Supporting Students Beyond the Classroom, Part Two | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I am deeply moved by the responses to part one of this blog entry about a former student of mine named Manuel. They reminded me of the hundreds of teachers I have known who reached out to students within and beyond the classroom. Some even spent half their paychecks on clothes, food, or books to help a struggling student or his family. I even knew a young teacher who adopted one of her students. It is good to be reminded of these colleagues.

But the stories shared also reminded me of the heartbreak that is an inherent part of this profession. Miranda's comment really brought this home: She described her support of one struggling student, her close relationship with his mother, and then the mother's recent death. She writes, "I have been grieving ever since she passed away. I really don't know how to deal with my feelings, and I wonder every day what will happen to these kids. How do you keep from becoming so attached to your students, and is this unhealthy?"

I really appreciate the courage it took to ask this question, because, at the very least, it creates an opportunity to have a dialog about this issue that is at the core of our work. How do we, as teachers, open our hearts to students and then have them broken, over and over? How can we bear this pain?

Teachers Supporting Each Other

In some ways, this issue relates to "Coping with Campus Violence," a previous blog entry of mine. I asked, in relation to difficult kids, how do we deal with their pain? There are a few things I think can help us better support kids.

First, as colleagues, we need to listen to each other. This work is incredibly hard to do in isolation. Clare -- another teacher who responded to my post on Manuel -- refers to this loneliness. We need a community of educators who understand, who can listen and offer support, and who, at the very least, validate our inclination to open our hearts.

I have several communities from which I draw strength and support for the work I do. Communities of teachers and friends, as well a religious community, help me make sense of what I experience on a spiritual level. I could not do my work without this support -- that much has become very clear to me over the years. It would be unbearable.

The Reality of the Job

When I started teaching, I was overwhelmed by what my students experienced. I remember in my first month of teaching when José -- a challenging second-grade boy -- dropped a cup of paint. It splashed everywhere, and this little boy who couldn't read or write a single word crumpled onto the floor, covered his head, and began shaking and crying. I sat down next to him and spoke very softly, assuring him that it was an accident and that nothing would happen. After a few minutes, he crawled into my lap, and I held him for a long time.

Later, I talked to him. I listened. I listened to his mother when she came to get him, and I heard horrible stories of a stepfather's abuse. And then I used what I had; I spoke Spanish, and I knew a little about domestic violence, social services, and the legal system. I called the police officer working with the school. He spoke to the mother firmly but compassionately, informing her that her children would be taken away from her if she did not do something. I translated this conversation. I drove the mother to a lawyer who began the paperwork for a restraining order and a divorce.

I continued listening to José, helping him learn to read, and holding him when he needed to cry. Emotionally, it was very difficult, but perhaps because I was able to do something, it was bearable.

On many occasions, I was able to do something to alleviate my students' suffering, and then there are times when I wasn't. I manage those times by praying that the story isn't over. When students drop out, are imprisoned, shot, or deported, or have babies at 14, I remind myself that their lives are not over, that they still have many choices to make, and that perhaps I can play a role in helping them make those choices.

Rewards That Make It Worth It

I've been teaching for 15 years, and I've learned a lot about good instruction, classroom management, assessment, project learning, and so on. I know how to teach kids to read, and I can keep them quiet when necessary. But I'm still struggling with this question of how to stay open to heartbreak. It is this challenge that keeps me alive in an essential way, because it pushes me to reach out from the depths of my being to connect with a young person, often a frightened, vulnerable person. If there is ever a day when I stop becoming attached to my students, I should leave the classroom.

I am grateful for the opportunity to become attached. There is nothing that feels better to me than a deep connection with a kid, than knowing I'm making a difference. There is nothing more rewarding than getting Manuel's phone call, or seeing my old students graduate from high school, or getting an email from them where they recount some lesson from seventh grade that they are referring to now in college. And if you're new to the profession, and you haven't started reaping these kinds of rewards, please know that they will come.

I just started reading Parker J. Palmer's book The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life, and I highly recommend it. In the first chapter, Parker writes, "The courage to teach is the courage to keep one's heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require."

Advice to a Reader

And so, Miranda, in response to your question, I would never want to be anything but deeply attached to my students; it is essential and I choose it.

As far as your student, you can play a significant role in his daily life for the rest of this school year, and for as long as he is at your school. You can connect his life from before his mother died to the rest of it, and your presence is invaluable to him in this devastating period when nothing will be more important than someone who cares for him and who understands him. Find some support for yourself so you can be strong and present for him. And if he moves away, perhaps there will be a way to keep in touch. Perhaps you can develop a relationship with his foster family, his teachers, and his social workers.

Let me end by asking the Edutopia.org community of visitors for input into Miranda's question: "How do you keep from becoming so attached to your students, and is this unhealthy?" Please share your experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

And thank you, again, Miranda, for posing this question.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Alisha Sudderth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I struggle with bringing the problems of my students home with me and worrying about them constantly more so now that I have my own child. My son is 21 months old and I just can't imagine not taking care of him and loving him and helping him with his homework when he starts school. It breaks my heart when I see beginning of the year Kindergarten students who have never had a book read to them. This blog "Supporting Students Beyond the Classroom" was very helpful!

Cristy Roozeboom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I will always keep myself open to my students. I worry about them, but realize that I can only do what I can do. I just read a book called On Being A Teacher (Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler), that talks about worrying about students. One of the authors mentioned to his mentor that he worried about his students, and the mentor asked "How is that helping them?" The author came to realize that worry can translate into wasted energy. Plan and work toward improving, certainly, but also realize your limitations.

Maria Tsampis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Maria Tsampis and currently I teach at Team Englewood. Team Englewood is a new school located in the city of Chicago within the Englewood area. Our shool provides an emphasis in professional development and in forming dialogues between the teachers that would help them with their instructional strategies, and would assist them in implementing, and monitoring behavioral plans that would enhance our students academic growth.
We are extremely fortunate that our administration has formed schedules that would allow teachers from the same departments to collaborate with each other, and that would allow teachers from across departments to see each other through a working lunch that is conducted once a week.
The special education staff also has scheduled the same planning periods with the department of the content area that they work with. This allows for the general education and special education staff to discuss about student progress, new goals and objectives along with appropriate modifications and accomodations that should be made. This process has helped many teachers collaborate with each other, and ask for advice from one another no matter what discipline they are specialized in.
An important note to emphasize is that even with the extraordinary support that we recieve from our administrators, the continuing professional development, the access to the research articles, seminars, workshops, journals, and dialogues. A teacher must be willing to continualy self reflect on their practices in order for them to be remotely successful within their classroom. They must also form a bridge between themselves and their students, along with their families.
The teachers who make themselves availalbe, that are experts on the subject matter, that are flexible, and that gear instruction toward the student needs are the ones who have the least amount of disruptions within their classroom and the largest increment amount of learning. They look at their scholars with an open mind and a kind heart. Some of them even go to their homes, speak with their guardians, understand the racial and ethnic barriers that might come to mind and try to implement their instruction in a way that the students can connect with.
I am grateful to be a part of a team that continualy pushes the bar for their own along with their students self growth.

Elizabeth Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am reading the book called On Being a Teacher(Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler). The comment in their book about wasting time on worry really clicked with me. Unfortunately, there is only so much that you can do in the life of a child that is not your own. You have to just make the most of the year(s) that you have with them and hope that you are sending them on as a better person. I am a person of faith, and for me I have to entrust my students' lives into the hands of God. Knowing this gives me peace and hope, knowing that I am not souly responsible for the quality of their life. Even in this, it is still difficult not to worry.

Elizabeth Phillips's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for sharing your perspective. I too struggle with worrying about my students. It always feels as if I am not able to do enough for them. I can't go out and buy them all of the things they need, and I can't make their home-life a better environment. My faith has also been such a support to me. I think I would go crazy if I didn't belive that God has everything under control. It isn't my job to run the world and to make everything perfect. I do my best with what I have and God takes care of the rest. With school winding down to the last few days, I have tried to not do a count down this year. Instead I have tried to remind myself that God has placed me in the lives of my students for a reason, and I need to take advantage of the time that I have with them. Knowing that I have done the best that I can with my students, makes it easier to send them on at the end of the year, and it helps me to worry less.

melissa richarde's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this blog. It is so important to remember that we are not going through this alone. We need to be there for our co-workers who will in turn be there for us. We get busy in our classrooms and the lives of our students and forget that the teacher next door or down the hall is experiencing the same thing. We are our own support system and we as educators need to realize that it is ok to reach out. There is nothing wrong with sharing with your co-workers, then can help you carry the load and work through it.

Amanda Tanzi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am reading On Being A Teacher as well. It is important to develop a sense of trust with your students. The students need to know you genuinely care for them. You need to give them your undivided attention when they are speaking with you. I have found that some of my students simply want someone to listen to them and validate their feelings, others seek guidance. In On Being a Teacher, Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler mentioned that in order for students to open up and trust you, they need to know that you accept them as people and will not judge them.

One experience I had with one of my high school students remains with me to this day and I always shed a few tears when I think about it. At the time, I was pregnant and the students were very excited. They would try to guess the baby's gender and watch for movement. One of my students looked as though she was about to burst into tears, I took her out into the hall. She confided that she had just had a miscarriage and was very upset. I listened to her, consoled her, and then referred her to one of our counselors who would be better able to assist her. At Christmas time, she made me a homemade card wishing me a happy holiday and thanking me for being there for her. I was so moved and touched that I was able to help her. These experiences, even the ones where we experience heartbreak, leave an imprint and help us to become better teachers.

We become attached to our students and care for them. If you don't, you loose site of the human component of teaching. When I first started teaching, it was more difficult for me to leave the worries about my students at work. I would be thinking about how to help them and if they were alright. As I became more experienced, I realized that I can't "save" everyone. As long as I did my best to help my students and never gave up on them, I know I made a difference in their lives. I also agree with other blogs that having colleagues with whom to talk is very beneficial. We all need someone to just listen or give guidance and support. After all, teachers are human, too.

Amanda Tanzi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is important to develop a sense of trust with your students. They need to feel valued as a person and not judged. When listening to students, be cognizant of your body language and paraphrase where necessary. I have found some of my students simply need someone to listen and validate their feelings, while others seek guidance. My students know I am both approachable and available.

When I first started teaching, I felt the need to "save" all of my students. I brought my worries home and found myself constantly wondering if they were alright when they went home. As I gained experience, I realized that I may not be able to "save" every student, but I could make a difference. I never give up on my students, challenge them to be their best, and do all I can to assist them with difficulties they may face. Sometimes, we may not realize or have a student say we have made a difference in their lives right away. It may be months or years later that we learn of the difference we have made.

It helps to have colleagues to whom you can talk, feel supported, and seek guidance. Teachers are human, too, and need someone who can listen without judgement and validate their feelings.

As a teacher, we become attached and care about our students. It is the human aspect of teaching. Teaching is a helping profession where we not only help our students to learn academics, but how to solve problems and grow as people. Children need to know they are cared for and have someone who believes in them.

Allison Hearns's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks so much for your blog and to everyone else for their comments. I work with students with moderate-severe special needs and have struggled with becoming attachment for a few reasons.
One reason is that I can have students for up to 5 years in a row since I have a self-contained classroom and it is the only one in the building. It is really hard not to become attached to kids year after year.
Another reason is that many of my students have medical issues related to their disabilities and are considered to be medically fragile. My first summer after college I was a lead teacher at a special needs summer camp and my 20 year old student passed away due to a heart defect one weekend. Although I knew she was born with a heart defect, her passing was a complete shock. It was horrible and it was really hard facing the other students the next week. I now have kids that are medically fragile and I am scared to have to go through that again.
I really identified with your quote from Palmer's book. There are times where I have felt that my heart is asked to hold more than it is able. Thanks for sharing that.

Michele Witowski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Before I came into teaching I heard stories and watched movies about inspirational teachers who gave their students more than just worksheets and tests. I understood that there are parts of our country in which students have to deal with these situations often, but I never thought I would be "that teacher" that a student goes to to for advice, comfort, support, and a mother.

My school has the highest population of housing project communities that attend our school in the whole state - 7. Each of these project housing communities has formed its own gang and as the students put it "they beef with each other" - meaning fight, shoot, and kill one another if you get in the other gang's space.

My first year at this school I didn't really understand what was going on. I had very high standards for all of my students and looked at each one of them as the same person. Now that I have developed a relationship with the students they feel mroe comfortable answering my questions about these communities gangs and who's "beefing" with whom and what student belongs to what community. I would have never imagined the students opening up this much to me a year ago, but now they know they can trust me and tell me just about anything I want to know. I still have high expectations for my students, but they trust that my expectations are not impossible tasks and because of our relationship they work harder to be successful.

My desk drawers are stocked with candy, granola bars, juice boxes, lunch money, bus tokens, small gifts and cards. My less fortunate students know they can come to me if they are hungry and I will always have something for them. They know that when it's their mom's birthday I can provide them with a candle or small token to give to her. They know that I won't judge them if they get pregnant but rather help them go to a doctor or tell mom and dad about the situation. They know they can bring the baby in after school and I will hold and play with it.

A few things have changed since I started working at this school. I still see students all the same and still hold high standards, but now I know why I view them all the same - so that I treat them all the same, and I know why I hold them to high standards - because society will not give them a break or a second chance. And I know that I will never have children of my own (and my husband agrees) because I have 110 children to take care of every day and on top of the parenting I do I have to teach them English too.

I loved reading your posting. I agree. The only way to reach a student is to take them in as one of your own children. Sure there's always the risk of going to far, but some teachers don't go far enough.

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