When Expectations Are Not Enough: Supporting Students through Difficult Life Events

by Keeshon Washington

Clear expectations enable students to be productive and learn more quickly. But what does the teacher do when a student comes to school in emotional distress? Rather than brush aside the trauma, Keeshon encourages teachers to adapt their expectations as needed. He reflects on the importance of communicating with parents, maintaining the confidentiality of students, and listening to the student. And he reminds teachers that, in the end, they are responsible to enable every student to return to normal, productive work.

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Every day, I have expectations and I have goals and I have dreams. I have aspirations, I have rules. And then depending on the mood of the student, it can all go south. When expectations aren’t enough, what do you do?

Teaching in a city school, an urban setting, I encounter trauma all the time. Students come in and they just got cussed out by their mom or their dad’s in prison. All of us have at least experienced what it’s like to have a student in a traumatic situation and have to work them through that.

I want to speak about what happens when we have to adjust expectations and how we can best love the students when they come in with those things going on in their lives. Every teacher likes clear expectations, or at least they’re supposed to. It’s the first thing you hear when you get an intervention from an administrator: “What are your expectations?”

One time, I had a student come in and I knew that they were sexually active. I had to decide what I was going to do with this. This is against our school policy. It’s against a lot of rules that we have and we couldn’t just gloss over it. I had to figure out how to address and how to ask these questions.

That was the easy part. The hard part was when she came back into school. We had a confession time and it was a wonderful thing; God worked in marvelous ways. But then she had to open up a math book and do math. What do we do when expectations fall short and love and compassion and conversation have to take its place?

The first thing that I would do is to establish a good relationship with the parent. Now, for many of you, you may already have it, but my experience in the urban setting is that it’s a journey, it’s a process. They don’t want to get close unless they have to. They don’t want to talk to you unless something’s going wrong. It’s more of a cause-and-effect type of relationship. When there’s something bad happening, we can communicate; otherwise, they get ignored.

I value strong relationship. It’s better to build that before the incidents than to try and build it in the middle of a crisis. But at a bare minimum, you want to go to the parent and you want to discuss with them what you plan to do. You can communicate with the parent: “So I realize that so and so’s going through something very serious. I would like to make these adjustments.” And if the parents are on board with that, that empowers and strengthens your methods so much more because the kid can’t go home anymore and say, “I’m having a bad time in school because of this and this,” and the mom’s going to be like, “Wow, that’s strange. Why did your teacher do that? Or why would they do this?” Because they already know, they already agreed to it or at least allowed you to try it.

If the student can’t jump ahead and get the parent against the teacher, and vice versa, you don’t believe everything the student says about the parent either, then that will help in traumatic experiences because a lot of students, especially ones in the city, when their backs are against the wall, that is when they start to manipulate. That is when they start to try and get people against each other. We have to be prepared by communicating with parents, not just to protect our own selves, that’s not the goal, but to communicate. And how can we—me, mom and dad, and the leaders of the school and the student—how can we all work together to make this student successful, and introduce godly principles and values in their lives.

I have to humble myself and say, “I can’t do this alone. I need the parents. I need my boss. I need the student.” We all have a part in this and most importantly, we need God.

You, as a teacher, know that something’s going on, but fellow classmates may not, and we have to be very careful with protecting confidentiality. Think of it in terms of, “I’m protecting this information for the sake of the student and helping them grow.” Because if you go around just telling all your fellow staff and telling your sister, cousin, friend, and church body prayer requests about your students, then more and more people are hearing about this. Hopefully, they’re praying, but often what ends up happening is it just becomes a project to work on. We don’t see it in a spiritual aspect, and that really weakens our ability to address this properly.

As teachers, we can have a running list of things we want to see improved. We don’t have to share that list with our students. We can inspire change through devotionals, through one-on-one talks, through our academics. We go from math to life skills to relationship advice all the time in my classroom, and it’s because I have in the back of my mind that this student bullies people and I’d like to see that change.

If I went in there and I just said “Somebody’s bullying someone because they can’t speak English,” or “You guys shouldn’t do, you guys need to have love for people no matter what their languages are,” they’re going to know that I’m talking about so and so. That’s not as productive. We have to be discreet. We have to be tactful and smart about how we react when things are going wrong. If you compromise their confidentiality, they lose trust, and I think we ought to protect that more than we do.

Reconsider your expectations. We have expectations and we ought to have them followed, but when things aren’t normal, we can’t force a student into normalcy. When things aren’t going well, we cannot just pretend they’re not there. We can’t just say, “Yes, we’ll talk about that later, but for now, open up your science book.” The thing that I enjoy about teaching my students is I’ve lived lives like them. I’ve seen what that’s like and I’ve also been able to, through God’s grace and the people around me, move beyond that poverty, move beyond those drugs and those issues and become successful. If I then start to treat them like, “Hey, I did it, you can do it, too,” they’re not going to receive that.

I tell my students all the time, “I want you to be compassionate beings. I want you to be people who care about people.” If I know that we just had a very stressful day, something happened in school and the principal just reprimanded them all because of something that happened outside of school, and they’re all tensed up, I don’t mind a good conversation happening as long as I’m in control. But if I have to hold to this hard, fast expectation because it’s written on my wall and I can’t compromise or I’m going to lose respect, then you will lose respect, but it’s not because you didn’t follow the written rule on your wall, it’s because you didn’t adapt to what the students actually needed.

We have to come in fresh every morning and say, “What is going to make my students the most successful today?” One of the ways that we can figure out what expectations to set is to ask questions. It’s always a shock to my new students when they come in and they’ve heard Mr. Washington doesn’t play around and Mr. Washington gets really, really serious when you do bad things. [But] when they’re in their lowest moments, I’m trying to pick them up.

I think that if I can provide that for my students, they feel confident that even though Mom and Dad are mad at me, even though these things are going on, when they come into my room they’re safe.

The truth is, we are inadequate. We are inadequate to fix the problems of a divorce, a suicidal temptation. We are so inadequate to fix these things. The truth is, so often, we’re just brought back to prayer. I have students that have ongoing problems, probably until they graduate. These are issues that will not go away because it’s their life, it’s their family.

If I help students get through hard things in the classroom, then I think that they learn to trust that God will get them through hard things that I can’t get them through. It’s so sad to see traumatic events happen and how they seep into the classroom and affect their productivity. Productivity sometimes has to take a backseat to love and saying, “Today, you’re going to have a growth day spiritually. It’s not going to be a growth day in academics. Your brain’s not going to grow today, but your heart is, and so let’s sit down and talk about it.”

The last thing we have to do, after we’ve talked with the student, we’ve talked with the parent, we have loved them, we’ve loved the parent, we’ve said, “I’m here to serve, what can I do? How can I help?” we’ve asked lots of questions, is to bring them back to earth and say, “You’re still my student. I’m still your teacher. I’m not a close friend. I am a professional and I’m responsible to make sure you’re successful academically too.”

The expectation may change: “I now want my history test to be done next week”; “I’m going to give you some time to study”; “I’m only going to give you this many pages of work today because you’re having a rough day”; “We’re going to sit, take it easy, work you back in.” Whether it’s going back to the same expectation or not, whether it’s resetting the expectation, whether it’s adjusting it, making new ones, we have to go back to clearly communicated expectations.

I think the failure of many compassionate and bighearted teachers is that they’re there for their student, but they lose track of the fact that at some point they have to pull back. We have to have expectations because if we’re not, we’re not preparing for the real world. Life isn’t going to wait for us, we need to keep going.

We need to stand up, and that takes faith, it takes a trust. We’re going to have to bring back the hardness of schoolwork, but as we do that, we do it compassionately. We do it when we know that they’re ready. We can push them, we can test them, we can feel bad doing it, but it’s a part of life that we have to get back. We have to step away from the trauma and focus on our responsibilities.

They won’t trust you if you don’t do the other steps. They won’t trust you if you haven’t already communicated with Mom and Dad so they can support you in the back end, if you haven’t already spoken with them and asked them what they want and what they need, if you haven’t already been a listening ear, if you haven’t already given your advice. Then when you try to pull back to the work, they are not going to want to work. They are still sad. They are going to milk this for all they want.

Expectations matter. We need them. But it’s not all that matters. There’s so much more than expectations and they are not always going to work. We need to be prepared to address these traumatic experiences. I have to figure out what that thing is with them as much as they’re willing to share and help them get through it, and then we get back to life. The next time it happens, I’ll be back again, and we get back to the classroom.

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