I had some huge boots to fill when I took over as Housemistress here in Malvern. Mrs P was not only beloved by all but with years of experience, was superb at her job. We had a thorough handover and to this day, which is three years on, I still find the occasional post it note stuck to something with useful words of wisdom in her scribe. One bit of advice she gave has become a sort of mantra and underpins all my good practice. It's at the heart of what makes us excellent at pastoral care at my school. She said get to know your girls. Seems obvious, doesn't it? We're an all-girls school by the way, so same goes for girls, boys, polar bears. But that relationship building with each young person as an individual truly is the linchpin to successful pastoral care.
There's no avoiding it, getting to know students requires time. It doesn't matter how it's spent but time it will take. Doing an activity together is a great way to get to know someone. Those team building induction trips at the start of the year are a perfect opportunity for this and should be treated as a gold mine to be dug, not an ordeal to be endured. There's also a lot to be said for formal tutorials so long as you ask the right questions. Throw in some personal conversation starters. Ask about family. What one thing would you take to a desert island and why? Play two truths, one lie. However, you choose to do it, think of this time as an investment.
How not what
Try to get to the crux of how they tick. It's ok to ask what their favourite subject is so long as you understand why. Maybe it's art because they are creative or maybe it's art because they're ambitious about following in the family pottery business or maybe it's art because it comes easy for them. One answer can have many motivations. Ask about how many brothers and sisters they have but what's the family dynamic like?
So, you notice that person isn’t quite themselves. You have a stock of conversation starters to get them talking and onto the thing that's bothering them. You remembered to ask about how Grandpa's birthday went over half term so that person feels heard, valued and connected. Someone's having friendship issues but you know they like sailing and so does Betty so you put them in touch over their common ground. A parent calls to complain about something and you can demonstrate how well you know their son or daughter so they see you care and you have them on side. Homework has been late for the last two weeks but you know that Mum isn’t well so you set up some time to support them catching up when Mum is better instead of wading in with a sanction. Someone's not themselves so you bring the dog out to sit with them because you know they have a dog at home and suddenly they're talking about what's up and feeling better for the dog cuddles. That last one's a true story. I'm sure you get the picture anyway.
Whether it's a safeguarding disclosure, sanctioning a bully or contacting a parent, your pastoral framework is on firm ground when you have that foundation of familiarity. Building good relationships shouldn't be confused with people getting to know you for what's actually needed in an educational setting which is knowledge and understanding of the young people in your care. There is no greater gift that you can give to a young person, with all their insecurities, angst and life dilemmas, than a sense of belonging. Using those nuggets of information you've gleaned whilst getting to know your pupils, will both make our job easier in the future and help them to feel that sense of belonging. Win-win.