Updated: Aug 9, 2021
A teacher in my neighborhood once called me to talk about some frustrating feedback she had gotten at work. Apparently, a parent had called the school to complain that this teacher had made a couple of comments that were insensitive to the fact that one student was going through an extenuatingly difficult life event. The teacher felt bad- she hadn’t realized this child was suffering. She told me that in trying to defend herself, she responded to her superior:
“I had no way of knowing that there was a problem. This is a regular school for normal kids, not a ‘special’ school, or one for kids with ‘issues’. Shouldn’t I be able to make normal comments, and not have to anticipate or worry so much about serious issues?”
I think she was hoping I would validate her point, but I have a very different perspective, and since she had reached out sincerely, I opted to share it with her. I think it’s apropos to share in general, at the beginning of the scholastic year.
Every school that has live human students in it, definitionally, has serious issues, and therefore needs to be a special school. “Normalcy” is mostly an illusion, and a potentially harmful one, at that. If you are a teacher, and there are approximately 20+ vulnerable souls sitting in your classroom, here is what is best to assume, because it’s probably true:
You have at least one student who suffers from an anxiety and/ or panic disorder.
You have at least one student with low self-esteem and self-hatred.
You have at least one student with ADD or ADHD.
You have at least one student whose parents are divorced.
You have at least one student who has suffered a loss in the family.
You have at least one student with a serious, chronic, or painful medical condition.
You have at least one student who is a victim of and/ or exposed to domestic violence.
You have at least one student with a parent suffering from severe mental illness.
You have at least one student who has been or is being molested.
You have at least one student who is living in a state of poverty or neglect.
You have at least one student with an undiagnosed learning disability.
You have at least one student who thinks about wanting to die.
You have at least one student who was humiliated or emotionally abused by a teacher in the past.
You have at least one student who is starving for a smile, a compliment, or some attention.
You have at least one student whose life you can change by showing you believe in them.
You have at least one student who might be able to look back at your teaching as life-affirming.
Teachers- please understand the awesome power and potential you have to harm or heal, crush or uplift, neglect or nurture, intimidate or inspire. Children are carrying heavy invisible backpacks- please, choose kindness.
*Please note: I’m not suggesting that all these examples are exhaustive or equivalent- just a selection of not-obvious, not necessarily knowable concerns to consider.
**While this would be much easier to navigate if parents could and would notify teachers and administrators of challenging circumstances and traumas, more often than not, they don't. Sometimes it's due to not knowing about it themselves, other times due to fear of stigma, judgment, or indiscretion. In any event, we know that there are always more variables in a person's life than can be recorded in an academic file, so best to err on the side of compassion.