In September 2013, 18 deaf students from Thomas Tallis School’s Deaf Support Centre (DSC) were taken for a four-night residential to Blackboys Youth Hostel in Uckfield, East Sussex. This was the DSC’s fifth residential. Historically these trips have been planned to give deaf students the chance to relax and switch off from a hearing world, leaving behind a mainstream education environment for one week and swapping it for a deaf-friendly and deaf-aware environment.
These residentials also aim to raise the students’ confidence and self-esteem for the coming educational year, while enabling positive and supportive relationships to develop between all of the students and staff involved. This case study describes the specific impact on two different students as well as on the sense of community the residential helped to build.
The Thomas Tallis DSC opened in 1997 and works with students in Years 7 to 11. The deaf students are placed in mainstream school tutor groups alongside their hearing peers. They are taught by the school’s subject teachers, working in the mainstream classes, for the majority of the time. Specialist staff provide support, working alongside teaching staff to ensure that the needs of the deaf students are met. Some of the students communicate using British Sign Language and so signed communication support is provided. Both DSC and subject teachers lead the residentials.
Impact on student – staff relationships
This part of the case study focuses on one specific student, M, a Year 9 girl who had just joined Thomas Tallis School prior to the residential in 2013. M was not known by any of the deaf students prior to her attendance in the DSC; she was also new to the borough. The trip took place three weeks after she started school. She was very shy and would rarely initiate conversation or greetings with staff or students. Through the group eating together and just having time to relax and socialise, the student became more and more confident with both staff and other students. She physically relaxed and would say good morning and start conversations. She developed a closer relationship with one member of staff in particular and became more trusting as the week went on. On her return to school M was much more confident and happy to approach staff with any issues, in spite of still feeling new.
This confidence and trust did not come from one particular organised activity, it came because we all had time to relax together. The students were not constantly being told to learn, watch or listen and not trying to grasp difficult concepts or deal with a difficult second language, English. The opportunities and benefits that come from a residential trip can come naturally without the need to fill every hour with team building games or role play. Down time is often overlooked but can be hugely informative. Many useful pieces of information were discovered about the student, just on a minibus ride or sitting on a beach; information that proved useful both on the residential and back in school.
The trust and confidence gained from this residential trip would have taken a lot longer in school. M also enabled a member of staff to facilitate and encourage others to consider being new and show increased empathy. Again, this shift would not have happened so quickly if we had not had the time to work in this residential context with individuals and groups. It was also interesting to note how the dynamics of a group change over time. It seems an obvious observation, but is clearer when the group eat, relax, work and sleep together.
This section of the case study also focuses on one specific student, K. When discussing rooming options K was a concern. His peers did not include him in any conversations or activities, with some students actively criticising him and verbally putting him down. He constantly sought, and preferred adult company. His personal hygiene was an issue and his behaviour was often annoying.
When unpacking after our arrival, a Year 10 student overheard a conversation regarding rooming and voluntarily said K could stay with him. This had a huge impact on K, he commented later on the trip that it was so nice to hear that someone wanted him in their room and not to be told to go away.
Although the relationship did not develop into a friendship, proving to be one of mutual acceptance rather than mutual liking, it did have a huge impact on both boys. A few honest comments were shared between the roommates regarding personal hygiene, but not in a derogatory way. This was a huge improvement on the way K had been previously spoken to and treated. During the week, K’s personal hygiene improved immensely, he showered every day and cleaned his teeth twice a day, influenced by his peers. The positive impact on K was great to see and would not have happened during the normal school situation where he would not have had this valuable time and opportunity to learn from and discuss with his peers.
There is now a respect between these two students that was not there before. Although not best buddies back at school, they work well together in certain lessons and have an understanding that would not have been possible without the trip.
The residential is also used as a reference point by staff when talking to K about his personal hygiene: “Do you remember how well you managed and how good you felt at Blackboys?” Small comments like this help to raise his self-esteem and reinforce his sense of worth.
Cohesion and sense of community
In truth this was probably our least cohesive residential group. This was, in the main part, due to the Year 11 group who were not the best role models for our younger students. However, there were many times during the week when students did work together, from helping to carry shopping to clearing up and sweeping the floor. It was always the same students who would volunteer initially to help with tasks. We split the students into groups so that everyone shared the chores, but it soon becomes apparent who helped out at home and who didn’t. Often two or three students would volunteer to work together and became a team within a short space of time e.g. a small group were asked to fetch wood and build a small bonfire. They organised themselves and did a great job because, as they said “They wanted to make a great fire for all the deaf students”.
Some students surprised us, in a good way, by their reaction to working together. It wasn’t always the obvious ones who offered to help or independently took on extra chores. Those who helped definitely stood out from the crowd and their sense of achievement and wellbeing was obvious. During the week all students become aware of the expectations and, as excuses become futile, they met those expectations. Those students who helped more were, as a result, thanked more, which made them feel good and raised their self-esteem and sense of worth – something they don’t always feel in mainstream education. These students were proud of the fact that they had contributed in some way and were appreciative of the thanks.
Staff cohesion was superb and the team of four who stayed for the whole week became a tight-knit community, watching out for each other, sharing the workload and generally running a very successful residential. The staff definitely felt a sense of belonging and a shared purpose and responsibility … all for one and for all.
The DSC residentials have been successful on many different levels. They can make a small difference or a big difference; the key factor for us is that they do make a difference. We will plan more trips in the future and learn from previous ones. We also aim to find ways to allow the students involved to participate more in the planning, organising and carrying out of residential activities, and feel this will bring additional benefits.