This week I have been thinking about the trust of children, and how some adults violate that trust. Some children are abandoned or left in hot cars or even molested by the adults who are supposed to be caring for them. I would like to extend that thought about caring to both educators and parents who have children in their charge.
Students want to feel safe and happy at home and in school. They want to feel loved and appreciated, and they want their teachers to be glad to see them each new day, even if the students themselves are not always elated to be in school. Keeping a positive and welcoming behavior is sometimes difficult, but as the teacher, you must extend yourself to the pupils in your class. You never know the difference you might make to a child. I would like to share a story.
You're aware that I taught at North Allegheny for 35 years, and at Penn Hills for two years at the beginning of my career. Although the two districts are almost polar opposites in terms of demographics and median annual income, student and family problems were the same. Many children were involved in unpleasant divorces, in which the parents discarded the feelings and care of their child; instead they spend their time and energy hating and baiting each other. None of this drama ever went unnoticed by the child, and I always knew when something was wrong at home. Attitudes changed, grades dropped, sudden outbursts of anger or tears happened, and pain glimmered in the eyes of the student.
Although I would call home and express concern for my student, many parents were too self-involved to see the pain that they were causing their child. We had great counseling staffs at both of my schools, and they were very open to referrals and seeing students on a regular basis. North Allegheny even offered counseling with grief sessions, children of divorce, etc. But sometimes, as a classroom teacher, I knew I had to do more. I was fortunate to be the kind of teacher that kids trusted. I had some students who shared with me that things were so bad between the parents with battling over custody rights, that the student had to spend Monday night with dad, Tuesday night with mom, Wednesday night with dad, Thursday night with mom, and then alternate weekends with each parent. Many of these students did not want to participate in such a stressful arrangement, but they were given no voice and no choice in the matter. They were exhausted, missing assignments, and overall, school was just one more chore to try to juggle. They never had their books :"I don't know if my book is at my mom's or my dad's. Sorry, Mrs. Rittman." How could I possibly be angry? The organizational skills of a tenth grade student are precarious at best, and adding the divorce/what day is it?/my stuff is at my mom's only made for more stress and more tears. Although I could not do much, I could do something for each of these students. I will tell you right now that what I did was against school policy, but I have always believed that the doing what is right for the student must come first. I called each of these students aside through the years, and I said we were going to share a secret that would make their school lives better and more organized, as well as less stressful. Although students were only permitted to be issued one book, I secretly gave another book, so one book was at mom's house and one book was at dad's house. That solved only part of the issue. I then told the student that I would have an extra book on the right hand corner of my desk, and upon entering the classroom, the student could casually pick up the book needed for class and no one was any wiser. I can tell you that all the times I followed this procedure, the students and I established a great pact of trust and respect. Grades went up, and stress went down, at least for English class. And in all the years I provided the extra book, both books were always returned at the end of the year.
Although providing books and sharing a secret with a student was not a life changing event, students were so grateful. They were grateful that a caring adult shared their pain, tried to alleviate some of their stress, and helped them to deal with a new way of living. Even now, I can see the faces of the students who were stuck in the quagmire of their parents divorce, and that one kindness from a trusted teacher made a difference for them. The teacher is "loco parentis"- in the place of a parent- and when the parents are not doing a good job caring for their child, sometimes a teacher can step up to help.
Be that kind of a teacher.
Comments and suggestions are invited.
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