This month, we spoke to Poppy Priestley, a teacher from Oaklands Catholic School and Sixth Form in Portsmouth. She told us about some of the challenges she thinks military children face in school and how she’s been using the new Little Troopers secondary school resources.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be a teacher
I’ve been teaching now for almost four years. It seems like no time at all, but my training year feels like a different lifetime! Time seems to move differently in teaching. One second it’s September and the next it’s exam season all over again. I got into teaching because I love my subject (as cliché as that sounds!) – I’m an English teacher and I love sharing my love of reading with students. As much as teenagers complain about me making them read Shakespeare, I like to think they don’t hate it! I love working with people and hate having every day be the same. Teaching definitely offers plenty of change, all day every day…!
How many military children are there in your school? (please include information about Service e.g. Navy, Army, RAF etc)
We’re a fairly large Catholic secondary school with a sixth form, so out of the 1500 students we have in total, we’ve got around 70 students registered as service children in some form or another. We’re located right down on the South Coast in between three naval bases and a handful of scattered army bases and because we’re a Catholic School we draw from quite a large area. About half of the students have a parent (or parents) in the Royal Navy, with the next largest group connected to the British Army, and then only a handful of students connected to the RAF.
How does your school support forces’ families?
We don’t have an official support system in place – something was planned for this year, but like most things COVID-19 got in the way! What we do instead is a bit more fluid. Service children can be identified from a central database available to most staff members and then our pastoral approach is tailored to individual students as and when they need any support.
Do you have a connection to the military? If so do you think this helps you when interacting with the service pupils?
My husband is a warfare officer in the Royal Navy. We’ve done our fair share of deployments and time apart – I don’t think I’d be alone as a warfare wife when I say we’ve actually spent more of our relationship apart than we have together! I think this definitely helps when I work with service children in more ways than one. Obviously as a teacher, empathy isn’t restricted to experiences you can identify with, but understanding that feeling of being left behind and the low-level, but persistent worry that you have for your service member while they’re away is really helpful to be able to connect with them. Kids tell me they’re having a ‘bad deployment day’ and I understand that in a way that perhaps other staff members don’t because I’ve had those days too. Sometimes I think those feelings are really hard to articulate, especially as a child, and them knowing that you actually understand what they mean can be really liberating for them in my experience.
What initiatives or projects have worked particularly well for military children in your school?
I trialled the new Little Troopers ‘What I Wish My Teachers Knew’ resource from the new Secondary School Resource Hub with some KS3 students earlier in the year and it was so successful! They really relished the opportunity to share their own experiences with me – and with each other – and it brought out a confidence and a pride that I’d never seen in some of them. They never really get the chance to talk about how the military affects them and I think they really appreciated having someone actually listen and be interested.
Why do you think it’s important to offer targeted support for military children in school?
Military children are so resilient and amazing, but at the end of the day they’re still children. Sometimes the decisions that the military make don’t even make sense to me as an adult, so they must seem completely incomprehensible to service children. They go through so much, whether it be deployments, training exercises, school changes, constantly changing plans or a million other things that military life throws at them and the thought of them going through all of that alone, without any recognition or support from their school seems unacceptable to me. Schools are always there to support students, regardless of their background, but some things are so unique to military life that a catch-all approach doesn’t always cut it.
In your experience, what are the biggest challenges faced by military children in school?
The biggest challenge in my experience is getting a sense of understanding from their peers and their teachers. Many teachers and students don’t know anything about what it’s like to be in the military, let alone be a military child, and that can create such a barrier between service children and the support they feel they need. Every military career is unique and therefore every military child’s experience is going to be different. We have students who have never spent any time separated from their service person and on the other hand have students who see their service person for a fraction of the year and find it strange when they return. If as a teacher you don’t understand that sheer range of roles and experiences, it makes it so much harder to understand what a student is experiencing.
Have these challenges changed during your time as a teacher?
Everyone has had a challenging time during COVID-19, but I think people underestimate how much of an impact that has had on military students. Service personnel have been seconded to a huge range of different jobs, in the NHS, in the transport industry, in the COVID testing system, or they’ve been sent on unexpected deployments over Christmas because the original ship’s company had an outbreak with additional quarantine times. Add that to all the additional stressors of furlough or parent job losses, of school lockdowns and online learning, of the sudden and unexpected removal of support networks and friends at school and you’ve got a melting pot of issues that are going unnoticed. The military is undergoing huge changes anyway and I think the support that we offer these service children needs to change with it as quickly as possible.
What’s the one thing you think is most important for schools to do for forces children?
Honestly, I think the most important thing is to make them feel seen. I think we underestimate the simple power of a student feeling listened to and understood. That understanding that they are important to someone, that their experience matters, can be such a transformative feeling for them.
What advice would you offer to other teachers and schools working with service children?
The best advice I could give would be to throw away the idea that there is only one type of military child, that everyone experiences military service in the same way. It’s not the case and it’s a really unhelpful stereotype. Be prepared to listen and ask questions and learn – these kids are amazing and they don’t really want pity, they just want understanding. For the most part they’re so proud of being a ‘military child’, but they carry huge burdens too. They just want to be listened to and have someone be interesting in them as individuals; I think sometimes we forget that while they are service children, they are themselves first.