WA News Guest Opinion / Editorial The Learning Continues
The Learning Continues
Written by Gemma Slater
Monday, 02 October 2017


Hospital teaching probably isn’t a career that many people know much about. When I tell my friends that I’m an English teacher at the School of Special Educational Needs - Medical and Mental Health I usually get one of two reactions. The first is a long sigh, prompted by a romantic vision of me and a consumptive child in thrall to the power of Harper Lee’s prose.

The second response is far less poetic. ‘Why?’

Why, indeed.

It’s a question I think about a lot, particularly in my current position as a liaison teacher with a Tier 4 Mental Health Service. The students I teach present with a myriad of behavioural and attitudinal issues. When they’re telling me ‘where I can stick my comprehension questions’ I often ask myself, why do I bother?

The easy answer is that there’s a legal obligation for these minors to access education until the end of Year 12, but there’s more to it than that. I’ve seen how education is a vital part of child and teenage health. It’s a rite of passage, an anchor of normality and, for medically compromised students, assists in the healing process.

My role is a combination of educator, mediator and coordinator. Some students have successfully avoided school for weeks, months and years because it’s a place where they feel dislocated, embarrassed, angry and lonely.

My first task is to re-familiarise them with the classroom and build their confidence with accessible, achievable tasks. Some of these students return to their enrolled schools, others will require alternate educational pathways. But, thankfully, most students experience a shift in thinking towards education and its inherent benefits.

And then there’s mediation between agencies. A liaison teacher aims to create opportunities for Health and Education to come together and discuss the relationship between a student’s health and educational performance.

There’s little doubt that teachers and administrators benefit from gaining an insight into student health. That’s particularly the case when mental health problems manifest in oppositional behaviours, chronic procrastination and avoidance. It’s important for health teams to work with schools to develop care plans and support both funding initiatives and student re-engagement.

Ultimately, the goal is to make sure a young person is safe, functionally engaged in the community and getting an education.

A big part of my work is with parents and carers. If a school enrolment has failed in some way, I help parents, carers and students to navigate a range of alternate pathways. On discharge from hospital I try to have each student enrolled at a school where they feel comfortable and reasonably confident of success.

Regular school attendance is a normal part of life for most young people and the vast majority of my students want nothing more than to be ‘normal’. Health problems can be chronic, but they are often transient, so offering access to education throughout a hospital stay is vitally important.

And that’s why I do this job, and continue to love doing it.