“Do you want to do an extra, bonus maze, or save it for later?” I ask my second-grade student, whom we’ll call Rachel.
“Later! Later!” Rachel chants.
“Ok. We’ll do it next time,” I say as I tuck it into her folder.
“You never know…” she says with an impish grin. This is one of her favorite phrases.
“Well, yeah. I guess I could decide not to do it next time. Or I could forget.”
“Or,” she cuts her eyes to the side and continues grinning, “One of us could die.”
I think I see where this is going, so I say, “Oh, that would be very sad. I’d be really sad if you died. And if I died, well, I guess I’d be dead, so I wouldn’t feel anything.”
She nods. This isn’t really what she meant. I bite.
“What about you? How would you feel if one of us died?”
“Well, if I died, I wouldn’t feel anything.” She somehow manages to look even more impish than before. “And if you died…well……I would have less work.”
Uh huh. That’s what I thought. Doing my best to reflect her feelings accurately while reframing the, uh, extreme nature of this statement, I say, “Ah. So you don’t like doing so much work, so you wouldn’t mind if I disappeared?”
“I guess I wouldn’t care.”
As I see it, I had a few choices at this point. I could take this personally and be hurt. I could get angry at the disrespect—maybe she has Oppositional Defiant Disorder! I could laugh at the lack of subtlety of this message (my natural urge). Or I could listen respectfully and make sure she felt heard, as I would with any less drastic emotional statement. Luckily this was a non-triggered moment for me, so I was able to choose the last response.
There have been times when I would have taken this dramatic statement as a personal rejection. You know those tough moments we all have some times, the kind where you wonder why you ever thought you could possibly help your students, when you feel every other educator in the world has some secret sauce that you lack, when you start thinking that maybe being a florist would have been the best choice after all?
At those times, I comfort myself by thinking, “Well, at least my students know I care deeply about them.” And though it makes me cringe to write it out explicitly, the unspoken corollary is, “And they like me.” I have to admit it: I am often emotionally invested in being the educational therapist that everyone loves to go to.
I was lucky enough to be part of an intimate, nine-month long study group of educational therapists working with Dr. Ann Gordon, PhD psychologist and Board Certified Educational Therapist, exploring the experience of transference and counter-transference in our work with kiddos. The cliff-notes version: kids often project their stuff about their parents on us (transference), and this projection often elicits emotions and responses from us that mirror their treatment at home from their parents (counter-transference). In other words, if all of a sudden you find yourself atypically annoyed at a kiddo and you can’t quite put your finger on why, it may be that the kid is unconsciously eliciting this annoyance from you because that is the most common response the kid experiences from her or his parents.
For our part, because we educators are humans too (sucks, right? I thought the letters after my name would give me zen-like super-powers of self-awareness and calm), we bring our own stuff to the relationship. Sometimes we get stuck in projecting too, either onto the kiddo or onto their parents.
In this Transference/Counter-transference group, the theme that came up for me again and again is that I had nigh infinite patience with any kid and any behavior–as long as I feel they like me. If they like me, it’s you and me against the world, baby. If they don’t like me, then try as I might, I have trouble finding my groove, feel pressured to perform, and have much less patience than I wanted to have.
Simply put: I want my students to like me. On those tough days, their positive feelings about me and our work together make me feel effective and helpful and, well, ok. If they don’t like me, I am left with doubt–am I a good enough educational therapist? A good enough person? Am I ok?
These are my feelings and my needs, and I know how important it is to take care of them myself (with friends, family, mentors, colleagues and other peers). I know how unfair it is to make my issues into my students’ issues. It takes a LOT of work, though, to not sometimes, somehow, usually implicitly, try to demand that my students like our work together, and by extension, me. As long as I am calm and centered, I understand in the core of my being that I don’t want them to feel like they have to pretend to love educational therapy just to satisfy me and make me feel good about the job I am doing.
You know how sometimes we tell children, “You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it?” Heck–sometimes I have to tell myself the same thing (cough cough, invoicing parents, cough). Well, it is important to listen to our own words when we find ourselves saying that. It’s true. But far from being a line meant to gain compliance, we need to honestly be giving our kiddos permission to not like what we are doing. Or even us. Once we give them that space, we can both move on and just do it.
Now, I don’t know if the group is what helped me with Rachel, or whether it was her impishness or her ingenuousness, her youth or her mild autism, but with her, I felt calm and centered and could look at her behavior for what it was and what it wasn’t: it was communication, and it wasn’t about me. I was able to recognize that Rachel needed this feeling to be heard and validated, as all humans need all their feelings to be heard and validated.
So, the next time a student expresses less than enthusiastic feelings for your time together or for you, take a deep breath, vent to your grown-up friends, call on your most zen-like superpowers, and make the calm and centered choice.