Snippets of conversations I’ve had, in person and digitally, with students over the past seven days:
“Mrs. Lee, can I turn in my classwork handwritten because I’ve been sleeping in my car and I don’t have internet access.”
A comment on Google Classroom over the weekend:
A senior dropping out of high school with only three weeks remaining, “Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do because I have no motivation.”
The Call for Help
While working as a teacher in the Special Education department is extremely rewarding, it can alternately be devastating and depressing. There are nights that I can’t sleep because I’m worried for my students. Not the typical English teacher concerns: Johny-Didn’t-Turn-In-His-Homework, but will my students have a safe, healthy and happy life?
A friend of mine recently blogged about sexual assaults on female students called “But Did We Teach Them to Self Advocate?” This provides me with two reminders. First, every teacher in every classroom USA deals with student tragedy. Secondly, many of my students, even at the high school level, cannot self-advocate. In fact, more than half of the IEPs I’ve read in my lifetime in this profession have some sort of goal related to self-advocacy.
Two weeks ago, a student with autism came to school early to talk to me about an argument he had with his mom. The student said, “She said I’d go to Hell if I don’t get over my anger.” This is an example of an 11th grade student with autism, who is struggling to pass English, Geometry, US History, etc., who is simultaneously walking around the school maintaining the belief that he can go to Hell which, in his mind, is probably a fiery pit full of of demons. While this example is not comparable to the student who sleeps in a car, this belief is debilitating for him and he is unable to emotionally handle this situation.
How to Respond
Over the years, I have learned that there are two basic, but vital steps involved in helping students who are in trouble. If you do both of these steps, you will help the student, and sometimes be able to sleep at night.
The first step is to truly hear the specific student when s/he is revealing a problem to you. For most kids, if they reported a family member said they might go to hell, I would acknowledge their emotional resilience and know this was not a true crisis. For a student with autism, when words are taken literally, and when the student repeats the words over and over, this can cause a breakdown.
The most important part of this step is just that –listen and hear the student in front of you. Oftentimes, we want to give advice and suggestions. Don’t. You are not an expert in handling student crisis, nor the student’s parent.
Connect the Student with an Expert
You have to know who the experts at your school are, so that you can connect the student with qualified assistance. Does your school have DIS counseling? Does your school have a social worker, or someone who can connect the student with a social worker? All too often, we as teachers don’t know about a program or contact at our school until a situation arises and we need to find out that information. If you are not sure what to do or whom to contact, speak to other teachers; speak to a special education teacher because we have resources and contacts on speed dial; speak to your supervisor. Investigate what programs and contacts your school has available to you and your students.
At the same time, each school has what I call ‘hidden’ resources- the person in the attendance office who collects backpacks and clothes for kids who need them, the person in the nurse’s office who collects funds to buy food for families going through a rough patch, etc. We are so lucky to work in schools where there are always an abundance of caring people who help out in ways we sometimes never know about until we need to know.
I love working as a Special Education teacher because I work to develop relationships of trust with students. Due to this, many students will come and share their problems. While I can’t solve their problems, or make them go away, I can always listen and connect them with someone that can truly help them. By doing this, most nights anyway, I can go to sleep.