It’s Not About You
To my daughter’s teacher,
I was very upset after our meeting yesterday. I tried not to show it because I don’t want to undermine your authority in front of my daughter, but I was, and remain, very upset. This is the third time I have come to you this year sharing with you that my eleven year old daughter, who struggles with anxiety and depression, is not getting the emotional support she needs in your classroom. It is the third time I have come to you and it is the third time I have been met with defensiveness, excuses, and what feels like a complete lack of empathy on your part.
When I say my daughter needs more emotional support it means I need you to provide an environment that is nurturing and safe. An environment in which she does not feel judged or punished for behavior that is often outside of her control. My daughter has an emotional disability. She will sometimes have outbursts, tantrums, or cry when she is feeling frustrated. She may stamp her feet or exhibit other behaviors that seem inappropriate for a sixth grader. Yesterday, at our meeting I watched you firmly point your finger into the table and tell her that stamping her feet in your classroom is not okay. That her behavior is not appropriate for a sixth grader. Your response did not feel safe or nurturing. It felt punitive.
My daughter is not a typical sixth grader. Her brain works differently than that of a typical sixth grader. Why do you think it is realistic to to expect her to act like a typical sixth grader. My daughter is bright and capable but often lacks the emotional maturity to take a step back from her anxiety and frustration to choose an appropriate behavior to deal with those feelings. Perhaps, in your role as teacher, instead of slamming your finger into the table and telling her how inappropriate her behavior is, you could instead validate that she is feeling anxious and frustrated and help guide her to a more appropriate response. You say that my daughter knows the resources that are available to her and only has to ask to be able to use them. I am telling you that she sometimes lacks the capacity to ask and needs additional support and help to find her way.
I feel like we would not be having this conversation if my child had a physical disability like the student you had last year who was visually impaired. I’m sure you had to make some adjustments to the way you taught and presented material to compensate for the student not being able to see. I’m sure you didn’t call that student up to the front of the class and ask her to point out the blue line indicating the Mississippi River on a U.S. map. I’m guessing you made adjustments to your expectations and had no problems modifying assignments for that student so that her disability could be accommodated. I am guessing that if her parents came to you frustrated about something that had happened during their daughter’s school day that you didn’t tell them that you have 22 other kids in your class to worry about like you repeatedly told me at our meeting yesterday.
My daughter’s disability is not that different from a physical disability. Her disability sometimes requires that you provide additional support, flexibility, and modification of assignments or a change in your teaching or disciplinary style to meet her needs. She is not trying to be difficult or get away with not doing work. She is easily overwhelmed and has trouble asking for what she needs so while she learns how to do that I’m asking you to meet her part way and proactively provide her with a little more structure and support even when it’s not obvious to you that she’s struggling because sometimes her disability is invisible.
You said it’s hard for you to not take it personally when my daughter announces as she approaches the classroom in the morning that she does not want to shake your hand, as you ask each student to do each day. I’m asking you to try to not take it personally. It’s not about you. It is about what my daughter needs to do to feel like she has some control over her day.
I watched you argue back and forth with my daughter yesterday about how many feet she was from your classroom door when she said she didn’t want to shake your hand. Why does it matter? Is it so important for you to be right? What I am trying to help you understand is that my child is trying to advocate for herself and tell you that she is uncomfortable shaking your hand. She is still learning the most appropriate way to do that and you have an opportunity to help her with that goal. Arguing with her about whether or not she yelled it from ten feet down the hallway or at the classroom door does not move her forward in that area.
I keep coming back to my daughter needing to feel more emotionally supported in your classroom. Here’s what she really needs from you. She needs for you to wake up tomorrow morning and imagine what it would feel like to start your day feeling completely terrified that something awful is going to happen to your wife and baby while you are at work. Imagine that you believed in your heart of hearts that in order for them to be safe you had to stay home but because you have to provide for your family, staying home is not an option. Imagine that it takes so much energy and courage every morning just to get in your car and drive to work that by the time you get there you are completely exhausted on top of still being terrified. Now imagine that you go to one of your colleagues and confide in them how you are feeling and your colleague tells you that you are not acting like a teacher should act and that you need to just pull it together which makes you feel even worse. Imagine that at some point during the day you sneak a minute to call your wife because you need to feel reassured that she is okay. Imagine that people tell you that if you just tried harder you could stop these behaviors. Imagine that you just don’t know how you will make it through another minute of feeling this way. Imagine that this is only a small part of the anxiety you feel every day.
Now imagine you have to handle all of this emotional turmoil as an eleven year old who does not have the emotional maturity to deal with all of these feelings, even on medication. How would you want your teacher to talk to you if you were my daughter? Would you want your teacher to pound his finger into the table and tell you that you are not acting like a normal eleven year old? My daughter is not a “normal” eleven year old and that’s what we need you to understand. She needs you to be empathetic and kind and to help provide the structure and guidance she needs on the days that she simply cannot get there herself.
I know your job is hard. I know you have 23 students who all require your attention. I know that you cannot stop everything and only focus on my child. I am not asking you to do that. I am asking you to think about the words you use when you speak to her because she is using those words to judge whether or not you are a safe person for her. I am asking you to put yourself in her shoes and imagine how you would want your teacher to respond to you. I am asking you to put your ego aside, let your defenses down and consider how you can best support my child. It’s not about you.