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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

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.

Deborah Leestma's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also in the midst of reading On Being a Teacher (Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler)and the authors stress how important building strong relationships with students really is. We are to be "relationship specialist" as they say. Students respect teachers that know and care about them. If they trust us enough to share their hardships and struggle we should be there to listen and give them hope no matter what they are facing. I just completed my second year teaching and I have already had many students open up to me about things such as pregnancy, suicide thoughts, and abuse. It is a lot take in with the daily demands of teaching but this is what I signed up for and I may be the only one there for them. So getting attached and feeling the hurt of your students is tough to handle but we are only human. What we do makes a world of difference to our students especially when we know, listen, and care for them.

David Crouse Jr's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ms. Aguilar and respondants thank you for sharing your experiences. I'm glad to know that my concern for students as a whole person is not just a personal quirk. I work in a title one elementary school in Virginia and I to have seen my share of children dealing with home lives they shouldn't have to. At the primary level of education (my school is a pre-k to 1st school) children with troubled home lives are especially troubling because they don't necessarily have the experience or maturity to process and use the help offered to them.

I am new to teaching, but not new to caring for my fellow humans so I try to apply the same principles that I have in the past. Perhaps because I am a male teacher, I tend to focus on problem solving the students issues. Realizing though that each person has to work through their lives for themselves, I try to present an array of options and tools for the students to use to express, understand and cope with or solve the issues in their lives.

With my littlest charges this can be a challenge. So far the best strategy for me and my students has been to earn their trust and respect. I do this by having real faith for each child that they can succeed and over come their obstacles. This faith is something they can really see in me because it is real. Once we have a rapport I try to empower them by helping them see who they are and what they can do through their work in class.

Just as with Manuel indicia and artifacts of their past successes can prove to be a strong anchor for their identity. Even though the individual may be pulled away from the best path, those concrete ideas and documents that are from their own work in the past can serve as a re-starting point later.

In this way, I wonder if Manuel could use his experiences to get back to essay writing? I think of Erin Grewell's story Freedom Writers and I wonder if he would try to keep a journal?

In the final analysis, teachers have to keep caring about students too much, when we stop, we have lost our passion for teaching and our edge to do it well.

David

Adrianne LuBrant; 3rd grade teacher in East Orange, NJ's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have begun the journey toward receiving my master's degree on-line, and I, too, am in the middle of reading On Being a Teacher. (Kottler, Zehm, & Kottler) I knew that building a trusting relationship with your students was vital and important, but I was not equip with the tools or strategies on how to go about building those relationships. Chapter 4: On Being an Effective Communicator, has really opened my eyes to how I can speak respectively in a tense situation. I reflected a great deal on the "I Versus You" section. I have experienced students shutting down, after they are spoken to about their misbehavior in class. I thought it had to do with their embarrassment or refusal to admit the action was wrong. However, I need to be mindful of the way I am speaking to the students, and that is where the "I-message" comes into play.
Here is an example from the book:

Two students will not stop talking in the back of the room.

You-Message : "Do the two of you have a problem back there?"

I-Message : "I have a problem with the two of you talking while I'm trying to present this material."

If I approach the situation letting the students know that the problem is mine as well as theirs, the reaction may be different and they may be more receptive.
I have learned over the years that students learn best when they have a model in front of them. Teachers are to model not only activities and strategies, but also the appropriate way to speak to one another. When students feel that they have an active role and voice in their environment the sense of community and the level of communication will be that much greater.

My personal goals are set into motion already for next year!

Reference:
Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.J., and Kottler, E. (2005) On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Kaywana's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We teach to change lives and to make the world a betters place. I believe that if we become detached from students that we have missed our mission.In the book On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension, (2005), Kottler, Zehm and Kottler believes that to be a truly ffective teacher is to be compassionate, empathetic and genuinely interested in the lives of our students(pg 11,21,85).

Our students bring their lives to the classroom and that is the reality of teaching, should we try to distance ourselves from their lives we will neither have an impact or a chance at changing the world.

Reference:
Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.J., and Kottler, E. (2005) On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Tiffany Williams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, (I am a Special Education Teacher in Washington, DC)

I definitely agree with you that students respect teachers whom they feel they can trust. Teaching is a very demanding career and it takes a lot of time and patience to deal with the obstacles that come our way. I was very surprised and glad to hear you say that you signed up to do more than teach. Many times new teacher do not know and understand that being a teacher requires of you and it can be pretty stressful. This is why I believe that it is not only good to build trusting relationships with the students but also other teachers and staff as well.

Brittany Pinkevicz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, I am also a special education teacher. The population of students I teach are those with emotional disturbances and disorders. During my first year, I was definitely shocked at the types of issues that arose in my classroom; such as abuse, suicide, and violence among my group of 8-10 year olds. At first, I didn't know how I could handle this on top of the demands of planning several lesson plans a day for such a group of diversified learners, making sure that students were meeting state standards through my lessons, and also preparing them for upcoming state assessments. After a few weeks of barely listening to their problems because I was so concerned with the other aspects of my job mentioned above, I realized that if I didn't change my attitude about their plight, they would not learn anything and both them and myself would have a miserable year. So, I began to take a much more personal interest in my students, I found myself caring about their wellbeing more than I even could have anticipated. I would think of them when school was not in session, hoping that they were alright, I spent my weekends researching different books and information from the internet on how to get through to children with such severe emotional needs, and I spent a lot of my own money on materials that I thought would interest them and promote learning in my classroom. All of what I did, although it did not change their aggressive and sometimes violent behavior much throughout the year, did pay off. I had established solid relationships with all of my students. I believe they understood how much I cared about them and I would not let them down; they began confiding in me and giving me much more academically than they had in the beginning of the year. As I said before, their behavior was disturbing at times and very cyclical, I believe that they trusted me enough and felt safe enough to express their anger and inner torment to me in those ways, knowing that I would not judge them or have any less respect for them. As Kottler, Zehm, and Kottler wrote in their 2005 book "On Being a Teacher: The Human Dimension", "helping relationships are trusting." To have a helping and trusting relationship with students relies on three factors; being in, being for, and being with. I believe I developed these trusting factors with my students. It was difficult "being in", I could not imagine walking in my students' shoes as hard as I tried, simply because never in muy life had I experienced the emotional distress and pain that they deal with everyday. As for being for, I always be there for my students, supporting them and sticking up for them in any way I can. "Being with" my students means that I will show up everyday as their teacher and do what I can to help them, but always understanding there are forces working in their lives that are beyond my control.

Kottler, J.A., Zehm, S.J, & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: the human dimension. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Vangie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Years ago in the Philippines, I had a student I will never forget. He was a quiet boy but he was always at the top of the class. After a year, I noticed the sudden change in him. He was always late to class and his grades were hitting bottom. I talked to him about it and in between sobs, I learned that his father abandoned the family for another woman. His mother was so distraught about it and locked herself up in her room and cried the entire time. In so many ways, the children were neglected. I couldn't help but cry. There was no food, no money, their bills were left unpaid and electric and water services were cut off. I hugged him and we were both crying. Later that day, I talked to several teachers about the matter and they all wanted to help this boy go through the tough times in his young life. We would each take turns in giving the boy lunch money and allowance so he could go to school each day. He finished high school and was accepted as a scholar at one of the leading universities. We, teachers, have it in us. Each student is a part of us. We treat each one as our own child or a sibling. We see through them. We feel their feelings. We should be deeply attached to them because we are in them. And if we all remember the teachers who made a great impact on us, then this is one humble way of repaying them. Never think of this as being "unhealthy." We, teachers, are saving lives!

Ms. Tere' Randall's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I never understood the magnitude of heartbreak, until I became an educator. Not only do teachers have to deal with devestating blows but we have to truly forgive after we have been wounded by students or parents. In the book "On being a teacher: the human demension",Kottler, Zehm and Kottler(2005)sites that teacher should be compassionate. I have had to lay aside my personl feelings to show sympathy and concern for a disrespectful troubled child. When I looked beyond my anger I saw a little child who was wearing dirty clothes and longed for love and attention. I really had to pray for forgiveness for my negative feelings toward this student. I am deeply shamed and appauled by my self centeredness.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Amy Wilhelm's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Miranda poses an important question. It is extremely difficult to not become overly attached and involved in the lives of your students. To be the best teacher possible for the student, you really need to know where they've come from.
Elena, helping Jose and his mother out of a very violent and awful situation has hopefully changed their lives in an amazing way. Just know that Jose is safe is enough of a reward. It is unfortunate that children, and adults, end up in situations that they don't feel they can get out of.
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