In “Education” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
I confess myself utterly at a loss in suggesting particular reforms in our ways of teaching. No discretion that can be lodged with a school-committee, with the overseers or visitors of an academy, of a college, can at all avail to reach these difficulties and perplexities, but they solve themselves when we leave institutions and address individuals.
The perplexities of which he speaks are the challenges of meeting all of our students’ needs; his metaphor is that college teachers must reef the sails and wait for the “dull sailors,” the students whose innate genius has been “obstructed and delayed” by the experiences that traditionally characterize school.
Policies are not simply laws or the words in a handbook, but the way they are manifested within a system. Some institutional policies, even the ones so well-intentioned as mandatory reporting laws, fail to address individuals, and stray from their intentions of helping children in favor of protecting the institutions themselves.
During a recent year teaching high school Creative Writing, a teacher discovered that one of her students had attempted suicide, unbeknownst to her, while he had been her student the previous year. This student is a writer, no… a true poet. When she discovered he was fighting inner demons, she made an effort to be someone he could come talk to about books and writing, or about life if he wanted. He was not an easy person to get to know, being a nihilist, Nietzsche-reading, Tyler Durden-worshipping kind of guy. However, the teacher and student seemed to have a rapport. She was never quite sure of her footing, though, never sure whether he was okay. She lost a lot of sleep.
Here’s where the institution vs. the individual becomes important: This student absolutely hated his experience in the hospital and in therapy. In his mind, the doctors, his lengthy stay, the medications: they were all part of a consumerist culture that profited when he was diagnosed as sick. He did not trust any of them. He had no faith in the systems or in humanity. Yet he developed some kind of inexplicable faith in his writing teacher.
Here’s the meat of what happened. After several months of school, direct mentions of suicide crept back into his writing. At this point, she needed support, and also felt the ethical need to find out if the situation mandated a police report. The last training she’d had on mandatory reporting was eight years prior, in a different district. She had no idea where her current administration stood. She couldn’t find anything useful on the web. To add to the anxiety, a student in one of the other CW classes had killed himself in the fall, and one of her own students had killed himself unexpectedly two years before that. If she made a report, this student would once again be thrown into the mental health system that he hated deeply, seethingly. Would this help him be more happy to be alive? She doubted it. And he had told her earlier in the year that he was okay, that he got by, which she took as an agreement to keep talking with her and to be okay.
She needed more information, directly from other professionals at school, to know when/if it would be necessary to call in a report to Child Protective Services or the police. She needed professional guidance, guidelines, clarity. She needed to protect him, yes, but she had already done what she thought was best by offering her friendship and support for the student and his writing and reading. She needed support, so that she wasn’t harrassing this kid each day with “Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?” Not a functional teacher-student relationship, either, right? Of course, this teacher craved the answer to that question every day.
What she got from her leadership was a very firm: He will be called in to see the social worker. You must call in a report. If he continues to write about suicide, you must report it. We do not have the luxury of guesswork. We have to report. She was told to be direct with the student about what would happen if he continued to write about suicide.
In that moment, she knew it would be unlikely for this student ever to forgive her. She knew that she could not consult with him before she reported, because he would talk her out of it, which put her in a terrible position of insubordination, and, even worse, possible complicity if he did do anything to hurt himself. And so, anguished, amidst distraught phone calls and e-mails to him and his family, of course she made her CPS call. His case was investigated immediately. And she is fairly sure he hates her to this day, either that or is too self-protective to speak to her about anything.
The happy ending is that he is still alive, and still writing, but his teacher doubts whether any of her actions from that CPS call onward had anything to do with that. At first she even feared that the stress of the whole situation would put him over the edge. But what was she supposed to do?
Here is what she was supposed to do (according to a tear-filled conversation the teacher had with the social worker after she made her report. The social worker had no time to see her before the report was made): She was supposed to approach the student first, as an individual, and ask him some direct questions. Next, if she had immediate concerns, she could contact his parent and ask her to take responsibility for having him evaluated. Then, if those steps failed, she could report. The sun appeared in the sky and a beam of light fell upon her .… Of course! Of course! Of course, this makes more sense.
So why didn’t the teacher have this information earlier, given the history of suicides at the school? Why didn’t leadership have this information to offer a teacher in distress? One possibility is that we have so much to do, all of us at all levels, that we become the institution. We fail to address individuals. Emerson would say the teacher had reefed her sails. The student might say that she set out on a sea of faith in the system he despised, leaving him ashore. He told her he was disappointed with her, and that was the last honest conversation they had. Class was less enjoyable for the teacher, despite other students whom she also loved. More importantly, she felt less confident giving this student the generous feedback on his writing she had been offering; he rarely came to her about anything; they never discussed another book.
Policy, without clear, humane guidelines that address individuals and not only institutional liability, and her own panicked compliance with that policy, trashed half their year together.
Perhaps, if she hadn’t panicked, she could have pressed back on the directives she had been given by leadership. She could have, herself, advocated for a better way, but the pressures on everyone combined to create the situation. On the very day the teacher went to her evaluator for advice, the school board was handing down an extremely controversial decision. As the teacher sat, aching with questions, across the desk, her evaluator was on and off the phone speaking with the police department and other school leaders, and on his way to a strategy session to plan responses to possible protests. The social worker was in a closed door conference with a student and had no time to talk. Mandatory reporting laws were hanging over the teacher. Matters of life and death were hanging over her. Her leader had given her specific instructions, and they rang in the air like a gong.
Perhaps things could have been different, if school systems had the human resources to address the individuals involved, and the resources for better teacher and administrative training, but this wasn’t the case. I do not think this teacher’s story is unique. Institutions need the resources to design themselves around individuals, and we must be vigilant, perhaps even militant, about not allowing our institutions to protect themselves at the expense of people.
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