Julie Leoni describes how she tried to do justice to the voices of young people in her presentation to the Antidote conference.

On the day before the Antidote conference, I taught a couple of lessons at the Shropshire secondary school where I work. I confessed to one group that I was feeling nervous about talking to around 100 people whom I didn’t know. As always when I share my vulnerabilities with the young people I teach, they were little stars of support. Paul told me not to worry as he was sure they would like me. Sally told me that, if I was feeling nervous, I should just remember that my baby (I was about 23 weeks pregnant) would look after me!

Their words

I shared Sally’s comments with the conference audience as I stood looking out onto a sea of faces, trying to represent what it was that all the young people in the research had wanted to say. I had been nervous that morning and the night before, reading through notes at 6am in the bath, then again outside the beautifully restored church of St Luke’s. Silly in some ways as I was only speaking for 10 minutes. But then it was the time limit that presented the problem. How was I ever going to do justice to the lives of all the young people who had trusted me?

It was the young people who again put me at my ease, albeit only virtually this time. As an actor read out quotations from Steve, Ashley, Matt and Chris – the subjects of my research – the memories of each boy came flooding back to me. Matt and Chris, intelligent and articulate, from middle-class homes with supportive parents, who had been excluded for standing up either for their own rights, or another’s. They were indignant that teachers did not treat them as they expected to be treated and faced significant difficulties negotiating the unwritten rules of teachers, as well as their own masculinity.

Steve had suffered me as a teacher for two years, as well as being interviewed for the research and being involved in one of the groups we ran. His life at home was not so easy. His dad provided a role model that Steve tried to reject but, in moments of stress, copied. Funny, cheeky and terrifying when he ‘lost it’, Steve made clear to me the nature of anger for many boys and the way that it covered other feelings of sadness, loss and fear. Then Ashley with the most amazing blue eyes you had ever seen who was a hard-working student in Year 7, but got excluded for tipping a table onto a boy who was threatening him. It was Ashley who so clearly articulated the need for a secure attachment in order to achieve (which he subsequently did).

The right to speak

How could I say all that these teenage boys would have said? What right did I, a middle-class and middle-aged woman, have to speak for them? Should I even have been attempting to?

No right apart from the fact that I know they all wanted things to be different. If not for them, then for others. They wanted schools to be places where they didn’t get shouted at, where the teachers were real, and where they could feel secure and attached to the adults and young people around them.

Would any of them have had the courage to speak if invited? Yes, I think some would have. They would have spoken in their own voices, complete with swearing, accents, anecdotes and diversions. They might have been angry, sad and joking. I imagine it might have been more raw and unpredictable than what the audience received. And yet shouldn’t we be prepared to listen to young people telling their own stories? My heart says ‘yes’. And yet even I experienced the fear of letting people down, turning people off, maybe even letting things get out of hand.

The challenge

So the challenge for Antidote, schools, teacher and politicians, is how to overcome our fear and allow young people to speak for themselves. Not in some tokenistic way like a school council discussing toilets and uniforms, but in a vulnerable, open, uncontrolled way.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the next time there is an Antidote conference, it was presented by young people as well as the adults around them. Wouldn’t that be a frightening, exhilarating opportunity to take ‘walking our talk’ to the next level?

Caring people

As it was, I sat in the dark listening to the actor read out the quotations from my interviews and then stepped onto the stage. The boys had indeed saved the day, as I just knew what I wanted to say; they had said it all for me, I just had to reiterate it. They had told me how much they wanted schools to change and how this would make a difference to their lives. I cared about Ashley, Matt, Steve, Chris, Sally and Paul and all of the other young people who have touched my life over the years. The caring gave me courage.

What makes teaching, for me, such a challenging, enriching and privileged job is the young people, their care for me and my care for them. And while there may have been 100-odd people in the room, they weren’t so scary because they all cared as well. And if there are enough people who care about schools being caring places, then I really do believe we can make a difference, which is what Ashley, Chris, Matt, Steve and all the others involved in the research wanted to happen.