The odds are that during our career we’ll encounter students who are the children of alcoholic or drug addicted parents, students who have been physically or mentally abused, or bullied cruelly. They may have been victims of incessant and violent spousal clashes or angry divorce and custody disputes. They may experience the loss of a family member, a debilitating illness, or a variety of physical challenges.
Students who have experienced these types of trauma may have a diminished sense of self. They may feel so fragile that they build and hide behind psychological walls to survive. They may be uncomfortable with intimacy, find it difficult to form relationships, and hide their feelings of inadequacy behind a mask of indifference. Some students may be angry and set out to punish others by hurting themselves. “See what you’ve done to me! You caused this. Aren’t you sorry!” Others who’ve lost their sense of worth may engage in destructive behavior, “I’m no good, and I’ll prove it to you.” or “What’s the use of trying,?” Those that feel powerless may assert their power where they feel they can, “You can’t make me do it!”. Some will try to gain what they feel they lack by becoming the center of attention, “Pay attention to me! I need your approval!” Others may simply perpetuate the cycle of abuse in which they are caught by abusing others.
Teaching is difficult under the best of conditions, teaching students who are suffering such inner pain is perhaps our greatest challenge. Let me begin the discussion by being clear that whenever we encounter a student in distress it’s our obligation as educators to make sure that we report it to the appropriate professionals whether that be a school psychologist, guidance counselor, social worker, school nurse, principal, or whoever makes sense in our particular situation. Doing this should be our number one priority.
But how do we teach the wounded ones? No matter how much we care, how much we love our students, those that have had their spirits broken present a special challenge. Can we find a way through the walls a wounded student has created? Is it possible to build a sense of trust, a simple relationship that might help the student cultivate a sense that “I’m not bad. I’m likable, maybe even lovable.”
Can we find a better way, a more positive way, for the student who feels powerless to assert their power? Are we centered and present enough to avoid directly confronting their negative assertions?
What about the “attention grabber’? How can we work with the ‘self’ that says I need others to validate me?
And the abused who becomes the abuser?
The self-destructive student?
We aren’t psychologists or social workers but we’re teachers tasked with teaching every student in our classrooms. In order to do that there is some element of the healer that is part of our work. A true healer takes time to gain a deep understanding of the person in distress. They look beneath the outward manifestations of the distress…the destructive behaviors. They see the wound. They remain aware of the wound when interacting with the person. This leads to less enabling and more healing.
Is it possible to teach children with bruised and wounded souls in our classrooms without embracing, at least partially, the role of healer?
It’s a difficult question and I can’t say there are any easy answers. I’d be interested in hearing your approach to the traumatized student(s) you’ve met along the way.