I know I can’t be everything to everyone, but I work in a school. The students, whether enrolled in my class or not, drama kid, gamer or jock, are my kids.
When kids are in need – confused, misinformed, lost, sad, out of sorts or otherwise require assistance – it is my duty to be the adult in the room. I am in the position to help, accommodate, and direct. Though it’s not required that I always step in, if I see that a student needs support, I feel it is incumbent upon me to give them a boost – because I can, and I should.
In the first week of school this year, a student needed to talk. She had been my student last year, but didn’t have me in clas now. It was a little odd, because last year, she barely showed up to class. If I saw her sign on ten times, that was a lot. I had a brief in-person encounter at the end of the school year, when some students had come back to the building, literally in passing. I had gone into the cafeteria to get something, and she was sitting in there, with all of the other students who had a substitute that period. We had a quick, friendly conversation, and I mentioned how I had missed having her in class most of the year. She nodded, smiled, and we left it with the hope that next year would be better. Little did I know the extent of her situation.
When she approached me at the beginning of this year, I was surprised. From my perspective, it seemed like she had been avoiding me, the class, or something through her absence. She asked if she could speak to me in private, so we found a quiet space to chat. She then told me some very upsetting personal things, and said she needed an adult to talk to. Her friend had told her that I was a good person to approach, and she sought me out. It is not every day that this happens – an adolescent comes to you from out of the blue and unloads repeated trauma she had experienced for years. In one moment, I understood what happened the year before. And I was sick.
I asked her if she was still enduring that trauma and she said no, the situation had been resolved by the authorities and that she really just needed to talk to someone. I kept thinking that I really wanted to sit with her for hours, hug her and help her through everything she was processing, but I knew that I was not equipped to properly deal with that. What did I do? I reached out to other supports who were much better equipped than I was to really help her. I gave her the reassurance that she did the right thing and deserved more support. I followed up with my colleagues to make sure things were moving forward for her. About a week later, one of the other adults involved told me she was scheduled to start counseling. At least something would happen for her, so she could start the long healing process.
Another student, this time one from my PE class. These students, particularly the guys, are often less interested in reaching out. One in particular, who was pretty closed off in the beginning, had asked me one day if he needed four gym classes on his schedule. Of course, there is almost never a situation where that would be necessary, unless they were a senior and had failed three other years of PE. I asked him to show me his schedule. Sure enough, four gyms. I reached out (with his permission) to his guidance counselor, who quickly rectified the situation.
Now, this student checks in with me with all sorts of other questions. He had checked his newly updated credit record and realized he might now have enough credits to graduate early, if things fall in line just the right way. Originally, college wasn’t in his thoughts, but in one of our other quick pre-class conversations, I had suggested that maybe starting with an associate’s degree or vocational school could be a good post-high school choice, where he could work and get credits and experience in something he was interested in. He said he was thinking of possibly starting a business, and if he could graduate early, he could work full-time and save to invest in his idea. Then, he acknowledged that maybe an associates (possibly a four year degree) in business could give him some knowledge and experience that could lead to a more successful business plan. I smiled when he had that epiphany. It’s amazing how the gears start turning when you have a few conversations with a kid.
This is the stuff of teaching. Sometimes, you have to reach out, read between the lines, ask a few questions, and suss out if there is a situation that needs clarification. Though teenagers act like they know everything, often times, the exact opposite is true. Or at least, they don’t have the full picture in front of them. Our job as educators is to gently offer information to help them think in new ways and encourage them to think that maybe they can be brave, innovative and good enough to do something out of their comfort zone.
Sometimes, you just need to shut up and listen. Offer your compassion, your network, and your love.
I keep thinking of the many students who I barely know. It seems impossible to connect with every single one – there are just so may hours in the day and so much brain power that can be spent. I wonder how I’m going to reach the kid who barely speaks English or the kid who seems really depressed and shut down when I have 29 other kids in the classroom who also need my attention. This is why I always tell myself that I have to strive to do better. You never know when a kid is on the verge of something they really need support on. So, I keep my eyes peeled, knowing that if I miss out one day, I’ll be able to try again the next.
A mantra all educators should live by: stay friendly, stay open, stay accessible, and another opportunity to help will always present itself.
The benefit of being there for adolescents is that I often hear my name shouted in the hallways, passing by my door, in the friendliest of loving tones. “Tirrrrooooo!” It lets me know that I am heading in the right direction. Even if I don’t recognize who it’s coming from (which happens more often than not), I get the warm fuzzies that I am getting what I give – love, respect, and admiration. When they walk in your door, just to say “hi” and check in with you, even when they are not in your class – you know you are doing something right. To me, this is the mark of good teacher – one who cultivates relationships based on respect and an earnest sense of care for every student that crosses their path.
I am fortunate to have many colleagues who share the same values. Being a cog in the machine that creates a new community of better people is something I am also most grateful for. When I see students connecting with other teachers, I think to myself, “how can I do better?” I still feel like I have a long way to go. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do better by creating a few more teachable moments before I retire.