Teachers & adolescent psychological development

From the August 28, 2015 Psych Central World of Psychology blog.

How Teachers Make a Difference by Jeffrey Deitz

In clinical practice, psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists are usually so consumed with treating psychopathology they don’t often get the chance to prevent it.

A dear friend, a teacher visiting from the Midwest, explained how she turned a potentially explosive situation with one of her students into a story with a wonderful ending.

Claire Keller is a sixth-grade reading teacher from Evanston, Illinois. She’s the kind of teacher everyone had once in their lives; or if not, they wished they had. Claire’s the enthusiastic encourager who relishes seeing her students “get it.” She sees teaching as a privilege, not just a job. She makes reading exciting; encourages you to use your imagination and write down your ideas; to believe in yourself and your power of communication. Decades later you might not remember a single book you read in her class, but you remember she made you feel special, and that you finished the year feeling reading could be fun, not just a drudge.

Teachers like Claire didn’t just forcefeed books because that’s what the school system selected. She found stories that were relevant and made discussions lively. By the time you finished a year in her class, you knew yourself better

Many of Claire’s students in Illinois came from families temporarily assigned to the big city, uprooted from rural America into an alien culture. RJ (short for Rosemary Jane), one of Claire’s transplants, was a gangly 11-year-old girl from Louisiana. Back home she was a tomboyish Becky Thatcher. She and her Tom Sawyer of a best friend loved shooting Coke cans at fifty feet. In Chicago, however, RJ tried too hard to be included. Between the way she dressed and her hunting and fishing stories, she put people off. The more she tried, the worse it got.

Claire had her students work in foursomes using a password-protected computer platform. One morning, a popular clique of girls collaborating on a one-act play opened their file to find graphic threats, the content so disturbing the police were notified.

Techno-savvy investigators traced the hacker to RJ’s home Wi-Fi. With expulsion and criminal charges pending, RJ’s parents were summoned to meet the authorities, a conference Claire attended. RJ’s parents knew something was wrong — to them, her personality had deteriorated almost overnight — but trying to engage her about what was upsetting just made her more monosyllabic and brooding. They didn’t know what to do.

Claire did. She took RJ aside. At first, RJ denied everything. Then Claire grasped her hands and looked her in the eye. “I know what’s been happening,” she told her. “I understand.” RJ broke into tears, recounting overhearing the popular crowd trash-talking her for being a country hick. She felt crushed, which is why she struck back. She was ashamed and mortified she had upset so many people.

Claire prevailed on the authorities to back off on expulsion proceedings long enough for her to work with RJ on friend-making; on how Chicago was different from home. Claire coached RJ about local mores, and enlisted someone from the popular crowd to mediate her acceptance into the group.

Amazingly — and this really happened — a year later, RJ had turned into a happy camper, cavorting with her new buddies like nothing happened. She even taught her new best friend how to shoot!

Without Claire’s empathy and intervention, which most people would consider exceptional, someone like RJ easily could have been saddled with stigmatizing diagnoses such as oppositional defiant disorder or antisocial personality disorder and banished to a therapeutic school. Imagine what would have happened had life taken that tack.

This is what happens when individuals like Claire, on the front lines, are tuned into their students’ emotional issues. Parents, pediatricians, daycare providers, teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, clergy, dorm supervisors, camp counselors and the police — everyone in position to spot danger signals in youngsters — needs education about psychological development and its disorders. Were a child seizing or vomiting, he would be sent to the nurse, someone trained to differentiate health from illness. The same should hold with emotional distress.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel is on board. “Educators must see that students aren’t neglected or mislabeled, that every student gets specialized attention,” he said, adding, “that means extensive coursework in adolescent development and psychology prior to entering the classroom, as well as professional development throughout one’s career.”

Would RJ’s life have spiraled downwardly out of control? Fortunately, we’ll never know. The Hebrew Talmud says that to save a life is to save the world. Claire Keller did her part. Let’s do ours.

Note: details were altered considerably to preserve confidentiality.