The Teacher-Student Phenomenon

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a few teachers that reminded me that our students are still struggling, three years after the COVID 2020 lockdown. It came as no surprise, but sometimes I get so tunnel visioned with the content that I am teaching that I forget about the social and emotional well-being of my students. My seniors have been reading novels on their own, and some of the novels I selected for them to read deal with topics like PTSD, depression, suicidal ideation, and domestic abuse. Many of my students chose to read The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, both of which deal with depression, personal identity, and sexual molestation. For my students who planned on reading Perks, I provided a letter with plenty of trigger warnings so that they knew what they were getting into. Despite my warning, most of the students still wanted to read Perks, especially since many of them have seen the 2012 film.

One of my students who chose to read Perks probably shouldn’t have read it at this time in his life. Earlier this year, he lost his best friend to suicide and has been struggling with his own mental health since then. Last week, I noticed that this particular student looked disconnected and uninterested when he was reading during class, but I had checked in with him before, so I figure he was doing ok with the book’s content. Boy, was I wrong! Apparently, he had wished that he hadn’t started reading the book because he was really struggling. Unfortunately, he didn’t come to me about his concern, but instead expressed his concern to another teacher – one of the teachers that I spoke with earlier this week about our students who are hurting psychologically and emotionally in this weird, post-COVID (not quite) world. 

This school year, several of my students have experienced various types of trauma. Some of their experiences are pretty typical of most high school students: a difficult break up, a sports injury or concussion, parents who are suddenly getting divorced. But some of my students have experienced trauma like losing a parent to cancer, getting arrested for assault, being moved into a new foster home (again), suddenly being diagnosed with a debilitating illness, or losing a friend to suicide. Sadly, teachers are sometimes the last ones to know that students are experiencing trauma. Obviously, there are certain protocols in place to protect personal information, so we receive information once it has been ok’d by parents, administrators, and counseling staff. But sometimes, we never know. So we assume that everything is ok until it’s not.

One of the most difficult parts of being an educator is knowing how to meet the needs of children. Some students will come directly to their favorite teachers and tell them exactly what is going on. Before her father died, one of my students told me that her father had just been released from the hospital into hospice. Another student regularly emails me when she cannot be at school because of an autoimmune disease that causes her to suddenly faint. However, most students do not feel comfortable telling their teachers, or any adult at school for that matter, what might be causing them to be unfocused, distracted, or disruptive. 

And when I think back to my own high school experience, I was the same way. When I was struggling for the first time with panic attacks and depression, I was at first embarrassed by this new problem in my life. I was encouraged by my mom and my therapist to talk to my teachers about what was going on, but I felt uncomfortable talking to even my favorite teachers. Eventually, they all knew anyway because I assume that my mom had reached out to them through my counselor. Once my teachers knew, several of them came to me to check in when I was at school. It seemed that others didn’t know how to approach me, so they just focused on the work that I needed to make up when I had been absent for days on end. 

I don’t really know what the solution is for this phenomenon. I would like to believe that all of my students feel comfortable talking to me about what’s going on in their lives, but I know that’s just not true. I pride myself on being approachable, but I know that some students are embarrassed, ashamed, confused, and distraught by the problems they face that may get in the way of their success in school and in social situations. And sadly, some students don’t trust the adults in their schools because some adults just don’t seem to care about them outside of their own classrooms or content areas.

Earlier this year, one of my students asked me how I view my students. I told him that I see them as human, that they are people just like the teachers, that they have human worries and concerns just like everyone else. He smiled at me and said, “Ya.” I knew what he meant. As teachers, we are entrusted with teaching our content areas but also making sure that our students feel safe in our classrooms so that they can thrive in their lives today and in their futures. This means that we need to see them as people. This means we need to value what they think. This means that we listen when they are struggling. This means that we celebrate with them when they experience success. 

I told one of my colleagues the other day that teaching is not about me. I put my ego at the door when I walk in the building. Sure, there are days when the kids get under my skin, but most of the time I know that their behavior is not about me. It’s not personal. Because they don’t always tell us what’s under the surface, it’s best for me to assume that something else is going on. I wonder if we all looked at children this way if maybe they would have a bit more confidence, maybe they wouldn’t feel ashamed when they need to tell us something personal, and maybe this might lead to higher success for all of them.


Published by bagmac77

I am a high school English teacher, wife, and mother. I love writing about the ways in which faith intersects our modern world.

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