Teachers, Counselors, Pity, Expectations…

Posted: August 17, 2012 in For Educators
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Stress at home? You’re going to be at your desk and you’re going to do the job that is expected of you as a student.

Drama with your boyfriend or girlfriend? You’re going to respect school rules and the authority in this building.

Violence in your neighborhood? You’re going to wake up on time, get to school on time and go to all your classes.

You’ve been victimized, traumatized or neglected? You’re going to pay attention to your teacher and turn in your homework when it’s due.

While the above assertions may sound harsh, they are the most supportive expectations we can put upon young people who are currently experiencing hardship and obstacle, or showing behaviors most likely connected to difficult pasts.

One of the larger misconceptions today is that caring about or paying attention to the context of a child’s life is equivalent to making excuses for them (especially by individuals who are struggling to have the influence they want with the children they’re dealing with)… but this is most definitely not the case. Just because a counselor is understanding… or a teacher is compassionate… or a dean or administrator is aware… does NOT mean our demands of our students change, or need to change. It’s true that we want to be aware of the obstacles or challenges that our students are facing, but never should our awareness lead to excuse-making for misconduct or poor effort. ¬†Having an understanding of our student’s lives should be used only as motivation to remain mindful of our approach so that we can maximize our influence… never to lower expectations.

Delivering appropriate limits and clear expectations (to a student not meeting standards of effort or conduct) without knowing the context of a teenagers life will most likely sound dramatically different than delivering limits and expectations with their contexts in mind… and this subtle difference can make all the difference in getting what we need from them. The message will be the same, but the delivery will be different, and consequently, so will the results.

Sometimes by simply stating, with both sincerity and authority, that “I understand you may have a lot going on right now, but right here right now, what’s best for you is to learn what I’m trying to teach you… and when we’re done, I promise I’ll do what I can to get you the time and help you need to deal with what’s going on” is all you’ll need to do to corral a young person who may be too loose, disengaged or distracting in your room. Other times, it may not be so simple, and may require other interventions.

Being able to assess the magnitude of need or the level of emotional urgency will allow you to decide whether to press on with your expectations, or deviate and make the appropriate allowance for the struggling child. Unfortunately, this decision will have to come more from your gut, than from any established decision making scale… and it is an important one. Just as we never want to make excuses for our children and lower standards, we also want to make sure that we’re not punishing them for being affected and emotional.

Helping young people develop the quality of fortitude means teaching them how to compartmentalize their days more effectively. And as adults with our own separate and emotional personal lives, we have plenty of opportunities to role-model compartmentalization. As a high school counselor, I’m often asked how to teach teenagers in class who are clearly struggling with some domain in their life. A romantic relationship. Home uncertainty. Trauma. Neglect. Violence. And my message, I hope, is always the same… help them to do what is expected in the moments you’re with them, and then connect them with others better positioned to meet their other needs. A young person who can learn how to attend to their responsibilities DESPITE the emotional temptations put upon them by their lives is a young person who will be better equipped to cope as they move on in years.

And this does not mean ignore their harsh realities in the classroom, it just means that you are to show them how to do their jobs… by doing your job. Resisting your inclination to pity, over-sympathize or change your role from content area teacher to counselor role-models healthy compartmentalization, difficult as this may be. The only thing you might need to change, is your tone.

When in the classroom, a student who is being mistreated at home needs to perform the same tasks in the same timeframe as a student who is not being mistreated in the home. The only difference is that this student may need to hear what is expected from them in a way that conveys more compassion (even though compassion may not be your strong suit). And when the child is done meeting your classroom expectations, you can connect them to someone who has more time than you and whose role it is to provide the necessary emotional support. And if this child does not respond to your compassionate authority, and they earn consequences because of their defiance, then they need to receive these consequences… which can be administered by your school disciplinarians in concert with the individuals in your school equipped to address the underlying motivations of their misbehavior.

Counselors are not content area classroom teachers… and content area teachers are not counselors… but if there is partnership, role respect and communication between these two vital players in the lives of students, then the students can have both their academic and emotional needs met within the school borders. Educating young people that there are times and places for learning information and necessary academic skills, and times and places for developing insight, expressing their emotions and getting support with their difficult lives, are crucial lessons in preparing them for adult life… and they are lessons that most of us are more than equipped to administer well.

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