I will never forget the day I scolded a student in front of his class for not paying attention first, and then for not answering with courtesy. I learned later that the teen, a very smart kid, lived with foster parents because his natural ones had abused him so much that the court had assigned other adults to care for him. He hadn’t known what love and care were until he reached his new home at the age of 11. And there I was treating him like a spoiled brat. The next day I took him aside and apologized for losing my temper, although in truth the whole classroom was a tsunami of bad behavior. Of course, that was no excuse for singling him out without knowing his past. That boy was such a noble character that, in spite of his severe emotional trauma, he actually apologized to me. I later talked to the foster parents who graciously accepted my regrets: “It’s happened before”, they added, “and we understand that a teacher cannot be aware of every single detail in the life of his students.”
They are wrong; no matter how much work we have as teachers, we must make a special effort to know the circumstances of every student in our classroom because we have access to their academic and personal history. We can never assume that every kid is able, stable, and willing to learn. I had a loving mother, though not a father, and that gave me a rock solid foundation of self-esteem. What the heck do I know about being sent to one foster home after another? That boy had been profoundly hurt emotionally and to add insult to injury, had to be separated from his siblings because no foster family could accept all five of them.
If a teacher is not sensitive to the emotional needs of her students, she should resign immediately; we have all known somebody like that, a person who teaches simply for the paycheck and the long vacations. An educator should be guided by the same basic principle a doctor follows: At least, Do No Harm. Education and Medicine, to continue the comparison, are as much art as science. The surgeon who operated on my wife told me one day that he was simply a good mechanic. I had to refrain from explaining to him in very forceful words that he should be much more since I knew he wouldn’t understand. And so it is with bad teachers; no amount of training can give them the necessary emotional tools to deal with kids’ personal problems.
I learned my lesson and never assumed again that these fragile teens fit my preconceived notions of what a good student should be; as school started again this year, I made sure I read all the files of my special ed students, the ones who came in from middle school. I was also lucky to meet a mother on the first day who wanted to make sure I knew what her daughter needed both academically and emotionally. Why is it that good kids, those who come from loving families, have concerned parents who strive to establish a fruitful relationship with the teacher? Why is it that the others don’t have such parents, at least not often? These are rhetorical questions of course, as most of us know the answers.
Some schools, like mine, have established community links, visiting parents and trying to connect the school with them. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but at least we make the effort because education is not the responsibility of teachers only, it’s everybody’s.