Wednesday, May 10, 2017

When Caring for Your Students Becomes Dangerous

A few weeks ago, I binge-listened to the podcast “S-Town.”  Fascinating stuff.  Much like the early work of The Simpsons, it’s three stories packed like Russian nesting dolls.  Just when you think you’ve reached the resolution of one, another emerges.  I don’t want to reveal too much, so this set-up will necessarily be a bit vague. 

In the third act, the narrator suggests that the central character tried to save his quasi-protégé but may have realized too late that he lacked the skill to do so.  In trying, he sacrificed himself.  I could not help identifying with him and was transported back to my days in the classroom.

I tell people I got into teaching because I have a pathological need to feel important.  Following my first year in the profession, I was three days into summer vacation and realized that no one needed me for the next two months. This led to morbid fantasies where I died in my home and no one discovered my body until the neighbors complained about the smell. I need to be needed. 

April needed me.

At this time, it was unusual to have electronic contact with students.  Facebook and Twitter were still a few years off, and Canvass and Google classroom were mere glints in some software engineer’s eye.  I posted my students’ homework and other resources on a free online service for teachers and encouraged students to e-mail with questions about writing assignments or homework. What I didn’t realize was that my responses were not filtered through the site; they came straight from my home e-mail account. Once in possession of my home e-mail address, April began IMing me.

If I’m being completely honest, I was flattered. I had no personal life to speak of, so I was grateful to have someone to “talk” to in the evenings. It started out with the usual teenage troubles: school is stressing me out, mom doesn’t understand me, mom and dad fight all the time. I know what it’s like to have warring parents, so I was a sympathetic ear. I tried very hard to assure her that, although it might seem otherwise, her parents loved her more than they loved themselves and certainly, by all accounts, more than they loved each other. Sometimes, she would keep me online for upwards of an hour and a half. That began to weary me, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I didn’t want her to view me as yet another adult who had abrogated her responsibilities to care for and protect her.

Several years earlier, a nice young man in one of my junior classes had turned up truant several days in a row. On the fourth day, I called his mother who apologized for his absence that day. I innocently asked, “Okay, so you know he’s been out every day this week?”


“I take you didn’t know that.”

“I’ve been out of town."


She asked rhetorically, “What has he been doing all this time?” and I heard the tremor in her voice that signaled the onset of tears. “I don’t know what to do with him. What do I do with him?”

“Look, if I knew . . . this is reason #18 I don’t have kids of my own.” She sniffed at my weak attempt at humor—the one I used every time I talked to the parent of a teenager doing the inexplicable things teenagers do. “Let me make some calls and see what I can do. I’ll call you back as soon as I know something.”

“Thanks, Deb.” I became addicted to hearing that phrase.

Eventually, the kid went into counseling.  His mom called to tell me, “He just stayed in his room the whole time he was absent. He wanted to kill himself. I don’t know how I can thank you for letting me know about all this.”

“Well, if I’m ever fired, can I count on you to organize the candlelight vigil?”

This time, her laughter was real.

Unfortunately, instead of immediately putting April in the hands of people who were trained to handle these situations, as I did with Evan, I overreached and tried to do it myself. Too late, I realized I completely out of my depth, and, even then, I persisted. I wanted to be the one to save her.

Only when her demands on my time became intrusive did I finally ask April if I could talk to one of the school’s social workers about her. She agreed.

Things got better for a while, and then one day she skipped math to come to my office, explaining that she couldn’t face going to class, that she felt like she wanted to jump out of her skin.  I was no stranger to panic attacks and suggested she was experiencing one and that she should see a doctor.

That night, April was admitted for in-patient treatment at a mental health facility. Thus began a descent that seemed to have no bottom. She developed anorexia and began self-mutilating. She was medicated with anti-depressants, anti-anxieties, anti-psychotics, anti-bipolars. She spent months in treatment facilities. Each time she was admitted, she fought to get released, and each time she was released she longed to go back.

This went on for the rest of her junior year, her senior year, her freshman year in college. Even after I moved away to attend graduate school, I would periodically receive e-mails and letters from her, each a catalogue of the most recent horrors.  With time and distance, I began to recognize my own culpability in her illness.  Riddled with guilt, I apologized to her for not getting her in touch with professionals earlier.

She credits me with saving her life.  I remain unconvinced.  Hubris masquerading as altruism is perhaps the most insidious form of narcissism. 

Dr. James Comer of Yale University is famous for his assertion that no great learning can take place in the absence of a great relationship.  Teacher preparation programs admonish their candidates to teach the whole child.  Even the bumper sticker and t-shirt industries proclaim that we don’t teach [insert subject matter here], we teach children.  What this means in real life is that effective teachers cannot remain ignorant of their students’ lives outside the classroom.  Knowing the context or cause of a child’s behavior allows you to respond to it more effectively. 

The problem is that, once you know, you can never not know.  And the people who become teachers tend to be people who want to fix problems.  I mean, it’s not called a “helping profession” for nothing. 

The tricky part is determining where the boundary between commitment and overreach lies.  I used to be the announcer for our school’s wrestling matches and would attend the “coaches’ meeting” at the local pub afterward.  Over a beer, one of my students’ fathers tried to ingratiate himself with me by bemoaning what a lazy student his son was.  I couldn’t resist correcting him: “He’s a good kid.  He’s really smart.” Pause.  “You know, he thinks you hate him.” 

The father seemed shocked, as any decent part would be.  “No, he doesn’t.”

I shrugged, “That’s what he told me.”

Did my action help?  I have no idea.  Was it appropriate?  Probably not.  I saw an opportunity to give this kid a voice and jumped at it.  If the guy wouldn’t listen to his son, maybe he’d listen to the teacher he was hitting on.

A legislator or central office administrator reading this might attempt to “solve” the boundary problem by creating a zero-tolerance policy for parent-teacher and student-teacher interactions outside of school.  Such a policy is absolutely untenable.  Even if you forego the bar, you’ll run into your kids and their families at the grocery store, at the burger joint, in the locker room at the gym.  Some teachers are related to the parents of their students or sing in the same church choir.  Teachers cannot simultaneously remain aloof and get actively involved.

So, again, where do you draw the line?  While others may reject my answer as irresponsible or unenforceable, I think the rightness or wrongness of your behavior lies in its motivation.  If your endgame is the acquisition of gratitude and love from your students or their parents, you have crossed over to the dark side.  

Unfortunately, as in my case, it may only be in retrospect that you recognize your error.

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