Thick Skin vs. Sensitive Heart Part 1
A colleague approached me the other day expressing sadness over a situation which involved one of her students being placed in foster care. What surprised me was the lack of emotion I felt about the scenario. After all, this I had worked with this student many times the past school year and cared for her, but I'd heard it and experienced it before. I started rationalizing instead of becoming emotional. This startled me. As an educator, have I been hardened to the perils students face? Is it a benefit to have a super thick skin or to have a sensitive, squishy heart?
It was over nine years ago when I first started teaching. I will never forget my students that year, especially one young girl who touched my heart. C was a firecracker. She had been taken from her biological parents and placed in foster care for almost six months when I came to know her during her 3rd grade year. She had come from a background of abuse, violence and neglect I can only imagine. Of her siblings, C was the only one who was not hospitalized, but she still had her issues. She would often spend what seemed like hours throwing tantrums and would often hide under the teacher's desk. She would run into the bathroom when she didn't want to do something and there were several times where I would sit on the bathroom floor slipping her assignments under the stall and just talking to her. I will never forget the time when I caught her looking off of her spelling list during a test and when I said, "Please turn it over." she grabbed her entire tub of materials, held it above her head and turned all the contents "over" and onto the floor. She then smiled and said, "You only said to turn IT over, so I did." I loved this kid!
C also had a wonderful amount of spunk, sass and potential. She was smart! She had a gift for reading people and was extremely intuitive of others feelings. She controlled her environment like no other I've ever met. She was a survivor and it showed! C had made tons of progress academically, socially and emotionally over the year. She wasn't throwing tantrums as often and as we built a community of trust, we built a strong relationship and foundation for learning to happen. She hadn't hidden under the teacher's desk in months, and while she still had her "moments" she was really showing that she had the skills and desire to continue to improve. It was right after we returned from winter break that C ran into my room crying and hugged me saying, "I'm going to be adopted. They are going to adopt me! The chose me!" In my experience with her I never saw C cry "real" tears and C didn't like to be touched, but she initiated this and I knew it brought her true joy. I was glad that she chose to share that moment with me.
C continued to make progress as the year went on and I was pleased. Not that we didn't have our moments- C was not "cured" and she still definitely had an "emotional disability", but she was improving. The fact that she was going to be adopted and continue in this community, was just the icing on the cake for me. I became so hopeful for her future. I worked extra long hours creating plans for her, I advocated for her to be in classes that teachers were unsure she could "handle." I really catered to her learning styles and we came up with a behavior system for her that she bought into and was a part of. I saw a future for C and was glad to be a part of her success. It was with this excitement and momentum that I came to our annual case conference with. It happened to be late May, because I had wanted to see how much progress she made and give a good recommendation of what class to put her in the following school year. I was excited because we had a made a decision that I would stay on as her teacher of record because of our relationship and progress. I was thrilled. I had just gotten the signature on her IEP when her foster mother looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, "We have decided not to adopt C. We are having a baby in the fall and are not sure it will be safe for him. It's been very hard, but C will be removed right after school gets out." She excused herself from the table and exited. I couldn't speak a word. My mouth dropped, my heart sank and I began sobbing in front of everyone at that conference as soon as she turned to leave.
My heart and part of my spirit were broken.
C was different after that and so was I. The last couple of weeks went by in a blur. I went to see C the day she was leaving at home. I gave her the book The Pinballs by Betsy Byars and wrote a message on the inside with my address and phone number. I told her that I cared for her and gave her a hug before I left. She didn't hug me back. I never saw or heard from her again. I didn't return to teaching in that school the following school year.
I am so thankful today for the gift of being able to work with C that first year that shaped so much of the teacher I am today. My then-soft, squishy heart was what drove my passion and commitment to the students I worked with. It was the same heart that broke on the floor of that meeting room and never looked at a student through the same eyes again. It was that heart that was unable to walk the halls of that school without knowing where C was and imagining her there.
Although I still lead with care and concern and believe that is the best way to reach students, it can be a really fragile and dangerous place to teach from. But isn't that what risks are all about? Isn't that what makes both the worst and best parts of our jobs? It's a fine balance and one I continue to struggle with.
To be continued...