Interview with Debbie Johnstone, Creator of Supper Club

What did you observe that initiated supper club?
I work as a teacher of 16-19 year olds in quite deprived areas of South East London. Every year I meet very bright students who have so much drama in their personal lives that their own survival is a far greater priority than their education.
Many of them suffer depression and anxiety, many are in the care system having witnessed family breakdown, many have very adult responsibilities in the home, and an increasing number I see actually live alone. Most of these care leavers are not equipped with the practical skill or emotional maturity that complete independence demands, and many also have low English language skills as an extra challenge.
London is a crowded city full of lonely people and Supper Club is a very simple way that I could engage these young people and help equip them with the skills, support and confidence to flourish. I knew that as a teacher I was limited – I couldn’t ask them into my home or visit them at their homes – so I came to the idea of re-creating a home environment at college and trying to create “family” at college.
For me growing up, family happened around the dinner table. It was where we shared experiences, discussed issues, asked questions, laughed, ate and just enjoyed each other’s company. And this is pretty much exactly what these young people don’t have – good friends, home cooked food, a welcoming environment, fun with no responsibilities and available adults to ask questions of.
So supper club is simple. If home isn’t a great environment – you’re going home to arguments, strangers or nothing – come! We turn a classroom into a kitchen and dining room, cook together and eat till we’re full. It’s nice.

What necessary protocols presented as a challenge before supper club could start?
As I was already known in my college, there wasn’t much I had to do. I already had my DBS and as a teacher I was trained to work with groups of young people.
I did have to pass a qualification in Food Hygiene as I would be responsible for preparing and storing food. I also spent some time with the Health & Safety manager at the College working out risk assessments to ensure both the students and I would be safe using the equipment and also so be covered by the college insurance.

How often do you meet?
We tried various arrangements but have settled on once every 2 weeks. We tried to do more often but with a limited number of volunteers who all work full time, we started to burn out. Two weeks give us time to cater and more importantly to advertise.

What’s the referral system for students to join?
I do have posters up as general advertising for self-referral but mainly it’s been my volunteers and I talking personally to tutors, mentors and support staff that we know. I’ve been asking them to bring along the students whom they think it would benefit – ones they have a relationship with. This seems to be the most effective way as many of the young people find coming alone to a new group quite intimidating. Once they’re in we get them busy helping in the kitchen and they’re fine but that initial introduction does need a lot of support.

Student/tutor requirements?
If a student would rather stay late at college than go home, then they’re welcome but we’re targeting specifically those who live alone or are in care so will likely live independently in the near future.
My team are all volunteers and they’re all on staff at the college. I’ve asked these people particularly because I can see they genuinely care about these kids’ welfare; they are extremely reliable and practical but also have a very pastoral instinct and can put the students at ease. Also, they completely understand and support what I’m trying to create.

What effect do you think the club has on regular attendees?
I’m watching these young people relax, make friends and find the confidence to join in the conversation as they step away from the seriousness of life. This is the most important thing for me but as a great bonus, they’re all picking up cooking skills, helping choose the menu, serving each other. Also, you know that once in the week they’ve not eaten at McDonalds!

Could the club be expanded to all campuses or elsewhere?
I’d love to have this run at both campuses and it’s absolutely possible in the longer term but I would want this one completely self-sustaining in terms of volunteers who understand the ethos of what we’re trying to create so I can step away and train a new team. I mean it could easily become a cooking lesson but I want to keep it very chilled and fun so they forget they’re in a classroom! You need the right leaders to be able to do that.

Would you like it replicated across all FE colleges or further afield as part of E&D and inclusion standards?
I wouldn’t say that every college must do this but it’s a model that works and an opportunity if you have the right people who are willing to invest in the project.
It doesn’t take a massive financial outlay or need great facilities but it does take a consistency of commitment from leaders who are willing to give of themselves in both time and energy.
Do you think African institutions of learning could benefit from the effective transfer of this provision for their young people?
Food is a universal equaliser and so this model could easily transfer to different cultures – everyone gets hungry and people naturally relax around food. The process of food preparation helps to build a shared experience and a shared experience creates a sense of achievement and builds relationships of trust.
Once that relationship is established with your young people, you have access to encourage, empower and support them to greater things.
Your students may have different physical needs or priorities but every young person simply wants to know they are valued and that they belong and will flourish if they are secure in that.

One thought on “Interview with Debbie Johnstone, Creator of Supper Club

  1. Well done, such a fantastic idea, unique way to bring students together. They will never forget the teacher who does not only focus on their educational attainments but their health and well-being. I hope other teachers and support staff will implement your initiative by supporting children who are vulnerable within the college.

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