I am often asked why I chose to leave Secondary schools to work in AP (Alternative provision). “It is broken” is my short answer. I have worked in a variety of schools for 16 years. I love working with young people. I loved teaching DT which is a really creative and flexible subject, and because it is non-compulsory, there is not much pressure for results. I only realised in the last six months that I was never really teaching, I was coaching, which is an entirely different kettle of fish, if you understand it. And as I now know that I have a son who is not neuro-typical, I now acutely understand that actually, there is a whole bunch of kids who are entirely failed by “the system”.
Today I ran a “forestry fun” session for BAP (Bristol Autism Project). This is a fantastic organisation which is set up to run free events for Autsitic children and their siblings. I have been fortunate to have been working with BAP since January. I never really know who will turn up because Autistic kids have high anxiety for things which are new and given 15 weeks of lockdown, just going outside can be too traumatic. I am told 10 kids should turn up between age 4 and 18. What actually may come is 6 kids of age 6 to 10. I have to improvise and be responsive to their needs. And “Autism” is a massive umbrella term. It is almost meaningless, it varies so much. Two teens spoke to me continuously for 20 minutes to catch me up on the last 6 moths of their lives, talking over each other. It was a test of my multi- tasking skills. One child who I had not met, I asked his name and he did not possess the language to tell me. I understood he loved the fire, although he could not tell me. When I put it out, he stood in the smoke, trying to taste it.
One of my favourite revelations, in training to become a forest school leader, is that for the first time, being brown and small was a GOOD thing. I can lie hiding for HOURS and no one finds me. In my processional life, being small and brown was a significant disadvantage.
Today a took a beautiful 4 year old on a flour trail to find 10 Hydrangea flowers. She was so content to wander through the woods of Ashton court and find the treasure. Back at base camp, she and I made a crown for her from a Laurel twig. It was one of the most beautiful moments of 2020, which may sound super melodramatic, but given how hard I have found it, it truly stood out.
So this is the thing. If a child needs to spin. Cool. If a child just wants to wander off and lie down and stare through the leaves, amazing. If you need to just stare at the flames of a fire for a while, no one batts an eye lid. But the gentle suggestion of a good forest school leader, to collect fore wood, kinding, or to search for a forest treasure, that is a skill they definitely don’t teach in teacher training. There is no discussion of considering the mood, feelings or emotional state of the children in your class.
I have some families who have been coming to me since October, and talk of the definite transformation of their child. Given time and space and the gentle guidance of a trusted adult to focus on a task, for a purpose, do you know what?? They learn that they are not useless, or stupid, or without value to society. They learn that they are not demonised, that they are not an encumbrance to their family. They are told that they view the world through a different lens, and their is no right or wrong lens. And each lens is unique, and valued and highly important in some way. If the lens is understood, it could be the very best and amazing contribution to the world.
There are definite challenges to having an Autistic mind. I know that there are some things my son will never do. But he will equally do many things that I have no ability to do. Our job is to allow them to shine in their own way, not an OFSTED way.