How Tutors Can Use Empathy to Support Students Who Are Disengaged from School Podcast Transcript

[Ludo] – Ludo Millar

[Jack] – Jack Simmonds



Welcome to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. Welcome everyone, welcome to all our listeners, and a big welcome to Jack Simmonds. Jack, this is not your first time actually on the QT Podcast, but it’s your first time as the sole guest How are you feeling about that?
Yeah, I’m feeling good.
And many of you will know Jack Simmonds. He is ever present in the QT Community, he is a wonderful QT training facilitator and if you ever have a problem, then he is the man to go to for your needs.

So I would say that having Jack on today is not our typical QT Podcast guest because Jack is a member of our QT team here but that’s why today’s episode is going to give you guys the greatest insight into how we roll here, how we roll as a team here. So, Jack, you were just telling me about the book you’ve been reading on adolescent brains. Yes. Let’s start with a little book club. How’s that been?

Yeah really good. So I discovered Dan Siegel through my old singing teacher who I spoke to at the Love Tutoring Festival, and he’s really fascinating psychotherapist, psychologist American guy. Dad of two teenagers, and he focuses on the adolescent brain and the book is kind of the- I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s basically about how the adolescent brain develops which by the way is from 12 to 24. And how those changes affect our behaviour, and how we can support adolescence, going through those changes because, contrary to popular belief, they don’t lose control because they’re flooded with hormones that the actual physical structure of their brain is changing.

So yeah, very interesting stuff. Can’t wait to finish the books but I’m nowhere near a master at this.
So, when Jack and I were planning this podcast, Jack said to me, I’ don’t want to talk about myself, I want to talk about the things I’ve done, my experiences as a tutor’, so I’m not going to give Jack some big introduction, we’re going to dive straight in because hopefully you guys will get to know Jack through his wonderful answers, the work he does as a tutor for education, and the work he’s done in the past.

So, Jack, you know what’s coming next, you know the first question. And so do you regular listeners out there! Thank you for tuning in every week after week, it’s amazing hearing your following, and of course, as you’ll hear at the end of the podcast, we have a Qualified Tutor Podcast Group within the QT Community, the link to which will be in the show notes below, so that’s where you can find out about the QT Podcast after this, get to know us a little bit more, ask some questions, that kind of thing. But that first question Jack is, what is your why as a tutor?
In a really short sentence. It just makes me feel so much better about myself and to kind of expand on that, I have worked in and around education for most of my kind of adult life. So I’ve been working with knowledge for like, just under a year and before I was working with them, I’ve been doing a lot less education and a lot more music and I wasn’t in a very good place. And when I saw this other online, that was, you know, we’ve got some really challenging students here who are finding it really difficult, can you help and I thought that, you know, I used to work with looked-after kids and stuff like that, within a school setting, so I thought ‘yeah why not? I can do that. And I found that by giving and being useful, I felt a lot better in myself, so that’s why I do it.
Great, so how long have you been at Nudge for now?
Since just before Christmas and it’s now September so 10 months, and probably about the same number of kids I reckon. I haven’t gotten maybe slightly less, maybe eight kids in the last 10 months. So basically we do background information. It is always difficult to do though but, for context, I do knowledge education work with chronically disengaged students, so that means students who by the time I meet them they’ve usually been out of education for probably a year, out of formal education, and they might be unable to attend school because of their mental health; because of, you know, some kind of event that’s happened in their life. Any reason really, and it’s our job to go in there and to get to know the kid, and to support them transitioning on to, you know, a life that’s worth living and whether that’s returning to education, or going to a different, you know, an apprenticeship job. Further, whatever they need, that’s what we’re there for so it’s really varied; so some kids I’ve been working with for like a five- week really intense period where I’ve seen them nearly every day for five weeks. And for some kids it’s once a week over months or, you know, I’ve got three kids at the moment and it all looks like they’re probably going to be with me for an academic year which is, you know, security and stability which is unusual for me anyway.
So, what have you learned about yourself, about your own tutoring ability or the last 10 months or so? You’ve learned so much about the students that you work with, but can you give us a little insight into what you’ve learned about about your own tutoring,
[Jack]I need to be challenged.

No, I find it really, I move around a lot, and I’ve realised over the course of working with all the students, that is because I need to be on a new thing most of the time, to keep myself interested. I have books that I’ve half read and books that I finished and podcasts that I’m developing, developing my understanding of things all the time and so yeah having a new challenge all the time is a really helpful way for me to stay interested in where I am and instead of just wandering off doing something entirely different.
So does that help you connect to some of the students you work with? Because you work with neurodiverse students, is that right?
Yeah I work with students who have a range of different labels, I guess. And, yeah, learning about them is fascinating. So I was really lucky to be working with them with Jessica Rutherford, who is probably maybe an early adopter now. She’s one of the FASD specialists. FASD is Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder …
… and a former guest on this under podcast!
Yes. Yeah, she’s wonderful. And so I worked with her and that was amazing because I learned so much with them and, at the moment, my focus is more on autism, autism spectrum, and supporting students with those needs. But yeah, it gives me an opportunity to really understand. It’s not really about understanding their condition. It’s really about understanding how a student interacts with the world and how we expect them as, you know, neurotypical people, people who are not on a list, how we expect them to fit into our way of thinking. And actually, how can I support them by giving them skills and tools to help them cope with our demands, but also how can I help educate the peopl e around them to make the world a more comfortable place for them to just be themselves in. So it’s a lot more about adapting the things that are there to support the student rather than trying to squash the student back into a hole …


… which might be an accusation levelled at the school system.
[Jack]Yeah and it’s not really about teachers, you know, I’ve worked in schools and I know that everybody there – most people there – are overworked and overtired and just trying to do the best they can in the really limited amount of time they’ve got with their students.

But yeah, they’re not the right place for everybody. Dylan Wiliam says ‘nothing works for everybody and everything works for somebody’ and it’s great that there are lots and lots of students who are really comfortable in the school system. There are also lots and lots of students who are struggling to get by and whose situation has been exacerbated by the last two years, pretty much. And they really, really need an understanding, supportive person to go in and be non-judgmental and then give them the help that they want. You know, no student wants to be left, no student wants to be bad. No young person wants to be difficult, you know, even if they seem like they do; they’re only trying to meet their own needs in the best way that they know how to, because they haven’t found another way to do it yet.

So you’re talking now about how it’s not about trying to remedy their condition, it’s about trying to understand how they interact with the world, what can we actually do as tutors as specialists to do that, how do we get to know a student and how they interact with the world, being really observing and dropping everything you know. Nina Jackson says ‘Labels are for tins’, which is so true and there is absolutely a place for diagnostic labelling in terms of getting the right support for students and all those kinds of things but actually, most students display their differences in completely different ways; so really it’s about looking at what the student is struggling with, and then trying to find out why, or if you can’t find out why, is there a really simple adjustment you can make that will support their learning, make it a bit easier, you know, for example, a really simple change for a lot of students who struggle with reading is to just have a slightly off-white background because the black and white contrast is a bit dazzling or, you know, for visually impaired students to, you know, they’re really tiny adaptations that we can make that make life easier for our students.

And the other thing is to step away from just worrying about their diagnosis. So, you know, they don’t need to be fixed.

Yeah, there’s this ongoing conversation about diagnoses and pathology, and, you know, sometimes it gets really uncomfortable to talk about ‘curing autism’ or, you know, that’s exactly it. They’re exactly perfect the way they are, their brain is just shaped differently to the average human being, and that is totally fine. And it’s absolutely not our responsibility to fix anybody. A student with dyslexia is going to live with dyslexia for their whole life and it’s not curable. And it’s not going to go away, but as tutors, we can support them with tools and skills to help them, you know, navigate the world more easily; maybe it’s that they need to figure out how to use their phone to help them with their reading. Maybe it’s that they actually just, you know, need to do a bit of dictation or have, you know, access to books and literature that’s in a font that’s easier for them to read. Maybe they just need to do a bit less reading and a bit more listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos. There are so many ways to acquire knowledge now that don’t rely on reading. So it’s all about upscaling giving tools rather than fixing problems.

Yeah, there’s a lot there.
Yeah. The words are coming out at a pretty standard rate but Jack’s brain right now is … yeah, if this wasn’t a podcast …

So, one thing that you clearly feel is very important, something that you have experience in is understanding- you’ve worked in the classroom before and you’ve been a tutor so you understand that dynamic, putting ourselves in the shoes of a tutor, how does the tutor’s role differ from that other tutor in the area of behaviour management, in the area of understanding why and how children do things that they do?
Yeah, I mean I guess the first, most obvious one, especially for those people who have worked in a school and are now tutoring, is that you don’t have a system of punishment to fall back on. You know, you can’t dole out detentions if a student decides that they’re not going to do the thing that you want them to do today. So you have to be flexible, you have to allow them to exercise a bit of autonomy because actually in school, they don’t get a space to do that. And while we’re on the subject of detentions, I mean, I’m just gonna hijack the podcast, the soapbox for a minute and say, you know, if a child is behaving in a way that’s difficult or challenging in a classroom, it’s because they need something. It’s because they’re having a really difficult time. And it probably isn’t about you, even if they’re swearing at you or shouting at you or whatever and yeah, they probably need to have a moment out of the classroom to come down, but putting them into a detention especially now detention are often centralised says, ‘I can’t deal with you, I don’t care about, you know, taking a student who is escalated. Yeah they’re in a state of high emotional distress because they’re in front of all their friends who, by the way, their opinion is really important to teenagers. That peer pressure is something they feel so keenly because their limbic system is wild which is their kind of emotional centre.

And so it’s not easy for them to lose it in front of their friends. So then to take them off to a tower somewhere, and then expect them to sit in silence, isolation. Yeah, it’s inhumane that they’re so struggling with their emotions at that moment, they need space to calm down. Yes, but to expect them just to sit down and be quiet and get on with whatever they were struggling with before, is a completely unreasonable ask.

So, hopefully, as a tutor, you won’t get to that space. Because unfortunately, to manage 30 students’ emotions and academic attainment and, you know, whatever’s going on in the lesson before and to sort their ties out because they’ve just come to you from PE or whatever else it is that you’ve got to do, you know, you don’t have those things to do as a tutor. So if your student does come in and they don’t want to do the thing that you want them to do today, ask them how their day was, ask them what’s going on. Ask them what they want to do.

I was so inspired listening to Gavin McCormack the other day talking about, you know, we’re going to talk about volcanoes, and then you’re going to tell me what you want to learn and then that’s what we’re going to do. Amazing. And we can do that as tutors. So hopefully those behaviour pressure points don’t come up because when a student is starting to get agitated, you notice because you’re sitting with them. And you can change course or you can give them a break or you can play a little game or you can stand up and just, you know, make noises and bang your chest and then sit back down again and you’ll be okay. You know they’ll have had a bit of a release. So I think that’s the main difference, you know, we don’t need to punish our students, because we don’t ever need to get to a point where they’ve done something that requ ires a sanction, because we can respond to their needs much more rapidly because we’re sitting next to them.
Yeah. I think it comes back to empathy, doesn’t it. And, and that seems to be not just the word of the moment, that seems to be kind of a solution to the pressures of education because there is a lot of pressure on education, both from the student themselves, from their friends and parents, from the teachers, from the school system, from the kind of daunting prospect of jobs and careers, depending on how old the student is. And so I think that’s something that I’ve heard from you so many times, Jack, and I learned that so much as an educator, in my own tutoring, I’ve learned, I hope that none of the parents of the students I tutor are listening but maybe they’ll write in and say ‘That’s not quite true’, but yeah I hope I’ve become a more empathetic tutor by listening to the podcast, listening to you.

So, rather than me trying to tell our listeners about what empathy means, do you mind just going into a little bit more about what empathy and education means to you?
It means showing up with love, I think, which is a word we’re a bit scared of sometimes because we don’t talk about it, and it’s a very British thing to not talk about your feelings but, you know, showing up with the understanding that the student is doing the absolute best they can. So one of the things I say over and over again is that they can only be what they see. If their response to challenge is to, you know, shut down completely and not say anything, or to go the other way and start shouting and throwing things or whatever, you know, or anything in between, that’s a learned behaviour. We’re all out to meet our own needs. Yeah, not enough, not enough step over each other kind of way, you know, we all have needs and everything that we do is from our own perspective so when a student’s doing something that is difficult, it’s not about you and to be able to step back and go, ‘Okay, I see that you’re really struggling, what do you need, I don’t know. Okay, here’s some options, how can I help you, would you like some time out, shower, go for a walk, you know, do you want to play a game for five minutes, do you want to tell me what’s bothering you’, and just understanding that the student is doing the best that they can from where they are, and also that they can do better. Yeah, that just because they’re where they are now doesn’t mean that that was going to have that reaction to that situation and that you as a tutor in a position to hold space for them, you’re not trying to shift them; you’re just giving them a comfortable space where they can have those feelings.

And then you can talk about them, because maybe they don’t get the opportunity to do that. Or maybe they do and you’re just a part of that process, but empathy is mostly about showing up with love, and I love this amazing, amazing human being called Alok Vaid-Menon and they are like a gender wonder person and they talk about love as showing up and doing better. Showing up for the people that you care about and doing better and so it kind of points to the fact that there will be mistakes, and there will be challenges, and all of those things will happen, but the intention is always to do better and to try and be better and to learn from mistakes, and that is ultimately, the foundation of education, is making mistakes and then trying to do it a bit differently next time. So empathy really is the foundation of education in that sense.
Okay, so in the name of modelling effective teaching, if we want to teach our students through what we do but also what we say in tutoring sessions and intervention sessions that they should, in order to improve education, they should try their best to make mistakes, learn from it, show up every time and do better, and even to fall in love with education if that’s possible for them at the time, I’m going to ask you a difficult question, Jack.

How do you think you can do better in your tutoring session?
[Jack]So many things. You know, I’m terrible for being organised. In general, not describing you but just saying that this whole class, I’m terrible at being organised. I’m really terrible at sticking with things. So I am very comfortable in my role when I am only with a student for five weeks because there’s a short target, there’s an easily – not easily as in, we just rock up and it’s fine – but there’s a really short term goal. And so when it gets to longer term students, and I’m starting to get to the point now where some of my singing students, which is what I do as well outside, when they’re going on to their next grade now and that’s great but also that’s the longest time I’ve ever really been tutoring because like I said before, I tend to just move around from year to year so I never stay in that place for long enough.

So yeah, the staying power of of tutoring is something that I’m learning to do at the moment and it’s difficult and, you know, some days, I don’t think I can keep doing it and I just want to pack my bags and find a beach somewhere in Chile or somewhere and take my dog and have a lovely time.

But I’m learning to be a bit more of a grown up I think and to learn to be okay with slow progress, which is you know something that is hard for me.
Yeah, hard in general I think especially when we talk about, you know, quick wins and maybe making swift progress especially for students at school when perhaps others around them with their peers are moving forward very fast getting to the end of their worksheet or the exercise before the end of the lesson, asking to do more, so that’s another pressure isn’t it, on education. This is the speed at which we were told, or at least shown to improve.

And I assume yeah that can be a really tricky piece. It certainly was for me when I was a student. The idea that everyone else was moving faster than I was. And if you’re being taken out of the classroom because of bad behaviour or because you keep interjecting or not concentrating, then your progress just slows doesn’t it and you just start to feel that you can’t make any progress because everything you do seems to be punished. And so, perhaps, without wanting to put words in your mouth, doing interventions, you learn that slow progress is just as effective as swift progress.
Yeah, I think so. I think you’ve pointed to two things that we talked about: the virtuous cycle of learning on the 4-part course. It sounds very good but really it means that, once you learn that you can do something and you love it, you want to do it again and you want to keep doing it and gradually you foster that love of learning, just because it’s enjoyable. And the same thing is true in the opposite direction; if you’re someone who struggles with learning and you’re constantly being met by barriers and you’re constantly being removed, you don’t feel like you’re being given support. Because remember, when a student is being difficult to the point where they’re removed from a classroom, what they’re saying is ‘I can’t do this, I need help, something really bad is going on, or something I feel is really bad is going on in my life and I need you to help me because you’re an adult’.

It’s not a want or need to be the worst person in the school but as that cycle continues they get more and more disengaged and disenfranchised with the system of adults who are around them who they feel like don’t care for them. So that further widens the gap, that their personal gap between themselves and education because the more that push happens, the further the wedge drives in, the harder it is to recover that space.

And I can’t remember what the other thing was, but there you go.
Oh yeah, slow progress is really important, a difficult and there you go. Thank you for being an excellent host there and prompting me. And, you know, just being able to be is a really difficult skill, which sounds very on the last day, which I fully agree but you know, and being able to be comfortable with who you are and where you are on your journey (in big air quotes that you can’t see because it’s a podcast), and who you are and how you feel about things, just actually coping with that as an adult is difficult, so coping it with as a teenager is even more difficult because those feelings are in you for the first time, and you’re within a system that is kind of rolling onwards and upwards and onwards and maybe you feel like you can’t keep up with that. And actually, you know, you’re okay. Exactly where you are is fine, because you know, there’s no doubt that you’re doing the best in the circumstances that you found yourself in.
What a lovely message. Thank you, Jack, another one to add to the rest. So, to turn things off here because there’s been so much in there. And we want to give people time to digest and absorb what they’ve heard – what message would you have for tutors who are about to start working with students who are disengaged from school?
Don’t assume. I don’t like to do don’ts, but don’t assume anything. You know,  this is stolen from Brian Mair (of Nudge Education). But, you know, ask them what they need.

Don’t assume that you know; just ask them what they need, they will tell you, and if they don’t tell you straight away they’ll show you with how they’re behaving.  So, you know, don’t assume. Ask them what they need because they will be able to let you know somehow.
Thank you so much, Jack. That’s now two Nudge Education tutors we’ve had consecutively on this podcast. Last week was Claire Smith, who gave us an equally as absorbing and informative and thought provoking podcast episode on her role as Head of Education in a number of prisons, so do go and listen to that (here) if you haven’t already, or if you’d like to listen back over. I have certainly a number of times, you learn something new every time.

And thank you to Jack.

As I said, if you’d like to hear more from Jack, he lives in and around the Community, as well as in Brighton. And Jack alluded to some of the teachings and learnings we have on the 4-part course, which is our CPD-Accredited Tutor Training course for tutors so you can go and check that out on our on our website So those are your next steps.

But thank you very much, Jack.
Thank you!

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