How to be the hero your pupils need

Zena Zenonos-Walker

Zena Zenonos-Walker has been in education for fifteen years, eight as a senior leader and is currently a Leadership Consultant in a school in Bradford. School wasn’t easy though, and for many years Zena refused to accept the possibility that teaching would be a career she would consider. Drama however, played a vital role in Zena’s education and for this reason, felt it her mission to ensure that all students had a memorable school experience. Zena is most passionate about relationships and how these foundations are a crucial and positive aspect of everyone’s teaching and leadership career. ‘The impact of meaningful relationships is so powerful. Not only for you, but the students you teach’.

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“Teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs. Zena, you come from a family of teachers, it is in our blood!”

My father spent five years relentlessly trying to persuade me to do my PGCE and, for most of that time, I had no idea how I would explain the reasons why becoming a teacher filled me with such dread. I genuinely could not think of anything worse.

I did not have a happy school experience. It has taken years of reflection and deep soul-searching to understand why, and when I eventually became a teacher nearly 16 years ago, things became very clear. I was bullied, which was never taken seriously, and my teachers had very low expectations of me. How could I tell? The way they spoke to me, the written feedback in my books and the fact that even when I had achieved better grades than some of my peers in assessments, this was seen as a ‘fluke’, so I was moved to lower sets instead of them. 

Trying to convince my teachers I was more than they thought meant that I never felt I truly belonged. This led to years of seeking validation from people I didn’t need it from to believe I was good; a good mum, a good teacher, a good friend, a good wife, a good senior leader, a good person. 

So, why did I choose to become a teacher? I chose to be the teacher I never had. My first six months were arduous. I clashed with the same ‘challenging’ students week in, week out, and by the end of some lessons, I would be in the crying corner of the staffroom wishing the weeks away. Something needed to change, and it wasn’t going to be my students. I observed some wonderful, experienced teachers around the school to find ways to make a difference. 

One day, after another pitiful lesson with 10X, I was asked a simple question: “Have you tried to build a relationship with them?” 

It was an honest question, but I was deeply offended. “Erm, yes?” I replied, not quite keeping eye contact. 

“Okay, so tell me what you know about them personally. What do they like? What is their favourite music, colour, book, food?” 

Red in the face, I knew I was busted - I didn’t have a clue! Advice during my PGCE and NQT year varied. Many people had told me not to smile for the first term and to take on a no-nonsense approach before considering letting my guard down. On reflection, I could see that this was precisely the reason why I struggled to connect with some students. To them, I was unapproachable, and when I tried to be fun, they never believed I was being ‘real’. 

Making the decision to build positive, meaningful relationships was easy. Building them, however, was a whole new ball game. Just when I thought I had cracked it, something would happen and I would be back at square one, feeling deflated, hurt and exhausted. Relationships are not built in a day: they are built daily, and one thing I have learned is that this needs to be done alongside an unconditional, positive regard, especially for children and young people that have suffered adverse childhood experiences. 

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So what does it look like when you build relationships with your children and students?

  • Meeting and greeting your students at the door with a smile will make them feel welcome. For children with chaotic home lives, often difficult to navigate, this goes some way to making them feel wanted.
  • A genuine feeling of belonging – students want to come to your lessons because they feel safe in the environment you have worked hard to build. Children and young people who talk about what belonging feels like will often say that they feel seen by their teachers. 
  • They respect you because you have shown them what it looks and feels like to be respected.
  • Mistakes are made and these are okay because everyone makes mistakes. That’s how we learn!
  • Your students will trust you with their vulnerabilities knowing that you will not judge them or belittle them, even when they have got things wrong.
  • Apologising when you are wrong. Not only does this show that you too make mistakes, but you own them and want to learn from them. If you see a young person’s face when you apologise, it often comes as a shock! How are we to teach children to behave if we do not model this when we really need to?
  • You will care about them unconditionally and hold no grudges, ensuring that even when things have not been great in one lesson, the relationship will be repaired so that ‘we start a fresh’ the next.
  • You have changed the language around the children you teach, which has supported your view of that child and the behaviours they display. A good way to think of this is: A difficult child is a child with difficulties. A child that is attention-seeking is actually attention-needing. 
  • High expectations are consistent and routines in your class are clear – we all do this, including me as your teacher. 

It is important to remember that the culture and values you hold in your classroom will have a direct impact on the behaviour and the relationships you build with your students. Consider what they are. How will you ensure that you uphold these during every lesson, every day? Reflect on your own school experience. Who were your most memorable teachers and why? What did these teachers do to make an impact on you? And finally, consider how you would like to be remembered. What do you want your legacy to be?  Write this down and tell your students about this.

Relationships can be built regardless of the policies and systems in place. They will take a lot of time and huge emotional investment. There will be days where you feel on top of the world because you know the connection was made, and others where you wonder why you bothered. You will make mistakes, say the wrong things and sometimes feel so angry your eyes turn red, but I can assure you this. One day you will be spoken about by someone whose life you changed when they were young. Someone who saw you as their unconditional champion. 

You may receive a message in years to come that says: “Thank you. For everything you did for me. I know I wasn’t easy, but you never gave up on me. You made me feel like I wasn’t a failure and that I meant something. It meant a lot and I wanted you to know.” (Message received in February 2018 – young person last seen in August 2007). 

 Looking for more resources to support your teaching and learning? Check out the best education technology resources on our sister platform EdTech Impact.

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