs but they're just carrying on and I'm in this nightmare and I'm failing! What's happened to me?"
"That's a really good question, and one I think we both need to get to the bottom of. If I've understood, a lot of your identity as a good teacher has been challenged by this situation"
"Yes. Yes that's it. I've lost the person that I was - the good teacher. The solid, competent teacher."
"And I'm really interested to hear about that, as well as your relationship with Rajesh - it sounds to me like there's quite a lot going on between you which it may be helpful to explore. But I do need to tell you straight away that I will have to disclose some of what we've said to the child protection coordinator."
"Yes. I know, I thought you'd say that. It's fine, go ahead, tell him everything."
"No, I won't tell him everything we've talked about. How you've been feeling about things and your perception of your place in the school aren't relevant. But I will tell him the facts that you've related to me about your actions, so that I can be sure that the children in this school are safe."
"But I've told him all of this already."
"That may be the case, but I need to be sure that I'm reporting back the things I've agreed with the school and with you that I'd report back. There's no harm in him hearing the same thing twice, and it might help to keep Rajesh safe." Phil paused, observing the impact his reminder had on Emma. She seemed deflated, empty, and sat looking into the middle distance.
"But that doesn't mean that this session is over, or that we don't have important work to do. We still have fifteen minutes left today, and I'd like to suggest we spend that time looking back at your decisions and why you made them. There's a lot of work you'll need to do regarding child protection, and I know that your line-manager will take an active role in making sure that happens. That's not my area of expertise so I won't spend our time telling you what I think about the way you handled the situation -"
"I'd like if you did, though. I know you used to be a teacher. Did I get it all wrong?"
"I'm not an expert, like I said, but it sounds like you didn't follow the procedures which I know your school has in place for child protection issues. What's more interesting to me, and useful for us, though, is why you acted the way you did. I've got some ideas about that, but I wonder what you think?"
"Well," she paused, eyes looking all around the room, before dropping to her feet, "I don't know. I know this'll sound stupid and spoilt and whatever, but, no, it's stupid. I don't know. You tell me what you think."
"I won't keep my thoughts from you, but it's more important that you share what sense you're making of yourself. What were you about to say - don't worry about it sounding stupid. I won't hold you to it if you change your mind. This space is here for you to try things out and experiment."
"I just needed to help him.
"I thought I knew him better than anyone and he was my little Raj. Oh, I know I'm not his mother but she does such a bad job with him - to see the way he lights up when he walks in and sees me, and the way he hates leaving. He held on to me at the end of the first day and wouldn't leave and he told me he loved me. He needs me and I'm closer to him than anyone. Or at least I was. I've lost that now. They've, I think they've poisoned him against me."
"It feels like you've lost quite an important relationship, to you?"
"Well, no, not like that. See, this is why I didn't say it but you made me! I don't need him, he needs me. I'm upset because he needs me but I can't help him now. They're even talking about putting him in another class, and I know the other Year Two teachers, they're not what he needs - I am. I can't bear to see him go to them, even if they are more experienced they're not going to give him what he needs."
"And what is it you feel he needs?"
"He needs me!"
"Why is that?"
"Just because! Look, I know him. I can't explain it. He just does. If you saw him the way I see him you'd understand."
There was a pause, as both Phil and Emma tried to make sense of what was being shared.
"And what is it that you need?" Phil said, eventually.
"I don't need anything! I'm just a teacher and I need to be left alone to get on with this without someone interfering all the time. I don't need this namby-pamby NQT support and I don't need observations or judgements or procedures. If I could just be left alone to look after my children I'd be fine. It's everyone else getting involved that's the problem! And you're doing the same - getting involved instead of standing up for me."
"Ok, I can hear how important it is right now for you to feel independent and free from oversight. And I don't want you to feel like I'm not on your side, but it's not worth having someone on your side who always says 'yes' and never criticises."
"I know that! God, you're patronising when you want to be... Sorry, I didn't mean that. Sorry I'm just - I just need some help right now, not this constant questioning."
"That's ok. And I'm sorry that this has been a difficult session. I hope it hasn't been useless to you, but I do wonder whether maybe now is the right time for the kind of back-and-forth critical engagement we give in Bring a Child to Therapy?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, as I see it we have a couple of choices about how we move forward, and I say this because we're only a couple of minutes away from the end of this session and I want to give you time to think. We could continue to meet monthly in this Bring a Child to Therapy context, and hope that things work themselves out. That'd be fine. It might work. Or, you could refer yourself for counselling with my colleague."
"Counselling? Why?" Emma looked annoyed and drew herself up in her chair.
"Well, I know you've said how important it is for people not to interfere right now, but I'll be completely honest with you, it sounds to me like the material we've covered today has pressed some buttons for you that aren't just about teaching and aren't just about Rajesh. I may be wrong, but I've got a hunch that there's more personal work that needs doing before we can really start engaging with the Bring a Child to Therapy stuff."
"Does that mean you think I'm failing? Does that mean you don't think I'm safe to be in a classroom? Are you going to tell them I shouldn't be allowed near children?"
"That's not my judgement to make, and, like I said before, I'll be passing on the facts of what we've spoken about regarding child protection, not my judgements about you as a teacher or a person. But to really engage with Bring a Child to Therapy you will need to be robust enough to explore the feelings that come up in relation to a child, rather than living them out here in the room.
Emma sat silent.
"One thing I would say", Phil said gently, "is that it's not unusual for extreme stress, especially if it's caused by a transition in your life, to press some buttons that may not have been pressed for some time. It's distressing when it happens but it's not impossible to deal with. My hunch is that having some weekly therapy - just 6 sessions to start - might help you get back to a place where you can start engaging with Bring a Child to Therapy again. Does any of what I'm saying about this being wider than just Rajesh make any sense to you, or have I got this wrong?"
"You've, well, you've got it part right I guess. I don't know. Is it alright if I think about it?"
"That's fine, but I wouldn't leave it too long. You've got the email address for self-referrals, and choosing to start counselling might or might not be something you want to talk about with your manager, but I'll leave that to you. Is that ok?"
"Yes, yes it is. But I don't want to stop doing this - the Bring a Child to Therapy. It'd be like giving up. I'd be admitting defeat and I just can't do that."
"Ok. If that's what you'd like then we can do that for now. I'm happy to continue working monthly with you. I'd just highlight that myself and my colleague won't be talking about our different work with you. That stays completely confidential."
"Good. That's good to know. Thank you."
"That's ok. Well, it looks like we're at the end of our 50 minutes, so I'll see you again in a month?"
"Absolutely. You've, you've left me with a lot to think about, and I'm sorry about, well I'm sorry about everything."
"That's ok. It happens. Goodbye Emma."
Throughout their remaining sessions Emma presented in a much more businesslike manner. Session three was a little fraught, as Emma seemed to take offence at some of Phil's attempts to understand her, but by the fifth and sixth sessions she had regained a kind of equilibrium and was an active participant in her Bring a Child to Therapy discussions, deftly noting her emotional reactions and competently discussing these without them overwhelming her.
Occasionally Emma referred back to her second session as 'my meltdown', but preferred not to talk about it too much, and when she did she disowned the "stupid naive little girl" that "sat there crying for help". Phil tried to go into more depth about this but Emma ruled it off limits, and told Phil: "I don't think that's really for here. I'd rather talk about it to my counsellor instead of you," before changing the subject to a child she was concerned about.
While this troubled Phil, the rest of their work was very positive, mainly focused on the way that Emma engaged with the boys in her class. Working together they uncovered a lot of hidden assumptions and judgements about boys, which shocked Emma deeply. For example, she found that she had assumed that all male-male interactions were necessarily competitive and violent, when in fact there was plenty of evidence in her classroom of positive, nurturing interactions between her boys. Emma came to disown her earlier pre-judgements, and sought to call others out on their own prejudices, becoming a champion of 'difficult boys' in her NQT group, and supporting others to go on the journey she had been through. Phil was often curious about what went on in Emma's counselling sessions that allowed her to regain control and to engage with her beliefs in such an open way, but had to accept - like all therapists - that his own curiosity was not what was important. What was important was that Emma had developed in a positive direction and continued to do so, regardless of whether or not he knew how.
Their work ended on a positive note, as Emma spent the last fifteen minutes of the sixth session with Phil deciding how to frame the research question she planned to write up as a dissertation for a forthcoming Masters she was enrolling on. She settled on a provisional title of: 'boys who (don't) cry and teachers' responses to them: a personal perspective'.
Emma's Story - Counselling
Emma is an NQT teaching in Year Two. Recently she has attended her second Bring a Child to Therapy session and has now requested counselling.
"So, thank you for your email Emma", Rachel said, as they sat down in the room which had been put aside for counselling. "It sounds like you've already done a lot of thinking about what you want to bring here, and we'll get straight onto that as soon as I just briefly explain the therapy agreement with you. Is that ok?"
"Yeah that's fine. To be honest I'm not really sure I should be here you know. I was really low; having a bit of a meltdown when I emailed you. Now I'm feeling a lot better."
"But you decided you would still come..."
"Yeah, um, I guess I thought 'may as well - you never know what you might find out'!"
"Yeah, that sounds very sensible, and hopefully by the end of today's session you'll have a good idea if this is going to be useful for you or not. Before we get going though, let me just run through the therapy agreement..."
After the initial formalities, including a reminder that Rachel and Phil would not be discussing their client-in-common, Rachel asked Emma:
"So then, what is it that brings you here?"
"Well I don't know really. I mean, you saw the email I sent - do you think I need counselling?"
"It's not my place to judge whether or not counselling will be useful for you. Only you can be the judge of that. And I didn't want you to think that you had to stick to what you wrote in the email, especially if you feel you've moved on since then?"
"Yeah I have. Things are so much better now. I've sorted out the problem with my child protection decision-making. I can't believe I was so stupid to tell the truth. Yeah I feel, well, a million miles away from the person that wrote that email."
"So then, why are you here? I'm sorry if that sounds terribly blunt, but it's good for us both to get a sense of what the agenda is and how we might achieve it."
"I don't know really... I, hmm."
There was a pause, during which Rachel stayed quiet, trying to tune in to what Emma was feeling.
"Haha, it's not easy this, is it?" Emma joked nervously. "Is this how you do it? Just sit quietly until I crack and tell you all my deepest darkest secrets?" Although she tried to keep her tone light, there was a note of anger in her last words.
"I... Look, I'm not magic. I'm just a person sat across from you, who's here to try to understand you. If you want to share your deepest darkest secrets you can do. If you don't, you don't. What I can tell you is that so far I've got a sense from you that there's something that you want to talk about, but perhaps aren't ready to yet. Maybe you're wondering whether I'm the kind of person you can trust with it, or maybe you're thinking I won't understand. Or maybe there's nothing at all and I've got this completely wrong?"
Emma remained silent in her thoughts for one or two minutes.
"Normally I'd ask a client to share what was going on for them during a silence like that, but this is only our first session, and I don't want you to feel pressured, so how about you tell me about your life at the moment - the practicalities of who you live with, what support networks you have - families and friends, that sort of thing?"
"Thank you, yes!" Emma said, relieved to have been offered this hand up by Rachel. Throughout the rest of the session Emma described her current situation - she was living alone having recently broken up from a long-term boyfriend who didn't want her to move away from their hometown to take this job. She was the eldest of three children, and was very close to her Mum, who she described as 'everything to me'. She didn't mention her Dad and, at this point, Rachel didn't press her on this.
Emma described feeling very isolated from her family, especially as her youngest brother - 12 at the time - was still struggling with his behaviour at school and at home too. She also spoke about the recent breakup with her long-term partner, who she felt was dragging her down, but whom she missed immensely, as he 'grounded' her.
"Tell me a little more, if it's ok, about what you mean by 'grounded'," Rachel asked.
"Well I guess he was there to talk me down when I got too excited or too down or just ran away with whatever was going on. He always knew what to say to calm me down."
"And what do you think he'd say to you today?"
"Well, he'd be shocked I've ended up here. He always said I was the strong one." Emma paused, a tear rolling down her cheek. "He'd say, well, he wouldn't say anything he'd just take me in his arms - he had such big arms and cuddle me and I'd be ok." Emma was weeping now, but unlike previously she didn't hide her tears away or try to swallow them down. Rachel empathised with her sadness, and nearly felt overwhelmed by it, but waited patiently, not wishing to intrude on the sadness.
"Right, that's me done then!" Emma smiled after a minute or so of tears, "You've got me cracked - you knew what you were doing didn't you?"
"I'm not so sure I did, but it does sound like we've hit on something important here today. We've about ten minutes left and there was something else I wanted to come back to, if that's ok?"
"Yeah, yeah go ahead."
"I heard you say earlier that you're feeling isolated from your family, and it sounded like it's your younger brother that you're really missing. Have I heard you right?"
"Yes, you're right. I do miss my mum - don't get me wrong - I love her to bits, but she's strong and just gets on with it. I don't worry about her. But I do worry about Frank - he's my little man, and he's getting so grown up but he's just a little boy really. He's so soft and he's such an easy target."
"It feels awful to be so far away when he's vulnerable without you to - "
"To protect him. To look after him. Mum's great and all, but I don't think she's got the... she's not the type to really get in touch with emotions or to understand someone else's point of view, you know. That's why I got into teaching because I can do that. Or at least I thought I could."
"And that sounds really important to you - to be someone who understands and who protects."
"It is yeah, though it sounds funny when you put it like that. I'm not a superhero or anything. Oh I dunno, it's just all messed up isn't it." She paused, fiddling with her bracelet - pulling it out until it snapped back onto her wrist. "You know in that email I wrote?"
"I, well I guess the bit that still feels true for me is what I wrote about feeling powerless and afraid."
"That's the bit I feel, well, I feel ashamed of, but I guess that's because it's the bit that feels the most true."
"Right. And it sounds like talking about your family has set off some reminders of that."
"Yeah it has. And I don't want it to. Everyone back home thinks I'm so brave and I'm not it's just who I am. I've always been independent and now I don't feel like, I don't feel like I'm anything."
"That sounds huge, for you to say that."
"Yeah," Emma replied, looking Rachel straight in the eye. "Yeah it is."
They both sat in silence for a minute, feeling the impact of what they had just shared.
"Listen, I'm really sorry to have to interrupt this silence, but I'm afraid we've come to the end of our session."
"I know, I know. Thank you."
"For sticking with me, and for not trying to comfort me or tell me it'll be alright. I wanted you to do that earlier but I'm glad you didn't. This feels very different. I don't like it but I think it's important. Thank you."
"Well thank you for being so honest with me. It's not easy."
"So we'll meet again same time next week?"
"Yes, yes please. If that's alright?"
"Of course it is, I've got you booked in for 6 sessions anyway," Rachel replied as they both got up and moved towards the door.
"Bye then, Rachel." Emma said.
"See you next week."
Session two had less of the tension that characterised their initial exchanges, and Rachel and Emma were able to immediately start working again with some difficult material. Emma chose to focus on her relationship breakdown, retelling the story of how she had met Chris at primary school, dated him throughout secondary school, and moved in with him as soon as she hit 17.
"We were pretty stable through uni," Emma told Rachel, "I mean, I was at uni - I commuted every day - and he stayed working in the library like he still is now. It was really nice to begin with setting up our home but I guess when I look back at it we were just playing at happy families. It's not, I dunno, it's not real is it, setting up like that when you're 17?"
"It sounds like that's a conclusion you've reached. How do you look back on that time now? You said last week that you miss your relationship but today it sounds like you're all ready to move on."
"I do miss him. I still speak to him every day. But I miss being able to tell him things. There's no-one to talk to here except, well, except you at the moment."
"You talk to him often, but it doesn't sound like he can support you in the way he used to."
"Yeah, I can't tell him about what I'm going through while he's still heartbroken. I've got to be there for him. And anyway it was never about what he said. It was all about him being there, physically I mean. Just there, solid and reliable and there."
They continued to explore this theme in Emma's current experience, Rachel helping her to understand more of how she made sense of her relationships, and to deal with the emotional impact. Later in the session Rachel drew Emma's attention to what she may be missing in her current situation.
"I wonder if there's anyone else in your life who can be there for you? I mean, I think it's really good that we have our six sessions that you can explore these kinds of thing, but what happens after?"
"After? I'd hoped I'd get all this sorted out before there had to be an after? Why, do you think I'm too messed up? Do you think I'm broken?"
"No, I don't. From what you've told me, it sounds like you're at a very stressful point in your life, and are dealing with it pretty much alone. I mentioned people who can be there for you not because you're broken and need support, but because everyone, I think, needs support. Does that make sense?"
"Well yeah it does for everyone else. I said the same thing to my old uni friend at the weekend - she's trying to get by just by herself and she can't see that she needs help."
Rachel sat in silence. Emma Emma was taken aback.
"But it's not the same for me. I'm stronger than her and she's always needed people. I've just got to get through this myself. I can do it, she's not made that way - not to criticise her, she's lovely - but she does need a bit of mollycoddling along the way."
"I see." Rachel replied, before going on to discuss other aspects of Emma's life for the rest of the session.
Emma came to the third session