Schools must hold together even if everything else tears apart

It’s an odd week to go for a positive start. But I can’t do any more negativity. So here it is.

The best thing about schools is that they are packed with humans. Funny, challenging, stroppy, coquettish, amazing humans.

But the most extraordinary thing about humans is our ability for utter kindness and complete cruelty.

You see it in children all the time. That same child who you have seen tear shreds off a teacher and terrorise classmates will also be the one you see, on some random Tuesday afternoon, talking gently to a crying year 7 and getting them to a lost maths classroom.

Our ability to be both bad, and brilliant, is what makes schools into stadiums of redemption. It is within the walls of a classroom that a child can tantrum over a maths problem at 2.15pm but be answering complex ones as 3pm rolls around. Where children who barely whisper in a playground get the strength to read a speech in front of their classmates. Where teachers who make mistakes every bit as often as the pupils, learn to handle themselves with grace, reflecting as a bad lesson flows out the door and picking themselves up as a new one enters.

As a PSHE teacher I would do a group exercise with pupils where they drew around one of their peers on wafer thin wrapping paper. The outline became a new member of a classroom. They would decorate the paper person – eyes, nose, clothes. They gave it a name. They introduced the person to the whole room explaining their hobbies, and dislikes, and how they were feeling about being new in our class. (“Nervous” was the common answer.)

After introducing their person to the whole room I would pick on one – the most exquisitely drawn one – and tear it in half. Gasps would fill the room. I’d explain that when people are hurt through insults or bad actions or even by themselves, they often felt torn. Our new person is vulnerable to this I would explain. And then I would invite the pupils to tear up their person.

After a beat – in which the pupils wondered if I was serious – they would often carry out their destruction gleefully. They would egg each other on, tearing away violently. A few sensitive souls would look uncertain as they ripped a thing they had lovingly created a few moments ago, but most got lost in the fun of it all.

After 30 seconds or so I would reveal a stack of Sellotape and hold it in my hands. They would notice. And then shriek: “Noooooo”.  They knew what was coming; they knew they would have to scramble together the paper shrapnel beneath their feet and in their palms and stick it back together.

It takes a long time to Sellotape back together a torn person. The figure that emerges never looks quite the same. Fingers are missing. Knees wonky. The person is caked in plastic. But, with enough time and care, they are stronger now. They can’t easily be ripped again unless you go for a weak spot.

At this point a kid always asks the same question. “Miss, isn’t this teaching us we should rip people apart so they get Sellotaped up and are tougher in future?”

And I smile and explain they’ve missed the point.

“Why don’t we just Sellotape the people in the first place?” I would ask. “If we had Sellotaped them beforehand, you couldn’t have ripped them up – at least, not so badly.”

And they would look at their fingerless, shapeless, marred creations – which they had created with love and destroyed with abandon – and get the point. Kids are smart that way.


Right now we are in savage tearing times. Insults, uncertainty, lack of empathy, accusation, unjust blame, a void of leadership, panic.  All of us are feeling some of that, some of us are feeling all of it, depending on circumstance. And children feel it just as much as adults. Watching adults worry is worrisome for the young.

But remember: the greatest thing about schools is that they are full of humans and that we can choose to be utterly kind.

School leaders who in these fragmented times model empathy, and understanding, and eschew political histrionics in favour of showing students that the school grounds in which they learn are calm places where all pupils are accepted – regardless of ethnicity or language or disability or whatever – and who implore that even if the rest of the world falls apart the one thing their charges can rely on is that when they get to school they will feel safe, and welcome, and can learn, then schools will be the Sellotape. Schools are the community that can hold together. We are the stadiums of redemption.

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  1. Teaching is about sharing best practice. Laura’s lesson – create, destroy, rebuild, reflect – is one that deserves to be replicated. It would certainly have found a place in the PSHE curriculum at the school where I taught.
    Perhaps it’s one politicians should try before embarking on ‘creative destruction’.