fire hydrantTeachers take care of their students; who is taking care of the teachers?

A definitive professional and parental moment happened for me when I was in social work school and saw one of the more disturbing videos of my life.

The video was a snippet from a research project conducted by some therapists on what they called a “failure to thrive” baby, or a baby who was not growing and developing as he should have been. The baby was basically starving, and no one could figure out why.

The video of a therapy session with the baby, his young mother, and a therapist suggested a possible reason. In order to eat, the five-month-old baby had to drag himself across the floor to a bottle of formula that his mother had placed several feet away. As the hungry baby struggled on the floor, the mother sat in a chair looking at her therapist.

Watching a tiny five-month-old crawl (which five-month-old babies don’t do) was agonizing. If I had been the therapist, my irrepressible instinct would have been to jump up, grab the bottle and the baby, and feed that child. My second instinct would have been to yell at the mother and make her feed the baby.

But that’s not what the therapist did.

What the therapist did was focus on the mother. She left that little baby to his own devices and focused on the mother. She asked questions not about the baby, not about childcare, but about the mother. What was her life like? What was her childhood like? What was going on with her?

The therapist realized that judging the mother for her shocking treatment of her baby was irrelevant. The truth about this mother was that, because of her own experiences and emotional limitations, caring for her baby was, at that moment, personally impossible. And, rather than make her client change to appease her own intense discomfort with what she was witnessing, the therapist sat with her horror and worked on understanding and accepting this young woman.

The therapist looked at and listened to her client. She acknowledged the mother’s feelings and emphasized how legitimate they were. She leaned in to that young woman – whom I was actively hating! – and showed her how much she cared.

And I’ll be damned. It wasn’t long before the mother reached down to her baby, picked him up, and fed him as she cradled him in her arms.

The moral of the video is this: caregivers need care. If we neglect the caregivers, they will neglect their children. Or they will burn themselves out in their efforts to do the personally impossible, which is to feed others when they themselves are depleted and undernourished.

In my view, teachers are caregivers. They are professional caregivers, people whose job it is to enable our children’s healthy cognitive and emotional development. Their care helps to determine our children’s character and capacities for life.

But who is truly capable of taking care of 20 youngsters or 120 teenagers a day? What superhero can see, hear, and understand so many students, some of whom are “failing to thrive,” all of whom are naturally acting out their own limitations in unpredictable ways and at unpredictable times? What teacher does not reach and pass over the boundary of what is personally impossible at least once in a school year? How many teachers cross this boundary every day?

And if teachers are expected to do the personally impossible, why wouldn’t they expect, even press, their students to? (Note: It is neither effective nor healthy to attempt to do what is impossible.)

Who is taking care of the teachers?