Learning Helplessness

When I took the TeacherInsight assessment about a month ago, one of the questions asked me to rate my agreement with the [paraphrased] statement, “Students tell me things they do not tell other teachers.”  That was probably one of the few that I marked Strongly Agree, and it is at once a source of joy and frustration.  Joy that my students trust me and seek my support and counsel, frustration that there is almost always nothing practical I can do except listen and tell them over and over how much they are worth and pray that something sinks in.

Last quarter, two of my girls took up the habit of coming into my room to eat their lunches.  Allison was a student I had last semester, Kelly is a current student; both are in my advisory and grew up practically sisters.  They were talking one day about the boy Allison liked–who is one of my current students–when she turned to me, smiled and said, “You are the only teacher I’ve told about this!”  A short time later, Kelly took me aside before class and explained that the reason she had missed two days of school the last week was because her dad had hit her again and she’d gone to stay with a friend.  I told Kelly that I was legally obliged to tell our guidance counselor, who explained that she could look into the matter and refer Kelly to child protection services if necessary.

At this point my head was reeling because to treat a child this way is beyond my understanding.  Kelly had already told me about a previous incident, but I’d hoped that was long in the past.  Violence is a way of life for many of our kids, and it is easy to become desensitized to it and ask, “When do I have to say something?”  Maybe I am just naive (and even then I feel some of that wearing away), but I am still taken aback when students–children!–make serious threats of violence as a way to solve their problems.

Today I was trying to counsel a former student who was extremely frustrated with another teacher.  She felt she was being treated unfairly and refused to respect the teacher because she felt he did not respect her.  (That’s another bit of culture shock I had to get used to…the idea of genuinely earning respect rather than expecting it based on position.)  I tried several approaches: telling her to just grin and bear it for nine more weeks to pass the class; trying to help her see things from the teacher’s perspective; encouraging her to control her own behavior regardless of what others in the class were doing; all to little avail.  She’s got quite a temper but I know she’s also capable of sensitivity and compassion; the trick will be unlocking it.

Finally, at the end of the day, another former student came by to see me.  I had passed her in the hall this morning and saw that she looked very upset.  When asked what was wrong, she said she’d tell me later. At lunch she asked if she could come by 8th period to talk to me, and I said that was fine since we’ve been watching Avatar.  She told me about her boyfriend, who’s been in and out of jail, who had called her cursing and saying he’d cheated on her.  She claims to love him and thinks he loves her, and that just about broke my heart because it wasn’t so long ago that I myself was so desperate for attention and affection.  At the end of the day I gave her a hug and let her go, saying only that she was more than her body, more than what any boy thought of her, more than what anybody said about her.  Yet I say all these things to her knowing full well that it’s taken years of suffering and heartache to learn those lessons myself (heck, I am still learning them!) and that she is bound to go through a rough road no matter how much I wish it were otherwise, because that is just how life is.

One of the interview questions at a job fair I attended Saturday was about the most frustrating thing I’ve encountered as a teacher, and I answered the lack of control I have over students’ lives outside the classroom.  The baggage they bring in certainly can make academic learning difficult, but on a more fundamental level, some of these kids go through truly hellacious things in life, and even the “little” tragedies–a break-up, a friend moving away, parents divorcing–are still hard.  My own childhood was blessedly simple, but perhaps it is now my burden to care so much after these little ones and not be able to do much except listen.


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