The instant you enter the school at Starship Hospital, you’re met with a sense of warmth and safety and a welcome to match from the staff (I am offered tea, coffee and chocolate cake within seconds). It’s an intimate space, filled with colourful, educational paraphernalia, which gives way to a sprawling balcony with a stunning city skyline view. From the ceiling hangs handmade lanterns and giant butterflies, while the walls are adorned with bookshelves, children’s paintings and photos of various celebrity visitors such as Valerie Adams, Justin Bieber, and the All Blacks.
“That was an amazing experience for the kids,” says Jan Melbourne, associate principal. “It’s interesting to watch how many of those big names are so good with kids. Valerie Adams was phenomenal and we all turned into a bunch of groupies immediately!”
The Starship Unit is part of the Northern Health School, an organisation which covers the top half of North Island, providing on-site and community education for sick kids who are away from their own schools for two weeks or more. At any one time, the unit at Starship is staffed on the ratio of one teacher to eight children who arrive from all over the country.
Jan has been a teacher for 30 years, 11 at Starship. “To work here requires a certain level of flexibility,” she says. “There is a fast turnover of children and you never know who will be here tomorrow. You have to be sensitive to the circumstances of the child — nobody gets into Starship lightly — and you must be adaptable. Each child’s requirements are different. A kid recovering from a brain injury may only be able to work for five minutes per day. You have to figure out what they can cope with.”
It must be tough for the teachers, too, dealing with the very sick kids?
“You can’t ever totally switch off from it. It is emotionally challenging. Most kids do get better, but not all do. What you absolutely must do is stay professional. Whatever you may be feeling, you have to make sure that neither the child nor their family have any idea, because the worst thing you can do is add to their load.”
It is not the kind of work for teachers whose main purpose is ensure their pupils sail through exams. “We do get highly academic kids here, but of course, not all of them are,” says Jan. “Sometimes you have to find rewards in the small things, like a child learning to smile.”
But it often affords the opportunity for kids to catch up on any areas in which they’ve been struggling, through some one-on-one lessons. Jan says: “We have to do the same as any other teacher does which is respond to individual circumstances of the child and their individual learning. The one thing we can do here, that many can’t get in their regular classroom, is half-an-hour a day of one-on-one time. If there’s anything in maths, for example, that they didn’t understand. They may say that they didn’t get fractions and we can tell them, ‘I can teach you fractions in three days.’”
The general approach is to check with the children’s school, find out what their class is doing, and replicate it as much as possible. I wonder what the general approach of the kids is, having to do do schoolwork while they’re sick.
“It’s pretty much the same variety you get at any regular school,” Jan says. “The kids who are studious still want to work; those who are worried about passing exams become even more worried because they’re away; and then there are the kids who think, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! We shouldn’t have to be doing this!’ But most of them are, overall, pretty positive about it. Daily school in hospital helps sick children because it is a normal activity for them, even if everything else is scary and different.”
The teachers are also supported by a selection of volunteers: “They do an amazing job, are so reliable and we are very grateful to them. They’re a great cross-section of people, including younger people who make this commitment.” One such volunteer is artist Hannah Jensen who gives weekly classes.
Inspired by those who’ve cared for them in hospital, Jan tells me many former pupils have gone on to pursue careers in medicine. Jan’s also keen to stress that the staff too draw inspiration from their pupils. “You meet some amazing kids and some amazing families coping so well under such dreadful circumstances, and it makes you wonder how they do it,” she says. “It feels like an enormous privilege to be part of their lives, however briefly, and it makes you intensely grateful for the healthy children in your own life. It’s very good at teaching us gratitude.”