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Misfit Island

February 20, 2018

My classroom?

There is more to teaching than just being a teacher.  We can spend a staggering amount of energy planning our lessons, grading papers, rethinking our lessons, filling out paperwork, grading papers, going to meetings, rethinking our lessons—I think you have the idea.  I have maintained for years that teaching, primarily, is about relationships.   Relationships with colleagues, administrators, and parents are essential, of course.  But nothing is more important than the relationship with students.

Relationships are how you engender respect, and respect is how a classroom functions.  It is a challenge, often to engender respect—especially from students who lack it for adults in general and educators in particular.  Some are skeptical, but are open to being won over.  And some—for whatever reason—decide they like you right away.  And sometimes, those students seek you out.

It has long been the case that the students I describe as the “smart misfits” seem to connect with me the most.  The ones who are thoughtful, sometimes intellectual, usually creative, and don’t feel like the really fit in.  I suppose they consider me a kindred spirit.  They’re probably not wrong.

A student new to our school decided this year to be my newest “misfit.”  I realized she was shy and intimidated by her new surroundings, but none of that stopped her from approaching me after class one day.  She asked if it would be all right if she spoke to me from time to time about “things.”  I told her that wouldn’t be a problem, and we can figure out a good time for that.  She also pointed out that she thought I would be a good person to talk to—that I wouldn’t judge her.  I thanked her, knowing full well that she was serious.

As I have gotten to know her, it has become clear to me why she needs to have someone to talk to.  She came out to her parents as a lesbian a couple of years ago, yet her parents will often inform her that she’s not really gay, or that her being gay is affront to their beliefs.  As a result, when students bully her for her orientation, her parents respond by telling her that the bullying wouldn’t happen if she wasn’t gay.

I have learned the key to this sort of conversation is to listen.  Students don’t always want advice—and if they do, they usually ask for it.  Mostly, I have learned what they want is someone to listen, to let them know they are not crazy, and they’re not going to be told they’re wrong or be judged.  Sometimes, you need to let a student know you are worried about poor decisions; but mostly, it’s your job to listen.  It’s also essential to have boundaries, and be abundantly clear what they are.

We’d have one of these talks about once a week, and then she dropped a bombshell:  she had twice attempted suicide and had been sexually assaulted last June.  Moreover, her parents tell her either that the assault didn’t happen, or that it did and it was her fault.  I had suggested to her on earlier occasions that she might be more comfortable speaking to guidance, or the school psychologist, or the school social worker.  She does see them, and talk to them, but of all the adults in school, she feels most comfortable in my presence.

I suppose I could have ended our discussions right then and there.  I imagine a number of my colleagues would have done, so, and I can’t really blame them.  But it never occurred to me to do that.  I watched for years as the teachers that mentored and nurtured me work to make sure the kids on the fringes didn’t slip through the cracks.

And that’s the sort of teacher I had become.


One Comment leave one →
  1. February 27, 2018 1:15 am

    I received this question on Twitter, and I wanted to give a full response, so I am moving it here:

    I made this account just to try and reach out to you, as yesterday, my internet friend sent me a link to your blog, specifically your post involving your student who was sexually assaulted. i guess he sent it to me as I too, am a victim of sexual assault. the time you put in…

    ..for her just proves how good of a teacher, person you are. idk if you realize, but that probably means the world to her. it really heartwarming. I hope that you realize that you are, more than likely saving this kids life. you, sir, have a very good soul. thank you, and..

    just a ?, is there any specifc way you can help said student or others who have ptsd flashbacks while youre there? I’m student teaching in the country I live (Brazil) and i dont know how to help my student, and i never got to ask the person who helped me how he did it.

    My response:

    There’s no easy way to answer your question. No two people have the same PTSD. There are a number of strategies I employee to help this student. If she has a flashback, whenever possible, I try to remove her from the situation that has triggered her. On her phone, she plays back recordings of people she trusts “calling her back” and reminder her that she;s safe. She also has a totem that she keeps on her–something she would normally not have (in her case a New York Yankees key chain–she is not a sports fan) that reminds her that she’s in the present, because there would be no way she would have such an out of place item in that part of her memory. She also keeps a log of her incidents, and notes their frequency and speculates as to possible triggers. She shares this log with her therapist and her doctor. The only thing I can do when it’s happening is to make sure she’s safe, and remind her in as a gentle a manner as I can where she is. And when it ends, I encourage her to talk to her therapist and doctor, because they are the ones who are really in charge of her mental health.

    I don’t know if that helps, but that;s the only real answer I can give you. Thank you also for your kind words.

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