Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Under-trained and unqualified: Teacher as Therapist

Today has been one of those days, and it's only third hour.

It started with one student we'll call Sara.  Sara's best friend died this summer in a tragic car crash, with her in the car.  She's been having a rough time dealing with it, but has been doing as well as a senior can do.  She's writing letters to him in a journal, she's talking about the "good times" with friends and family.  Yesterday, though, she experienced the anger stage (if you are unfamiliar with the Kübler-Ross stages of Death and Dying, they are here).  She is a self-proclaimed positive person and is not quick to anger...and yet, there she was.  How do I know this, you ask?  Because I am a teacher, so therefore I am also a psychological counselor.

The next hour, a student comes in crying. We'll call her Rose.  Rose is upset because she was just diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and she is scared of what that means. She has been told she needs psychotherapy - which makes her feel like she's crazy (think: psycho).  So is she really crazy? Is she the only one? She looks up to me for an answer.

I am under-trained and unqualified to be a therapist.  And yet, here I am. I assume that you are here with me, too.  And the funny thing is that I am more trained than the average teacher, as I have a degree in psychology.  All teachers are therapists. We get one or two classes in adolescent (or child) psych, and then we are expected to solve ALL OF THE PROBLEMS.  This is not practical. It is not fair. But it is.  And as with anything, it is what it is, but it will be what you make it.

So, what can you do?

Well, I'm no expert, but based on my studies of psychology and my ten years of experience as a teacher, here's what I know:

1. Listen
Sometimes, a student just wants to be heard. They don't want advice, they just want to know that you care.  This is the easiest - and at the same time, the most difficult - thing that you can do for a student.  My students know that my door is always open. They are welcome to talk any time.

2. Give advice only when asked. And even then, very carefully.
Sometimes a student does want advice. Be careful here. It's one thing if they ask you about a college, but it's another if they ask you about depression. Have the numbers on hand for the depression hotline (1-800-273-TALK). Have them make promises to you (Promise me you'll be in class tomorrow - I have something really important to tell you.), and then talk to a school counselor/psychologist.

3. Follow the student's lead:
If the student wants to cry, let them. Cry with them if you are like me. :)  If they want to just sit quietly, let them.  I know that different teachers have different policies on hugging a student - and for good reason.  Personally, I am never where other people can't see me, and I only hug a student if they hug first.  I would probably not hug a boy unless it was a special circumstance (death of a parent, graduation, etc), but that's just me.  You know what you are comfortable with and what you aren't.

4. Direct them to the appropriate people, if necessary.
If they need to talk to a counselor, direct them there.  Children have access to free psychotherapy in most states - so direct them to a therapist if necessary.  Have them call the hotline.  Whatever they need - make sure you have a directory of numbers somewhere accessible.

This is probably the most important.  Make sure your students know that you are there for them whenever.  My students know that they can talk to me any time during the school day, and that I answer email rapidly after school.   I am available all the time to them.  Beyond that, though, be wholly present when the student is talking to you. I view it as an incredible privilege every time a student confides in me.  I know which teachers I would have shared things with when I was in high school and how highly I thought of them. If a student chooses you, it's because you mean a great deal to that student.  It is an honor to hear whatever it is that they have to say.  So, don't sigh loudly. Don't check your email. Don't look at your phone. Don't check out. Be wholly present with that student.  Make sure that they know that for the amount of time that they are with you, that they are the most important person in the world to you.  Keep in mind that you may be the ONLY adult that they believe feels that way about them.

So...what did I miss?  What is necessary to counsel students?

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