Executive Head Teacher at Stepping Stones School
Developing the resilience of young people
Melissa is a single mother of two children, who inspire her each day. She was brought up through the UK Care system and was privileged during her childhood to meet many different people from different backgrounds. She studied PE teaching at university and then went on to work within the special needs sector. With her background and having the learning impairment of Dyslexia she thinks that she had a naturally empathy with learners that had barriers to learning, and so her journey began to help children with disabilities. Now she is the Head Teacher at the Stepping Stones School, a very outstanding institution that develops the resilience of young people with mild disabilities and hidden disabilities such as terminal illness, learning disabilities, mild ‘Aspergers’ and high anxiety.
Working with disadvantaged and disabled children is a challenge. Can you describe your experience as a head teacher there?
A quote I have in my office is, “the kids that need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.’ This is a true reflection of the young people I work with. They inspire me each day to evoke the staff under my watch to role model and guide each of the students to reach their true potential. Stepping Stones is a school full of young people that the mainstream couldn’t help or guide. I have the pleasure in seeing them flourish and transition into young people that society understands and can see the potential in. My job is to make sure that potential is uncovered and a light is shone on it.
The kids that need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways
Can you share a positive story with us that will inspire parents who have children with similar problems?
You have to ask yourself this question – What happens if the basic expectation of having a child is taken from you in the earliest days? For whatever reason, be it nature, error or simply bad luck this is what happens to the families at Stepping Stones. You are simply thrown into a different world in which you are bombarded by a language that tries to explain what is wrong and what that means.
For us that happened when our son was six months old and we spent the next five years trying to understand why – a question to which we still don’t have an answer. What we did know quite quickly is that our life was different to those around us. Less time was spent at toddler groups and more at the hospital or in therapy. Our own reality was that we found ourselves daily growing away from the family life of our friends with young children. After all it is all too easy to look at the negatives and get depressed when you are told that your son would never walk, has a learning disability and at one stage may not even live the year out.
This was and is still is quite a lonely place to be most of the time. Many people ask us how we cope and keep smiling. My answer is often – ‘I don’t know’ – or ‘Because we have no choice’ – or ‘What else would we do?’
More than anything we have been taught it was a case of learning, to look at what we had in our child and not what was lacking. We learnt to see him for who he was and today many would use the same words to describe him as they did then. Our son is happy, he accepts who he is, he tries things and he works hard at what he enjoys. We did play in the autumn leaves and we did carry him down onto the beach to build sandcastles but there is so much more. If we hadn’t begun to look at the positives we would never have seen him play wheelchair hockey at the Italian national finals, win gold in wheelchair slalom at the UK national athletics finals or more recently take to the skies to fly a plane. He is only 18 and his and our lives are not what we hoped for and they never will be – but I still stand here today as a proud parent.
How have you tailored the curriculum to make the school easier for these children?
Our students access a curriculum that is informed by a transdisciplinary team to bring their potential to the surface. It is not controlled by the barriers to learning but purely by the different pathways we must weave through a harsh curriculum that schools have to follow. Creative Arts is extremely vital and is at the heart of what we do from Drama, Music and Art to creative writing skills that you cannot believe.
How do you collaborate with parents and how do they get involved in your projects?
Parents are at the heart of what we do regarding the journey we take our students on and the families and siblings must also come along. This includes everything from volunteering at the Cookie Bar through to a very proactive Parent-Teacher Association. Parents bring in new ideas and new ways of thinking, run workshops for other parents and our school for Parents (F.R. E. E. which stands for Family , Resilience , Enablement and Education ). It drives forward how we all look and reflect on the journey to adult hood these young people travel.
What is your New Year resolution?
To ensure I am a good role model to my family, to eat healthily and to take a little exercise every day.