I think the majority of my middle school students liked health class. No other teacher talked to them about the characteristics of healthy relationships and why advertisers sold products with a side of sexuality. Memorizing diagrams of reproductive parts definitely gave a different view than the real life versions some of them were exploring.
Even in my reading classes my students knew I’d talk straight with them. Sometimes students would hang out in my class during lunch just to chat with me. It made my day.
They knew we’d talk about all sorts of things that actually mattered to them at that moment.
Maybe that’s why they trusted me enough to divulge uncertainties or secrets — personal conversations after school or during these lunch hour chats.
Sometimes their secrets were troubling — like when a 13-year-old girl told me in a note that she needed to get another pregnancy test since she’d started dating her 16-year-old boyfriend.
Sometimes their personal life became not so secret. One morning I had to call the police after a student in foster care exploded and refused to calm down. I had just handed her a note saying her mom would not be coming to her scheduled supervised visit — for the fourth time in a row. Her pain and anger was heartbreaking.
I remember one student in particular that was a good kid at heart although he tried to come off as tough to his peers. He was planning on dropping out of school so he could make money working. He stayed behind to chat with me during his lunch hour. I was trying to encourage him to do some after school make up work in his English class so that he wouldn’t fail. He really didn’t like his English teacher, but eventually he promised he would go.
The next day I followed up with his teacher and was annoyed to hear that he hadn’t made up any of his work even though he’d been there. In exasperation I asked him why he’d bothered going after school when he didn’t even do the work.
I’ll never forget his words.
He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “I promised YOU I would go there. I didn’t promise HER anything.”
That floored me.
What did he find in my class that created that kind of trust?
While I was going to school to become a health teacher, I really only had one objective. I wanted to give real-life information and insight that would help kids make better choices. Choices that would lead them away from addictions or self-destructive behaviors or cause unnecessary challenges and hardships as they were growing up.
I wanted to inspire them to look to the future and find a path of healthy values and behaviors that would allow those future dreams to happen.
Becoming a school teacher seemed like a natural way to achieve this.
But even though I was trying hard to talk to these kids about what really mattered in life, I felt like I wasn’t being successful.
As a teacher, I could teach kids solid information that was backed by experts and legislation. But since I was not their parent, I didn’t have the authority to talk to these kids about how to interpret this information through the lens of their own personal and family values.
Maybe it was my inexperience as a new teacher, but I felt that I had to be careful to only give research backed statistics about behaviors that contributed to particular outcomes instead of values AND behaviors that contributed to a particular quality of life.
As a teacher it was hard to define that line — especially when students asked for answers. I wanted to stop giving only information and start helping them gain real life lessons – no matter how complicated or controversial the topic.
I loved my students. I hated sitting on the sidelines when they were confused and hurt.
Sometimes I wanted to pull them aside and talk to them like a parent.
I talked to them the best I could about choices and consequences, bodies and sexuality, work ethic and achievement, love and healthy relationships, and values that increased genuine happiness.
I was concerned when I saw their inexperience lead them to say and do things that I knew would hurt them. I felt frustrated by the lack of parental interest and guidance some of them expressed as I listened to them talk about their home life.
They needed to know that there were adults that were rooting for them.
I only taught for one year before circumstances took me away from the classroom.
About 6 months after I stopped teaching, I came across a poster taped to a local restaurant’s door. The world momentarily stood still as a flood of emotions came tumbling out of me.
The poster was a picture of one of my students. She was missing.
She had moved into a new foster home part way through the school year and was in my class that semester. She had talked to me a little bit about how her new foster family wanted to adopt her, but she didn’t know how she felt about it. She never really opened up to me despite my efforts to be there for her.
And then she was gone. I don’t know if she was ever found.
I felt devastated because I knew I had failed her at such an important time. I remembered her sadness and her loneliness, and my heart hurt.
Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t helped her.
It made me start to wonder if my time spent teaching had helped any of my students.
I kept these thoughts and feelings in the back of my mind as time moved on.
Then one day I came across a former student, a senior in high school at that time, playing at the park with her four year old daughter. I quickly did the math and realized her daughter was born the school year after I had taught her.
We visited for a little while. I learned she would be graduating from high school and had been accepted into nursing school that fall.
Talking with her reminded me of a personal conversation I had with her one day during class several years earlier.
She had been suspended from school for bringing alcohol. She was pretty subdued and listened intently as we talked about what she genuinely wanted for her future self. I remember telling her she had so much potential, but only she could make the choice to fight for an awesome future.
I thought of the challenges she probably faced as a young teenage mom. I was excited to hear of the choices she was now making for a successful future.
I started to think that our conversation long ago actually had helped her when she really needed direction.
After years of feeling like I should have done things differently as a teacher, I suddenly felt some hope.
It wasn’t necessarily being a teacher that had helped change perspective.
It was the fact that I had answered questions and talked openly and genuinely with these kids about things that mattered to them. They knew I would listen. They knew they could trust me. And they knew that I would give them information and insight to help them figure things out.
And then it hit me.
I needed to help FAMILIES start talking.
These kids wanted to talk to their parents but didn’t feel like their parents were interested. The problem was understanding how to start the conversation.
So many challenges could be avoided if families had open, appropriate conversations at every age.
Genuine and consistent conversations helped change this student’s perspective. Perspective is what helped her identify and internalize personal values. And values inspired her to be guided by behaviors that shaped a happier human existence.
It was so simple. I began to see what I needed to do.
I created Be That Place to be the answer.