Michael Sturman is a personal tutor at Avocet House, a special school and registered care home for boys in Norfolk. In this post, he joins our #CelebrateMySchool campaign and reflects on how his school changed the course of his life.
‘You need to get out of there, NOW’, he boomed. This is one of my earliest memories of my then headteacher, Jon Lees. I was 10 years old and had locked myself in my mum’s car, terrified about the prospect of living at Eaton Hall, a residential special school for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. In the 20 years that followed, I have yet to meet a more motivated, energetic and deeply caring human being than Jon. He shook my hand six years later, on my last day of school, looked me in the eye and told me to get out of here and fulfil my potential. I like to think that is what he meant when he shouted at my anxious 10-year-old self.
When you are lucky enough to meet people who inspire and motivate you, it is often accompanied by a crucial factor: they make you feel cared for and important. In turn, those people become very important to you. Jon cared for me unconditionally and the relationships I fostered with certain staff at Eaton Hall have remained among the most significant to this day. These emotional connections are, to me, more important than academic success.
I left school at 16 with no real grades to shout about, a part-time job in a local DIY store and, I guess, the emotional insecurities that we never really completely shake from a difficult start in life. I suppose I wasn’t the most desirable employee at that point in time. I was volunteering, though, for a project called XL and working alongside a seconded police officer, Mike Blakey. I knew Mike from his days as a police liaison officer at Eaton Hall. Suddenly I was 16 years old and supporting children with behavioural difficulties. It isn’t possible for me to put into words how amazing it felt to be able to talk to these young people, and have them consider me an adult. There was something that definitely marked in me a special way of working with young people who had experienced similar difficulties to me.
It had always been my lifetime ambition to join the police force, and so after my volunteering stint I sought out work to get some life experience before applying around my 18th birthday.
While my job selling televisions at Comet Electrical was invaluable in introducing me to the world of work, there was always something missing deep down. I thought it was probably the kudos of becoming a police officer. Then Mike mentioned Avocet House to me – a children’s home and special school for children with behavioural difficulties. I was intrigued instantly, and can’t quite explain how much the school’s vision resonated with me. I wish I could work somewhere like that, I thought. Then came the reply from Mike that really got me thinking: “Well, why not?”
And so I applied for a role at Avocet House at 21. By this point I had already applied to – and been rejected from – the police four times. I didn’t expect to get an interview – I was waiting for a polite rejection, and to get back to selling televisions. But as any child who has been in the system will tell you, we are very resilient to setbacks. What’s one more?
As it turned out, Jon was now headteacher at Avocet House, and yet again he demonstrated absolute faith in me. He gave me the job, and today I am a personal tutor for two boys whose lives haven’t always worked out so great for them. It is truly the most rewarding job I could ever have hoped for. It wasn’t the kudos of being a police officer that I’d been looking for. It was the chance to make a difference for people a little bit like me.
I can think of no better place to do this than at Avocet House. Jon has developed a no-limits philosophy, and he is absolutely true to his vision. I wouldn’t be working here if he wasn’t – because most other people wouldn’t have taken a chance on me. There is nothing, he believes, that our boys can’t do. And to this day there is nothing he believes I cannot do. Jon continues to care for me in the same way he did as my own headteacher.
We grow together as a community and as individuals, and I have developed so much in my time working here. My professional life has enabled me to develop socially – not something I imagined happening for me when I was that frightened 10-year-old boy about to move away from home.
People often ask me what makes a good key worker. The answer is simple: unconditional care. I will always be there for our boys at Avocet House, and I will shake their hand on the day they leave us and encourage them to get out there and fulfil their potential. I’ll do that because somebody was there and believed in me. It has made all the difference to my life.I have given you a small insight into my personal story, but there are many more stories worth telling of Avocet House. I am, and will always be, truly grateful to Jon and the many fantastic people I’ve met on my journey so far. The philosophy of no-limits thinking is now a way of life for me, and I try to share this fantastic gift with the young people I work with today, and in the years to come.