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Kristin | October 31, 2012

Invisible - The Stuff That's Probably Illegal


ImagesCA4WUIQRBy Kristin    

This article is just fabulous.  Written by an ex-police officer and Marine who now teaches physics, it outlines why teachers deserve more credit than they're getting.

The reason it fits in this post is that Matthew Swope mentions things teachers do that blur the professional boundary between student and teacher.  It's risky to cross that line, but teachers do it every day in order to let a kid know someone cares about him enough to stand by his side even if there's no learning target involved.  Even if it could be seen as inappropriate.

Years ago I had a student who struggled with worsening mental illness as the year progressed.  One afternoon, particularly concerned about him, I called mom only to learn that he'd run away. It was a Seattle January night, and she was beside herself.  He was not simply a runaway, he was a mentally ill runaway in the middle of a serious episode.

I knew she was home with her younger child, tethered to the phone.  I also had a hunch that my student would probably gravitate back toward campus.  It's what I'd do as a teen with little money, no car and a city shutting down for the night.  So I put my five-year old daughter in the car and started driving, making circles in the streets around our school.  

Guess what?  I found him.  I convinced him to get - lured him, one might say - in the car, but then I didn't know what to do.  I had him call his mom on my cell phone, since his had a dead battery, to tell her where he was and that he was okay.  And I kept driving.  Deeply paranoid and irrational, he refused to go home.  He had plans to get a motel room.  I kept driving.  We drove for two hours.  My husband got home and I looped back by to drop off my child.  "Are you sure you should be doing this?" He asked. And, of course, his meaning was clear.  It is not okay for a teacher to drive her fifteen-year old student around town at ten at night.

But I drove, because I was terrified he'd run again if I let him out or took him home, and because he was so clearly having a psychotic episode.  Finally, I took him to a Travelodge, and endured the supreme awkwardness of trying to help him get a room - him, not us.  It's okay if you laugh in horror here.  It really was that bad, and you won't be surprised to know we were refused.  I was fully aware of the security cameras, and could picture the headlines.  My plan was to get him in the room, then get in my car and call mom, or the police, or anyone.  I was in a tenuous spot of having his trust and needing to break trust for his own good.  

We sat in the parked car outside the Travelodge while I stalled.  Finally, I mouthed "Call the police!" to the lady in the lobby and, two squad cars and four officers with guns drawn later, was able to turn him over to their gentle and amazingly loving care.  He was admitted to the hospital, where he stayed in the psych ward for two weeks, and he did okay.  I believe he is still doing okay.

I broke, by any stretch of the definition, many, many boundaries between teacher and student.  Luckily, mom sent me a lovely bouquet and thanked me for saving her son, but it could have turned out so differently, and I knew I was taking that risk at the time.  I thought, as teachers do at points in their career, that my job meant nothing when compared to this child's life.

From my fifth grade teacher who drove me home when a migraine left me incapacitated on the side of the road in 1978, to a colleague who took an abused child in to her guest room when there was nowhere else for her to go, to my eleventh grade history teacher who wrote me a note that said, "I love you," during a difficult time in my life, to the teacher who took her student shopping for a prom dress, we all cross the line sometimes and when we do it, we fully know we are risking everything for a child.

It's invisible because we'll get in trouble if we tell.  But I know there are people out there who wouldn't have made it if a teacher hadn't risked reputation and career to reach out.  


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You've done an amazing job highlighting some of the excruciatingly difficult decisions teachers make. Most teachers got into teaching because they care about kids. When teachers see a student in trouble, they are often in a position to help, and are extremely motivated to help because that is why they love teaching. When is what you do as a teacher helpful? When is it not helpful? What lines do you cross? Tough questions.

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