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Make the disadvantaged feel advantaged; it can be a Rocky road!

James Yates uses film again as the basis for another fantastic, thought-provoking NexEdBlog. This time James looks at disadvantaged students using analogies from the Rocky films.

Yates Boxing


I’m afraid the academic outcomes of many disadvantaged students are still not where we’d like them to be. There is a still a substantial achievement gap between  these students and others.  There are so many factors that impact on the achievements of the students who need our help the most. I believe there are four social-emotional components that have the greatest impact on disadvantaged students’ learning and opportunities for academic success:

  1. Academic and school attachment
  2. Teacher support
  3. Peer values
  4. Mental health

Obviously, there are other factors but in terms of what we could possibly influence, these have to be our focus. Each one of them could have a bigger influence on one student compared to another so we cannot always use a ‘one size fits all’ approach as each child is an individual. However, we can put some things in place which can impact on so many, who could be years behind their peers in their academic, social, emotional development.

The term underdog doesn’t always sit well with me. An “underdog” is a person or group usually in sports and any form of competition who are popularly expected to lose. However, I love the idea of someone or a group achieving something beyond what was expected. In popular culture, there are not many greater underdogs than Rocky Balboa. The ‘Italian Stallion’ was born in a very deprived area of Philadelphia and his parents were working class and fairly poor. His Father had a poor education and seemed to project this onto Rocky as in one scene Rocky tells Adrian:

“Yeah – My ol’ man, who was never the sharpest, told me – I weren’t born with much brains, so I better use my body.”

Combining this with some of the company Rocky kept and his ’employment’ as a debt collector for a loan shark meant he wasn’t surrounded by role models who would endorse taking ‘the right path’ in life. There wasn’t a host of people providing him with opportunities he didn’t think were possible.

Unfortunately, some parents’ own experiences of school do impact on their children. Getting parents to engage with the school can massively increase the chances of attachment to education for the child. Opening parent’s eyes to what the we can do to help their child achieve is key and it can take a lot of effort. Inviting them in and having an ‘always welcome’ attitude is essential and dispelling any misconceptions that they have. If parents of disadvantaged students buy into what we are trying achieve, that can only help.

Boxing, the thing Rocky was truly attached to. He loved to box and had a desire to succeed but found himself unable to go further with it and he became disillusioned as he wasn’t seeing the rewards of his hard work straight away. Sound familiar? I have worked in a school which has students who are disadvantaged and at times I felt like rewarding them just for making it into school each day.  I’ve seen and heard things that no teaching course prepares you for. There was a student whose mother was an alcoholic, and her step-father hadn’t displayed a particularly caring nature to say the least. There had been social services involved, CP plans put in place and the school was aware of everything it needed to know. This student was fiery but for every foul word that came out of her mouth you’d do well to find a student with a more caring side too. She burst into my office once:

“She’s doing my f****** head in!”

“Who is?” I replied.

“Miss ….. She shouted at me really loudly. I only asked her what she did at the weekend.”

Now, I immediately thought that’s a bit harsh. It turns out it was in the middle of a test but it showed a willingness to connect. If a student becomes attached to school through a subject or an adult, it can make such a difference. Rita Pierson talks about every student needing a champion and those champions can have an immeasurable impact. Luckily, this student has a few champions at school and I am convinced she will do well in her exams and go onto ‘break the cycle’ and achieve great things. If Rocky was given more opportunities at an early age, trained at a gym where he was given the chance to do things that he hadn’t had before, would he have ever become a debt collector? When a student values success and achievement and has a mindset that allows them to become attached, you’re onto a winner. This can take a long time but anything worthwhile is never easy and usually takes time.

Sometimes, that means we as teachers must go above and beyond. I think it’s in our nature to want to help others; that’s why we joined the profession (some will say the holidays but they don’t mean it). Rocky may have struggled at times with attachment and lost interest as he didn’t feel like he was achieving anything and so many students also give up because they lack resilience. I would never say they lacked toughness as some students I have met are some of the toughest human beings I’ve ever come across, but just lack the skills to channel that toughness. The key I feel is making the disadvantaged feel advantaged, making them feel like they wouldn’t get this level of opportunity anywhere else and that because they are who they are, they deserve this.

One person Rocky did have was Mickey, his trainer, and one of the closest things to family he had left. Mickey believed in Rocky. He also told it how it is and Rocky was given the tough love and told the truth. Sometimes, that works with students but you have to be confident your rapport with that child is strong enough to be able survive you saying some things that they may find difficult to hear. When a student turns up to a classroom, they have the same chance for success as the person next to them. As success isn’t always an A*/9 but it is about progressing and getting better. There will be barriers in place for so many disadvantaged students and as mentioned they can be disadvantaged in many different ways. It is about trying to identify what those barriers are and coming up with what you can do to limit their impact. That could mean speaking to their pastoral leader/tutor or could mean just observing them and seeing what social-emotional factor you think might be holding them back the most. Often, it can feel like a battle against the odds in getting them to achieve their potential but why not try to get them to embrace that ‘underdog’ ideology and combine this with a positive growth mindset.

Rocky was obviously presented with a shot at success. Finally, he could see a reward for all his efforts but he still had to work to achieve this. Mickey was there alongside him all the way pushing him and building up. The thing is, teaching is a bit like being a boxing coach. You can prepare, condition, and teach them how, but the doing is always up to them. As soon as they step into that ring, it’s about their desire to succeed and the attachment towards achievement. Your support was vital in getting them so far but only if they desire success more than a fear of failure will they have a chance.

Now to add to the mix the views of their peers around them. Some students will refrain from engaging with school as their peers don’t but this is something which can be challenged as if the school has the right culture it I should embrace the many and not the few. Sometimes, it can even take one student to send a message to the others which is infectious and creates momentum. That iconic scene where Rocky is running and he gathers a huge following behind him as he trains symbolises shared values and all going in the same direction.  When there is a strong community focus where common goals are shared and bought into, the possibilities are endless. To think having every disadvantaged student get to the top of their own steps and celebrate their own progress would be something we could all be proud of. 

Unfortunately, the mental health of students is something that we have so little control of if any.  It can be so well hidden and we might not even know about an issue. There will be times where we are aware but might not feel equipped to deal with it. There will always be those in your school who are or know someone who is experienced and you can pick their brains. We all have an obligation to acknowledge not ignore issues even if we don’t always have the answers. One thing I’ve learnt and an approach I always try to take – be positive. Students will pick up on your positivity and if you can get them in a better place if only temporarily then there is more chance of their brains releasing chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin which make them feel happier, more stable and sometimes safer. This doesn’t make us experts but it means we are doing our bit. We are all capable of making people’s lives better in some part and that should be our aim everyday: to enhance their lives whether it is making them better learners in a subject or just them knowing that you care.

I strongly feel that opening students’ minds to the impossible, the unheard of and the unconsidered is key to getting them to progress further and value their education, and overcome the barriers that exist for them. They all deserve a ‘title shot’ and we have to do our bit in putting them in a position where they take it.

All you need is the eye of the tiger………..

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The author

James Yates has been teaching Science for almost ten years now. He is a self confessed Superhero geek and this led him into teaching which makes sense as he is passionate about helping people. James soon picked up Pastoral leadership responsibility in school and well as some teaching and learning roles. James is always looking to improve himself and those around him which is what he tries to promote to the young people he teaches .He is passionate about teaching the person not the student. He believes every child deserves a champion and has the right to an education. That education isn’t just subjects and qualifications but life lessons and how to socialise.

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