What does your School really need?
Amie Aitken (Children & Families Worker / Co-Founder of Sanctuary) encourages us to think about what our Schools really need, and how we can better engage with them.
I cheered emphatically while reading the recent post by Danielle about being a friendly face in schools for those who need it. Over the past three years my experiences have been similar to those she outlined, and the mantra of ‘relationships over results’ is a core value in the work that I’m involved in. Too often I see Christians whose engagement with schools peaks only when they are afforded the opportunity to teach or convey an explicit Christian message to the student body, and they invest very little time or energy in developing personal relationships within the school on a regular basis. This needs to change.
It’s important that you know from the offset I’m not dismissive of more traditional forms of chaplaincy, or taking the opportunity to share the gospel anywhere we can. However, we live in a time where Christians don’t (and I would argue, shouldn’t) hold the religious monopoly on local schools. There are conversations amongst the current governing bodies of education about making Religious Observance an opt-in rather than opt-out experience, and increasing pressures from secular bodies to ensure that no unsuspecting young person finds themselves being proselytised during their lunch break. While it may be tempting to mourn the loss of our supposed Christian entitlement, my experience of working in schools has shifted both my practice and perspective. I know that this change, for better or worse, is an opportunity to adjust the conversation between faith and education, nationwide.
My colleagues and I are part of the local chaplaincy team in our town, serving in four primary schools and a secondary school every week. On average we spend about six hours or more engaged in schools work. In any one day I can go straight from a creative story-telling session with the infant department, to refereeing a catastrophic girl fight amongst early secondary students. We never know what the day will hold and have learned to be prepared for anything! This is in fact what I love most about the job.
"We never know what the day will hold and have learned to be prepared for anything! This is in fact what I love most about the job."
It has taken a slow and steady few years to build good relationships with the schools. Our presence has become comfortably familiar as we visit each day – and this has not been without considerable groundwork. I discovered early on that turning up at a school with a list of things we’d like to arrange or achieve will mostly likely be met with moderate reluctance. It is not always because the staff object to our involvement or are resistant to our message, but often it is simply because what we are proposing will add to their never-ending list of responsibilities. Anyone working in a school will know that the staff are often under increasing pressure with budget cuts, lack of resources, limited time and a multitude of targets to attain. While your presence in the school may not be objectionable, it may simply be a drain on those whose attention is already so much in demand.
In our local High School we discovered that Roving Chaplaincy was one way to serve and engage our students with no increased work-load or responsibility for the staff. It is worth noting that the freedom to do this was only granted by the fact that we have a credible reputation and had been approved by staff who could trust that we would not take advantage of this open door. Through the time we spent roving, we discovered a multitude of social and emotional needs that were hindering some young people’s ability to engage well with school, mostly due to circumstances at home. The staff were highly aware of these problems but limited in both time and capacity to support students in depth on a one-to-one basis. Over time we have offered specific support in response to these needs.
We try to ensure that what we offer does not take it out of the hands of school staff, but seeks to compliment what they are already doing, allowing them to prioritise their time and energy where it is needed most. For example, we run a lunch time girls group for those in need of a little sanctuary from bullying and friendship breakdowns. We accompany the Primary 7 classes on their first High School visitations, spending full days helping them find their classrooms and make new friends. We provide a one-to-one self-harm recovery programme and a loss and bereavement support group for those struggling with family issues. We are engaged in one-to-one mentoring for those who are considered particularly vulnerable or at risk of exclusion. We have active partnerships with social services and the local health centre that enable us to provide support for the whole family beyond the school where it’s appropriate. At every turn we have considered how we can serve our local schools by meeting their existing needs, and how in doing so we can build a positive relationship between the schools and churches – a relationship founded on genuine care for both staff and students. In all these things consistency has been key. We make every effort to be reliable and to fulfil our commitments with excellence.
"The truth is, young people know when we care. They know even more-so when we don’t."
The truth is, young people know when we care. They know even more-so when we don’t. I believe it is imperative that young people know that we care for their wellbeing as a whole person, not just the spiritual side in isolation. Likewise, a school will quickly know whether you have any interest in them as a community or simply as an access point to the young people in their building. There are numerous arguments about the balance between practical service and explicit evangelism but I truly believe that no act of service is wasted if it conveys the love and care of Christ for our community.
Amie Aitken - Children & Families Worker / Co-Founder of Sanctuary
Here are some questions that may be worth asking if you are considering involvement in schools work:
1. Am I aware of any immediate needs within my learning community? If not, how can I find out?
2. How can I offer to serve my learning communities in a way that will not add to the existing pressures and responsibilities of the staff?
3. Can I maintain a consistent commitment to this work? If not, where is the potential for fruitful partnerships that will enable this work to progress even when I cannot be involved?