As teachers in a school serving students with special needs, we have a little bit of advice we give one another from time to time. It comes in the form of an acronym – QTIP. When our students let loose on us in their anguish, anger, or misery, and we’re in danger of feeling overwhelmed, our colleagues will remind us to Quit Taking It Personally. If we were to take all our students’ pain and anger to heart we would quickly burn out or become basket cases unable to help ourselves or our students. But it is not easy. The more one cares about one’s students, the more difficult it is not to take their words and actions personally, even while we intellectually know they are most likely upset about things that have nothing to do with us.
Many sorts of behavior can affect us emotionally. Sometimes our students are very sad or withdrawn. Sometimes they are distant when they have been friendly in the past. Sometimes they are angry. There are also many reasons for these emotions. Some of our students live in the most hectic conditions, or now live in stable circumstances, but have had traumatic histories. (As we often remark to one another, it is an amazing display of fortitude that they get themselves out of bed and on the bus to school most every day.) But this is hardly the norm. Many of our students come from loving homes in which caring parents, or guardians (singular or plural) are doing the best they can. Some of our kids are dealing with the frustration caused by their own inability to read, or study, or express themselves as well as they think they should. Some shut down or claim they don’t care. Of course, most care deeply, but can’t admit it to themselves let alone to us. Some have been abandoned or abused and, perversely, some part of them acts out to make sense of the treatment they have received over the years by proving to the world that they “deserved” their treatment.
Whatever the reason, there are days when we are on the receiving end of a world of pain. And the challenge – it can be an enormous challenge – is to remain calm and neutral in the face of that pain. It is also a challenge to avoid getting drawn into arguments and power struggles. Of course, most of our students are never explosive. Many are quiet and respectful. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential to get to us emotionally. My first year, one of the hardest things for me was an awards ceremony. A student who had seemed utterly indifferent to me and to woodshop was sitting in the front row. As I passed out shop awards I was unprepared for the look of expectation on his face. And when he didn’t receive an award he looked so dejected. I felt awful for days and dreaded the awards ceremony for years.
So we must maintain a balance, and take care of one another and ourselves. Talking with one another helps. We can check in with a colleague who might be having a tough day, or stop to compliment a colleague who handled a tough situation well. Sometimes when we see someone having a hard time we can step in and let the other person get out and collect themselves. Weekly supervision is also a great chance to go over some of these challenges. And it can be an opportunity to try to come up with new ways to deal with a tough situation. Every staff meeting we include the opportunity to relate a “light”, an amusing or heartwarming story of something that happened the previous week. It comes at the end of our meeting, right before we pick student of the week, so we end each meeting on a positive note with a reminder of the important things we are doing.
So we can’t stop caring. Callouses protect the skin, but they also reduce sensitivity. We can’t allow ourselves to become calloused. We must strive to maintain our sanity and our humanity.