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Teaching is Emotionally Expensive

Tom, a veteran teacher, reflects with some of his peers on some of his teaching experiences over the years. He contends that teaching is "people work," with soft skills determining one’s success in the field. He recounts two particularly troubling incidents, that regretfully, have caused him to conclude that teaching is emotionally expensive.


Tom, a veteran teacher of some 20 years, wiped his eye and responded to his colleague’s question. "You asked me what is hard about teaching. I’ll tell you! It’s emotionally expensive! Teaching is people work. When you interview for a job, they check your grades and test scores, but in real life, it’s the soft skills that determine whether you’ll be successful. Soft skills can’t be taught."

"Not long ago," he continued, "a wonderful child in my class died. Everyone liked him. You couldn’t help but like him. He watched his brother die of a congenital neurological disease, then went through the same slow, debilitating death himself. All the while he laughed and taught us how to live with his problems. He was a real hero! I taught him in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grade in my 9-week health class. He died during his 9th-grade year. The last day he was at school, we knew it would be his last. I mean, it was obvious. I wanted to tell him good-bye but couldn’t bring myself to do it. I hoped I would get another chance but he died soon after. Everyone else had gone down and talked to him, but I just couldn’t. Later, after he died, I heard that he asked where I was and I felt horrible. I was so disappointed in myself."

Tom and a small group of his colleagues were discussing their profession philosophically, a discourse he seemed to enjoy. As Tom shared his stories about teaching, his colleagues listened and nodded agreement to many of his statements. They also expressed compassion when he berated himself for being unable to deal with a student’s death. They admired Tom for his open and candid manner, his concern for kids, his intellectual curiosity, and his high standards for himself. They wanted to comfort him.

Tom had taught in a number of different settings including juvenile justice, special education, and high school. His current position--his favorite--is in a middle school that traditionally serves low-income students. As in all of his previous positions, the kids are the main reason he likes his job. He sees himself as a real child advocate.

As a child, Tom did not do well in school. In his opinion, much of the schoolwork he was given was useless. His teachers never understood and appreciated him the way that he wants to understand and appreciate his students. He earned his teaching credentials at the age of 38 after trying a number of different occupations including business, entertainment, and the armed services. Over the years he has often had the most challenging kids placed in his classes and he feels he was able to help them. He developed a number of different ways of making school "not seem like school--at least traditional school." In his opinion, teaching is the most noble and important of professions. He knows what a difference a teacher can make in a child’s life.

Tom shudders when he remembers an incident that could have cost him his job. It was 6 or 7 years ago, but he still regrets the incident. It happened when Tom called a student’s parents in for a conference. It started off rather typically with both parents (mother and stepfather) present. Tom thanked them for taking time off from work to meet with him. He proceeded to express his concern about Damon, explaining that he was not doing well and was generally being uncooperative in class. In Tom’s opinion, Damon seemed quite capable, but some days was sullen and belligerent. Tom described his efforts to engage Damon in a discussion about his behavior and to elicit Damon’s positive involvement in class but none of his efforts had been effective.

Damon’s mother said nothing, looking at the table rather than at Tom or her husband. Damon’s stepfather, however, shook his head knowingly.

"I know what you mean," he volunteered. "The little son of a bitch made me so mad last week I made him sleep in the garage for a few nights. That taught him a lesson!"

Knowing that it had been below freezing on those nights, something in Tom just snapped. Before he knew what he was doing, Tom leaned over the table and grabbed Mr. Flander’s shirt, growling, "It was so cold last week, how could you do that to Damon!"

Damon’s father countered by shoving Tom back and a brief scuffle ensued. Tom, however, quickly gained control and released Mr. Flanders, apologizing immediately.

"I’m very sorry, Mr. Flanders. That was not professional behavior on my part, but treating your son that way was inexcusable!" Realizing that he was still extremely angry, Tom walked out of the room for a moment to cool off. When he returned, the Flanders were preparing to leave.

"You’ll be hearing from my lawyer!" Mr. Flanders threatened, shaking his fist at Tom.

Tom was so upset about what had transpired that it was hard for him to think clearly. "And you will be hearing from the authorities concerning the abuse of your son!" he reciprocated. He knew that his reaction could cost him his job. He felt, however, that Mr. Flanders understood his reaction. In fact, Tom’s instincts told him that his aggressive response was the only gesture Mr. Flanders would understand.

The problem was that Tom was disappointed with himself. He did not believe in aggression as a way of solving problems, and he certainly didn’t believe in behaving like a bully. Tom saw Mr. Flanders as just that, a bully, and he would never purposefully model such abhorrent behavior! "Where did that reaction come from?" he asked himself as he reflected on his disappointing lack of control.

Nothing came of the Flanders’ threat. Tom did not receive a visit from their lawyer and he did not report them for abusing their son. Shortly after the event, Damon and his family moved out of the district and Tom heard nomore from them. However, for months and even years afterwards, Tom thought about the incident. He has often wondered why he snapped as he did and he has berated himself, asking how he could have behaved in a way that was so inconsistent with his values and beliefs about teaching.

As a result of his self-doubts, he has concluded that he should not risk getting involved with his students’ sad stories. Prior to the incident with Damon’s parents, students came to Tom often to talk about their problems. After Damon, Tom continued to care about his students and listen to their concerns, but he put more distance between himself and them. He knew he couldn’t risk another incident that might jeopardize his teaching career, so he began referring his students to the school counselors when he heard stories suggesting real abuse. The cost of knowing and caring about the inhumane treatment that was a reality for many children was just too emotionally expensive, especially since there are always more children walking down the hall who need his help.


Discussion/Study Questions

  1. List what you learned/know about each of the characters in the case.
  2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?
  3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

Additional Questions

  1. What do you think about Tom’s responses to his student’s death? How do you understand his reaction to Mr. Flanders?
  2. What do you think of Tom's conclusion that he should not deal with students' personal problems anymore? Is he wise to refer students with problems to school counselor's?
  3. What was the most problematic consequence of Tom’s outburst? Was he compromised in his ability to help the child because he didn’t dare report child abuse?
  4. Which is the more serious mistake: to refer a child  you suspect of being abused who is not being abused or to not refer a child for abuse because you lack strong support for a referral?
  5. What do you think about Tom’s conclusion that teaching is emotionally expensive?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to students with exceptional learning needs.

Importance and benefits of communication and collaboration that promotes interaction with students, parents, and school and community personnel.

Other Areas:

Diversity and dynamics of family, schools, and communities as related to effective instruction for individuals with exceptional learning needs.


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