Professional Learning

Supporting Students Beyond the Classroom, Part Two

May 12, 2009

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.

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

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