BLOG POST BY PTAC MEMBER PAM GREGG
Most people who know me today could not possibly imagine my student self, trying to be invisible in the classroom throughout my K-12 school career. I have trouble remembering that person myself.
I can remember awesome teachers who tried to reach out to me, but when your condition is chemical and not situational, there was only so much they could do. My anxiety/depression was invisible. I suffered in silence. I didn’t learn coping skills until, when I was in college studying to become a teacher, I was forced to come out of my proverbial shell and perform.
Where did I get my inspiration for my coping skills? From the students who have entered my classroom since the beginning of my career. And I have spent the last 30 years honing and refining these skills while acknowledging the fact that my students could be suffering from any type of invisible and silent condition as well.
I have taught social/emotional learning courses at the graduate level so that teachers can embrace the concept of teaching the whole student, not just the curriculum. Sometimes, especially at the secondary level, it was a tough sell. The social/emotional piece to teaching is huge but often not emphasized as much as it should be.
Let me share a situation that presented itself this past year in my 11th grade Level 1 Composition class. In this class are high level students who opted not to take an AP English class their junior year. I had previously taught middle school, and this year’s juniors I had possibly taught in 7th, 8th, and 9th grades. The rapport established early on was a great starting off point for my juniors. However, one of my juniors this year who is a highly gifted writer suffered in silence as we began to tackle the research paper process which consumes two months of the semester-long course.
This student had mastered the art of looking busy. I had remembered her as being a perfectionist and a hard worker from having her in class before. I also knew that writing was one of her strengths. To read her writing reminded me of high-caliber writing at the university level. So, when I conferenced with her after the research portion of the project, I was shocked to discover that she had lots of sources and no note cards. She was easily a week behind her peers. She, of course, said she was fine and would catch up over winter break.
Fast forward to January, no progress was made on the paper, and the final due date was looming. Here was this brilliant student with a ton of potential in danger of failing my course. She hadn’t started her paper because she had no outline. She hadn’t started her outline because she had no note cards. She was frozen in the process and helpless to find a solution. That’s where I stepped in. She was already in the habit of popping into my classroom at the end of the school day, so I wasn’t surprised when she showed up on my doorstep the day before the paper was due. What I wasn’t expecting was for her to be “fine” one moment and burst into tears the next.
I sat with her and shared my own experience of suffering in silence. She agreed that she had indeed been suffering in silence but had no idea what to do about it. She was overwhelmed with things that were going on at home and not being able to keep up with schoolwork. I stressed the fact that she needed to take a step back, make a plan, and ask for help, none of which would be easy for her to do.
That afternoon marked a turning point for her. Did she have to share everything that was going on in her life? No. She kept asking me, “What about my paper???” To which I responded, “Are you finished suffering in silence? Will you let me help you?” She agreed that she was and she would. I spent the next couple of minutes showing her how easy it was to do one note card electronically using NoodleTools.
She looked me in the eye and said, “That’s it? It’s that easy??” We discussed that it could have been that easy all along and that by allowing herself to suffer in silence she was torturing herself unnecessarily.
So, what is my point here? I now have a mantra that I repeat incessantly. “Don’t suffer in silence.” I share my past experiences in school. I also share situations where a student was frozen, feeling like it was impossible to succeed, and some strategies we worked on together to cope with what seemed to him/her to be an insurmountable situation. There was no one right answer, but by talking with each student, and backtracking to where they shut down and why, he/she was able to start to come up with a plan for success. We should not be afraid to pull from our own personal experiences to show our students that they are not alone.
I am not a guidance counselor, nor would I ever try to “diagnose” my students, but I am an organized problem-solver (to a fault), and I never give up on my students, no matter how many brick walls they try to erect between me and them. We, as teachers, need to acknowledge the fact that that quiet kid in the back of the classroom, who may come across as an underachiever or someone who doesn’t care, needs to know that we are here to help with the roadblocks and that coping skills do exist for those who may suffer in silence.
Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee