Kim is a Year 3 teacher who has been working in education for 5 years. She recently returned from maternity leave following the birth of her first child, and has returned to a job share, working 3 days per week.
Kim met Rachel – her therapist – in a small room close to Kim’s classroom. Rachel had made sure that they had some adult-sized chairs and had fixed a sign on the door so that people would not disturb the session.
In their first session, Rachel went through the contract and discussed how they might best work together, reminding Kim that this was a period of time that they would use, fortnightly, to discuss and explore aspects of Kim’s working life which troubled or puzzled her. They agreed – as had been negotiated by the school – to spend an initial six sessions working together, after which they would review their work and decide whether or not they would continue for a further 4 sessions.
Kim was keen to be involved and had already read up on reflective practice and worked out which issues she hoped to bring: her priorities were to work out how she felt about her career following a year out of teaching. Before she went on maternity leave, Kim explained, she had been a middle-leader and had been advised by one of the SLT to apply for a more senior post. While she had been flattered by this, Kim wasn’t sure if it was right then, and was even less sure now that she had a child to care for. As they discussed these questions further, Kim’s dissatisfaction at having to share a classroom emerged: although she was quick to point out that she got on very well with Margaret, her job-share, she was finding it hard to feel ‘at home’ in a space that didn’t feel like it was really hers, and even harder to plan her lessons with someone who was very “old school” and didn’t like to do the kind of creative teaching that Kim felt had the most impact.
Rachel reflected back to Kim how much Kim had clearly been thinking about how she would use the sessions, and that the subjects she had alighted on were within the remit of the service.
“It’s great you’ve come to our sessions with a plan,” she told Kim “but don’t feel like we have to stick rigidly to it – it may be that other things emerge as we continue our work together”.
The session ended with both Kim and Rachel feeling positive and optimistic about the work they may do in the coming weeks.
Kim arrived 5 minutes late for the second session, and came bustling in with her bag slipping off her shoulder. She sat down immediately and apologised for being late.
“I just had to nip to my car to get this,” she explained, as she pulled out a sheet of paper which she began unfolding, “and then as I was coming up here there was a situation with my class that I had to go back and deal with. The woman who does wet play with my class is nice, but she really doesn’t know how to deal with the children that are a bit more… Anyway, I’m sorry about that but I really did have to go to the car to get this because I wanted to show you how I’ve worked out a lot of what we spoke about last week; about my roles and relationships and I really think – ”
“Just hold that thought, if you would,” interrupted Rachel, “I’m very curious about what it is you’ve bought, and I’d love to hear about it, but I think we just need to check in first, and make sure we’re in the right frame of mind for the work we’ll be doing.”
Kim looked a little put out, then hurriedly folded her paper up again and put her bag down.
“Yes, sorry, it’s just such a stressful time of year and the weather’s making the kids go a bit… well, it’s understandable that they do, but they need someone who isn’t afraid to stand up to them, not that they’re mean or bad or anything, but they need boundaries and she just doesn’t… well, she doesn’t stand up for herself.”
“It sounds like there’s a lot going on at the moment: you’ve already told me about the way that you’ve been reflecting on your relationships and roles, and about some stresses in the classroom which, if I’ve got this right, you feel aren’t being dealt with in the best way by one of your colleagues?”
“Yes, that’s it.”
“And there’ll be plenty of time for us to focus on either or both of those, but I do think we just need to take a breath first and check in with each other.” Rachel was careful to keep her voice calm, level and compassionate: she didn’t want Kim to feel criticised by her change in direction, but Rachel felt herself being dragged into a busy tension which she felt was not helpful for either of them. “I can really sense how stressful and busy your working life is at the moment, and I can feel myself wanting to join in and jump ahead to solving problems with you, but I know that I don’t do my best thinking when I’m uptight. I often use relaxation or grounding techniques to slow down a bit. Do you have anything similar that you do?”
“You know you sound just like my husband!” Kim replied, laughing, “He’s always telling me to slow down when I’m being too intense. I thought it was just him!”
Rachel laughed too. “Well maybe it’s just both of us; there’s no ‘right way’ to do this, but I would like if we start from a quieter space and then we can return to explore the stress later, if that’s ok? So let’s just shelve the issue that's troubling you right now, and start by reflecting briefly on our previous session. I’d be interested to hear what – if anything – stayed with you”.
Kim took a deep breath. She explained how she had seen Bring a Child to Therapy as an opportunity to “get things straight” in her life. As she saw it, she had a big decision to make – whether or not to apply for a new role in middle-leadership or not – and this was a chance to take a bit of control back for herself. She described the thoughts she had gone through and how she had felt the need to ‘map’ these on a large sheet of paper so that they were clear and easier to deal with and balance and judge.
Rachel asked Kim how it had felt to share her thoughts and feelings with a relative stranger, and they discussed similar experiences Kim had in other aspects of her life. Kim described how she had always been the eldest in her family and the organiser with her friendship groups. Even now she was the one who “wore the trousers” in her relationship with her partner, and she wasn’t used to being so open with anyone. “If I’m completely honest,” she said, quieter now than she had been before “I wasn’t sure if I’d come back today. Don’t take this the wrong way, but this isn’t something I’m used to and I don’t feel like I know the rules yet”.
“That’s ok, and I’d like to thank you for your honesty,” Rachel replied. “It feels like we’ve spoken about some really significant and important things today – both for you as an individual and for us in our working relationship. I’d also like to pick up on some of the language you’ve used today to describe your world: I’ve heard the word ‘organise’ and ‘manage’ come up frequently, and I really have a sense of you being someone in the middle of lots of plates that need to be kept spinning. Without your organisation the whole lot might fall down. Does that mean anything to you?”
“It does. Yes… Gosh, that’s actually made me feel really sad. Am I bad for wanting to keep everything organised? I just want the best for my family and my class.”
“No, it doesn’t make you bad. And I want you to know that I absolutely wasn’t saying any of what I said as a judgement. You know better than I do how vital it is to be able to organise and manage a household with a young child, or a class of 30 8 year-olds”
“Even more management then!” They both laughed. “But I’m getting a sense that there’s something in this organising self that isn’t satisfying you?”
“It’s just not everything. It’s not all of me, but sometimes it feels like it is all of me.”
They continued to explore the material that had arisen for the rest of the session, together making sense of Kim’s attitudes towards herself and her job. Towards the end of the 50 minutes Rachel said:
“I’ve just noticed we’re coming to the last few minutes of our session and I wanted to reflect back what an emotional session I’ve found this. I’m touched by your honesty and openness and your willingness to come here and to share even though you felt you might not. I also want to note that although we’ve not talked specifically about any of your relationships with specific children or staff, we have focussed on something that feels really vital to you understanding your work. Perhaps in our next session we’ll have time to review what it is you’ve bought with you – I’m still really curious about it! And perhaps then will be a good time to start thinking about some relationships which are troubling or puzzling you. Does that sound ok? Was there anything you wanted to add?”
“No, that’s, that’s fine.” Kim replied, taking a deep breath. “I can’t believe how quick the time’s gone! I think I might not bring my map back, if that’s ok. I think maybe it’s for somewhere else, not here.”
“Whatever you think is best, and if something emerges in the next two weeks which we’ve not covered here and you want to bring it, that’s fine too.”
“Ok. Thank you Rachel.”
“Thank you Kim”.
The third session began in a quite different tone. Kim was quieter, and Rachel experienced her as being lower in mood. Unlike the previous sessions, Kim did not arrive with a plan, and was slow to respond when Rachel asked her “Where would you like to start today?” Sensing that something important was going on for Kim, Rachel invited her to sit still with her own thoughts a feelings for a few seconds and to let whatever emerged float to the surface. This was a mindfulness technique which Rachel hoped would help Kim to tune in to her own emotional world – she would share the technique with Kim later on so that she could use it herself in the classroom.. After a minute of silence, Kim drew a deep breath and said: “I’m sad. I’m just really really sad. When I think about my class – really think – I just feel so sad. I don't, sorry, I don't even know what to say about it. I don't think I'm going to be much use today.”
“Ok, stick with that feeling, let yourself sit in it. I’m going to ask you a few questions – you can choose to answer them out loud or just let them resonate internally. If it feels more comfortable and if it’ll help you to tune in to yourself you can close your eyes.” After a brief pause, Rachel continued: “As you feel that sadness, just focus in on where in your body you feel it. Is it deep down in your core or bursting through the surface? In the middle or in your fingers?” Kim didn’t respond. “And within this sadness, I wonder if there’s any child or adult in particular that comes to mind. You mentioned your class, but there might be a particular child or situation or time of day that emerges.”
“Yes, there is.” Kim replied, her eyes still closed. “It’s just after play time in the morning, when they’ve all come in and are buzzing from their games and friendships and I hear my voice coming out to squash them and it’s just so sad!” Kim’s voice quivered as she said this.
“Are you comfortable for me to continue asking questions, or would you like to take a break. We can return to this later?”
“No, carry on. This is important.”
“Ok, what I’d like you to try is to imagine you’re one of those children coming in, still chatting with your friends in the corridor and then coming into the classroom. Tell me what you see.”
“I see an old woman. Me. Old, crabbed, tense and angry. Angry for no good reason – just like my worst teacher in primary school. She was the deputy head and she never had any time for us, not like my Year 4 teacher who was young and interesting. She flew off the handle at nothing, and never listened to us. I see her. She’s so distant. She doesn’t like me and I don’t like her.”
“Ok, and stick with that child. What would you like to do, as you walk in?”
“I want to hide, but I want to carry on talking at the same time, to spite her. I want her to know that I don’t care about her and that she’s nothing to me.”
“Ok, and just let that feeling sink in… and now let it go. If you can stay as that child walking into your classroom, what does that child want to see when they walk through the door?”
“Someone else!” Kim joked, “Well, no, it needn’t be a different person, but it’d be someone on their level. Someone who smiled when she saw me, and let me talk for a bit, or who had been out playing with us at break time. Someone who trusted me. The kind of teacher I was when I was a TA and had so much more energy.”
As the session proceeded, Kim and Rachel retained their focus on the moment that her class came into the classroom, viewing it both from the child and the adults’ perspectives, experimenting with different situations to see how they felt for both. Towards the end of the session Rachel began to summarise what they had worked on today: “We’re just coming to the end of our session and I’d like again to recognise how hard you’ve worked together with me. You’ve reflected on some very complex issues and have been willing to consider these from a range of viewpoints. I’m not going to ask you to answer this now, but I’d like to leave you with a question: what now? Do I need to change, and if so what do I need in order to change?”
“Thank you. I’ve a lot to think about. This hasn’t been easy at all. I actually feel drained – I don’t know how I’m going to go out and teach them now!”
“And that’s something we should consider – perhaps in our next session: how can I open up in ways that leave me feeling tired and vulnerable if I’ve got to go out and put on the performance of teaching straight afterwards? We might be able to think of some techniques together. But we’ll have to leave that to the next session.”
As their work together progressed, Kim and Rachel worked at increasing depth, and continued to explore what Kim came to see as her having lost what it was that made her love teaching: her energy and enthusiasm. This work ranged from practical issues to do with her relationship with Margaret and how she might approach this in a way which left her with more ownership of their planning, through specific interactions with children in her class who she felt ‘suck the life out of me’, to deeper and broader issues around Kim’s motivation to be a teacher and a middle-leader. Towards the end of their fifth session, Rachel raised the impending sixth session and the opportunity to take up a further 4 sessions.
“I’m not sure,” said Kim. “I don’t want to take your time up from other people. I know some teachers here haven’t been to Bring a Child to Therapy yet. I wouldn’t want them to miss out – I feel like I’m a lot more clear about myself and my job than I was before.”
“That’s really great to hear that you’re feeling clearer,” replied Rachel, “and I can hear the respect and regard for your colleagues that you want this to be a fair service offered to all, but I want to assure you that your school have agreed to 4 further sessions for teacher who feel they would benefit from it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m happy to continue for a further block of 4 sessions, as I feel like we’ve established a positive working relationship. If we did, I think it would be a good idea to really focus down on some specific interactions within your class – it sounds like you have a solid foundation from which to explore, and it’s my feeling that you may benefit from sessions which are a bit more focused.”
“Yeah I did wonder about that – I’ve not really bought that many children here, it’s more been about my, my identity I guess, as a teacher, and how that impacts on the children.”
“Yes, it has, but that’s all a part of being a reflective practitioner – being aware of who you are and who you want to be and how this affects others. But we’re at a point, I feel, where we can start to look in detail at some of those tricky relationships – or at those children who we might otherwise miss. You know, the ones who fall through the gaps. That sort of thing.” Rachel paused. “Don’t decide now, we can discuss this again in our 6th session, or you can email me if your decide in the interim. No pressure at all – it’s all about what you feel would work best for you.”
In the gap between their 5th and 6th sessions, Rachel received an email arranging the 4 further sessions, and a list of first names. The email read: “Please hold me to this list. I’ve asked my TA to write down the children she thinks I should bring, and I was quite surprised at who she chose. I think maybe I’ve got a blind spot that she’s been able to notice.”
In their 6th Rachel and Kim agreed to focus on one child at a time in their 4 additional sessions. Before they moved on to this next part of their work together, Rachel led a review of their first 6 sessions. Kim told Rachel how she had found the first few sessions really difficult, and had thought about pulling out entirely at a number of points: “You wouldn’t let me be who I normally am – I wanted to manage the sessions and use them for what I felt I needed, but I’m grateful that you slowed me down and didn’t let me take over. It didn’t feel natural, but I’ve learnt a lot about myself.”
“And that’s exactly what this is for: for you to find out more about yourself as a teacher, and I’m glad that we’ve arrived at a place where we can begin to dig down into some of the relationships that will help you to understand your children better too”.
The 4 extra sessions, which focused on specific children, were very revealing for Kim, who felt able to engage with her understanding in a way she had not before. By focusing on the children her TA chose for her, Kim had put herself in a vulnerable position, and it wasn't easy at first to stay with the children that had been picked for her. But as time went on she became aware of a certain bias in her teaching towards the less-able.
"I wonder if that's why Sharon picked them? Because they're higher achievers and I, well, I guess I ignore them a bit." Kim wondered. Together with Rachel she began to uncover some of her underlying assumptions about teaching - she identified with the description Rachel gave her of 'emancipatory education', agreeing that the point of education is to give the worst-off a boost - to level things out. "But in all of that I've ended up ignoring the kind of child I was in school - you know, pretty quiet and pretty able. And that's not fair. I think of the teachers I made a real connection with, well, I wouldn't be the same if it wasn't for them. So they deserve the best of me too." Kim wasn't sure whether she was ready to act on this subtle development of her beliefs just yet, but felt more in control of her decisions regarding the higher-achieving children in her class.
As well as this discussion of deep-seated educational beliefs, Kim and Rachel also explored some of the everyday 'pinch-points' in Kim's teaching life - the moments when the emotional work of being a teacher felt a bit too much and threatened to overwhelm her. By understanding the causes of these, and learning some in-the-moment relaxation techniques, Kim was able to better manage these moments, and became more calm as a result. This led in turn to a discussion of the emotional atmosphere of the classroom, and how Kim had got into a habit of keeping this tightly managed and maintained: "I don't believe it's the right thing to do - and I don't want to do it - but it's hard to get out of the habit. It's all I know." Together they worked out a way to notice these habitual behaviours creeping in and gently challenge them, allowing for a more friendly and forgiving emotional atmosphere to be established, when this felt more appropriate.
"I think the main thing I've learnt - in these last 4 sessions, I mean," Kim told Rachel as their final session drew to a close. "Is to be more in control but less controlling, if that makes sense? Like, to notice and be aware and make decisions, but to feel ok if my decision is not to react, or to wait, or to allow things to get a little bit loose. I don't think I'm there yet! But I'm getting there."