The Secret Teacher: ‘Toby died this morning, but Jack’s parents sent him to school anyway’

Many of our students suffer emotional storms on a regular basis and still show up to school

Storm Debi offers the most recent evidence of how seriously we take physical safety. What clearly signalled the seriousness of the situation was the co-ordinated national response directing those in charge of schools to ensure they remained closed until 10am. Our collective response was correspondingly strong and, of course, resulted in massive disruption to our plans. As humans we are severely tested by such unpredictable events, because they are entirely outside anyone’s control. But, for many in schools, the days without a weather warning can be just as stressful. Many people, both staff and students, frequently face more private, internal storms.

Toby died this morning, but Jack’s parents sent him to school anyway. If he hadn’t been in transition year, Jack might have been open to understanding why they had insisted he go in. He had lost his best friend of 14 years, a companion he could never remember not being there. Jack knew he was not ill, but that did not stop him feeling sick. He wanted to be anywhere but at school. All Jack could think about was his beloved golden retriever lying alone back at the vets and, as a result, he spent his day in the blue zone of regulation.

A holistic education is more than a buzz phrase – it means that our focus stretches far beyond the curriculum and that we are alert to all opportunities for personal growth. It requires us to be aware that a class group which appears homogeneous in terms of age and stage of life displays a far more varied range once we consider their emotional state. And that how they are internally can fluctuate at a frequency and with a suddenness that doesn’t happen with physical appearance. The four colour zones of regulation are a wonderful communication tool, and one young people readily embrace to assist us in understanding them.

We reap the benefits of this approach on the days that things do not go according to plan. While there may have been fewer trips and tours planned due to Storm Debi falling so early in a new half-term, there were nonetheless many schools with events other than the normal timetable planned on the day the weather warnings hit. Sports fixtures and in-house assessments always require modifications to the traditional timetable, and their very planning leads to enough disruption without them needing to be rescheduled due to a storm. But this is precisely what happened. As a nation we were thrust into the yellow zone of worry and frustration, but thankfully did not have to remain there for long.


Paula spends most of her time there and wishes she cared as much about her grades as her parents do. Since they moved her to the grind school, life has felt like one endless panic to keep on top of things. It is as though parents would remove their children from these schools if there wasn’t always more work than the pupils could humanly manage. Perhaps that is what we are paying for, thinks Paula, but she knows that the time spent worrying and panicking is actually taking from her capacity to study – the very thing her parents are paying to improve. And there is the additional panic of how to tell them that this is how she feels. For Paula every weekend brings its own, red, version of Storm Debi.

Mental strains take a serious toll on an individual, and yet there are frequently no outward signs

But for the rest of us it was only on that particular Sunday evening and Monday morning that very different skill sets were required: for everyone, academic prowess came second to an ability to remain calm and adaptable to change. For some the test involved decision-making under pressure. Nature was in charge, and when that happens nobody has prior access to exactly what the best course of action is. Everyone involved fears that they will have made the wrong call, and an ability to quell that fear proved an asset.

Not all uncertainties are as nerve-racking though, even when worryingly difficult to predict. No school musical ever reached the stage without at some point appearing an impossible feat. The buzz of a school musical is hard to beat, and that is why Ms Moran volunteers her time year after year. There is no such thing as an unentertaining rehearsal or performance. The ones that go badly are wildly funny and the pupils eventually see that too, but only once the stress of being so nervous has abated sufficiently.

Time spent preparing the musical represents time in a multitude of zones, but performance nights represent the pinnacle of time in the green zone. The collective focus on getting a big project right and impressing all who come to watch lifts individual and group energy, and the shared pride lives on for decades. It’s what gets talked about at the 30-year reunion, when those involved find that the passage of time has had little effect on the warmth of the memories.

Many suffer these internal emotional storms, and indeed far greater ones, on a regular basis and show up to school anyway. Mental strains take a serious toll on an individual, and yet there are frequently no outward signs. So while the colour-coded weather warnings are mercifully rare, the four colour zones of regulation are all fully present in school. On any given school day many people need to summon all their courage all the time simply to cross the threshold of our schools. While this does not involve a national response, we would do well to acknowledge that it is happening and raise awareness, in the hope that one day our psychological safety ranks as high in our public discourse as physical safety already does.