Schools The best medicine

Monash Children’s Hospital School teacher Kate Cooper with student. Image supplied.

Keeping young people connected to education while in hospital has unique rewards, as the teaching staff at Monash Children’s Hospital School explain to STEPHEN A RUSSELL.

While most schools across the state were forced to close their doors to the majority of students last year, Monash Children’s Hospital School (MCHS) was on the frontline of the pandemic. Even through the worst stretches of Melbourne’s lockdown, onsite learning continued.

Assistant principal Sandra Murphy says that watching their base schools make the difficult switch to remote learning had unexpected consequences for her students. “Our young people here got to feel normal,” she says. “They were doing school remotely, just like everybody else.”

Teaching at MCHS is personalised for each student, depending on their age and their health situation. “It’s very flexible,’ Sandra says. “If the kids can get out of bed and come to the schoolroom, that’s great, but a lot of teaching is done on the ward, bed-side. And maybe they’re not well enough to do anything. They can do half an hour a day, or they might be doing quite a bit. Kids in the mental health ward get at least three hours a day.”

‘Lots of our kids have chronic health conditions and the impact that has on their learning is huge.’

A unique environment

MCHS staff hail from primary, secondary and early childhood backgrounds, the disability sector and other alternative settings. “It’s a really great mix,” Sandra says.

The unique professional learning opportunities include a focus on the impact of health conditions on student learning, and trauma-informed practices. Teachers often have to work around families, a situation many teachers got a taste of during remote learning.

“Often you’re working with a young person and the parents are in the room, but eventually they will go and get a coffee because they realise they can trust you,” Sandra says.

It can be a lot to take in. “Lots of our kids have chronic health conditions and the impact that has on their learning is huge,” she says. “The disconnection from their base schools is huge. And we always say that our best work is supporting our colleagues out there in the kids’ base schools.”

‘We get to really focus on teaching, which is a privilege.’

Sandra says emotional boundaries are an essential part of the job. “We’re not the parents dealing with a very sick child, who must be going through a horrendous time. We know our place. We are saddened by what we see, but we are very clear that it’s no help to the young people if we go down the emotional rabbit hole with them. So, you have to maintain your own emotional resilience and integrity.”

Their role is to support their students’ continuous learning. “We trust in the treatment teams and take advice from them on what the kids can and can’t do. We try not to ever cross those boundaries.”

The doctors and nurses at Monash do a Herculean job, and things aren’t quite as bad as you might expect, Sandra notes. “People always say, ‘Oh my god, how awful it must be!’ But most of the kids here get well, go home and continue on. So, there are lots of great stories.”

Kate Cooper, a leading teacher of wellbeing at MCHS, can attest to that. She loves the personalised approach to each student’s needs. “We’re able to really delve into where there might be some gaps and incorporate that into what they enjoy doing. We can be a little bit more flexible than you would in their classroom.”

The nature of working within a hospital also means there are a lot of support systems in place. “We get to really focus on teaching, which is a privilege,” Kate says.

Left: Sandra Murphy and Monash Children’s Hospital School teachers. Right: MCHS teacher Kelly Barnett with student. Images supplied.

Joining the school in 2018, she came from a teaching unit where she was working with 11 to 15-year-olds who were disengaging from school. That helps her encourage MCHS students who are initially – and understandably – resistant to continuing their education.

“They’re not feeling well, and they don’t really want to be in hospital. But when you see them go home, they walk out of here in a much better state than they were when they started.

“Knowing that you have been keeping them in touch with their school and their education – that’s really nice, to be able to keep that going, so they’re not going back with massive gaps.”

For Kate, it’s all about teamwork. “It’s great to be able to be that person who talks to the family, the young person and the school, and gets everyone on the same page,” she says.

“Schools have it tough, but they just bend over backwards to help students that are coming out of here. So many teachers out in schools are just working so hard to help students be the best that they can be. And it’s just really nice to be able to say, ‘You’re doing a really great job’ and be able to support colleagues out in schools.”

‘There is a sense of normality, of psychological safety, to having teachers around.’

Continuous learning

Last year, MCHS had to oversee the work of 15 Year 12 students who were immuno-compromised as they undertook their VCE exams. “That was a huge thrill, to see those kids we’d been working with finish their school year and go on to do their exams with us,” Sandra says.

There was a huge sense of pride for the school staff, and though those boundaries are important, the bond between teachers and pupils can be pretty special. “We have many kids who finish their treatments, leave here and come back and see us,” Sandra says. “They have very strong connections with their teachers.”

Indeed, that connection appears to play a significant role in helping kids at MCHS get better. “The treatment teams will say that having teachers in the hospital has made a significant difference to the recovery of the students,” Sandra adds. “We’ve been really flabbergasted to hear that. But there is a sense of normality, of psychological safety, to having teachers around, and kids feeling like they can keep up with their work.”

Sometimes their determination to do so amazes Sandra, given all that these young people are facing. “Kids are really funny like that. They say things like, ‘Oh no! I’m going to fall behind with my work’, and you just think, ‘Goodness – you’re in hospital’.”

At MCHS, whether it be the students or the staff, there is never a lack of resilience on display.

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