Problem Solved

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT For Sam, wherever you may find him

08/23/2010  |  Dr. Ruth Herman Wells, M.S.

As I spoke last week at a huge Iowa K-12 education conference, I noticed commotion in the hall’s front row. After my keynote was finished, a person from that row came up to apologize for the disruption. She explained that the woman next to her had been checking her phone messages while I spoke.  The woman had discovered she was being laid off by e-mail, and was simply unable to control her shock and anger. The educator standing in front of me then said that she herself had been laid off last week after several decades as a teacher.

You are teaching in arguably the toughest time to be a teacher since perhaps the Great Depression. Even if you are lucky enough to still have your teaching job, you may feel incredibly discouraged and overwhelmed that you are constantly being expected to do more than ever with less than ever as  our nation’s education system is reduced to a new minimum.

No matter how justified you are in feeling deeply troubled by the negative changes happening all around you, your obligation to your students remains the same. No matter how upset, frightened, or angry you become, the expectation for your performance remains the same. In ordinary times and in bad times, the best teachers somehow manage to set aside their despair and unhappiness, to still give 110 percent five days of the week, 110 percent of the time.

Since some of your students live through daily horrors at home or in the community, school must remain a haven for them, both in the best of times, and in the worst of times. While it might be understandable that a teacher’s upset is reflected during interactions with students, the standard for teacher conduct must remain the same on your worst day as it is on your best day. Remember that you may be the only sane, sober, kind adult in some of your students’ worlds.  If you become harsh, abrupt, or caustic with a youngster, you stop being that student’s lifeline.

My son Chris went through school with a boy name Sam. Sam lived through horrors no one should know about, never mind live through. Chris says that school year after school year, he watched teacher after teacher attempt to save Sam and fail. However, in high school, Chris says that changed a bit. A math teacher began calling Chris and Sam bad names.

When your child reaches high school, I figure you can’t just run in every time there’s a problem, that your young adult must have input. Chris said that for him the name-calling was no big deal, so I did nothing. However, for Sam, the put-downs became another burden to carry, and he was already juggling such a heavy load. After a while, Sam began coming into math class later and later, then missing most of each morning, then most of each afternoon, and eventually just drifted out of school. That was the last we knew of Sam for years.

One day I heard yelling and screaming in my neighborhood. The yelling and screaming kept coming closer to my house, then it was up on my porch, and banging on my door. The person was yelling: “Chris! Chris Wells! Are you in there buddy?” It was Sam, and he was as homeless and messed-up on substances as any human being I’d ever seen. That was the last we heard of Sam for a long time. Then, at my daughter’s high school graduation, I was crossing through the gym when I heard Sam’s name mentioned, so I stopped and listened. “Oh, yeah. I know where Sam is,” the person said, “I actually know where he is right now. He’s right outside the high school on Highway 214. He’s throwing himself into traffic.”

My son Chris, now a special educator, says that after watching teacher after teacher attempt to save Sam and fail, he will never forget the one teacher who didn’t try to save Sam and succeeded.

The true measure of a good teacher will never be students’ test scores, the number of hours worked each day, or degrees, awards, or accolades. The true measure of a good teacher is that in the worst of times, you can still see students like Sam and fight for their survival even as you fight for yours.

The more you convince students that school is essential to life, the more you can keep them in school — even the troubled ones. Here’s a poster/worksheet that can help do that.

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Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. is the Director of Youth Change Workshops, E-mail Ms. Wells at [email protected] or call 800-545-5736. For more interventions visit
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