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Too Attached

Pam Todd was an experienced and exceptional teacher who brought out the best in her student Juan. Was her approach appropriate? Mr. Lang, the school psychologist didn’t think so. He thought Pam was overstepping her boundaries as Juan’s teacher.


Pam Todd was an experienced teacher with a master’s degree in special education. She found it very rewarding to work with students whom others found challenging and unmotivated. Pam had worked for 11 years at Long Center, a separate school facility for students with severe behavioral and emotional problems. Students were placed at Long when they were unsuccessful in other less restrictive placements.

Pam’s experience was tested the year she met Juan. Juan had been removed from his neighborhood school and placed at Long after beating another student so severely that he was hospitalized with a broken jaw. When asked what happened, Juan could not explain why he got so angry. He would start to cry and say he was sorry.

Juan was a tall, large-framed young man. As large as he was, there was still a vulnerability about him. He lived in inner-city public housing with his grandmother, brother, and sister. His mother was in jail on drug-related charges.

After Juan was placed on Pam’s class roster, she would watch for him each morning as students got off the bus, but he was never there. Pam and the school’s social worker decided to visit Juan’s home to let him know they really wanted him to come to school. When they arrived, Pam introduced herself to Juan’s grandmother and explained, "I want to show Juan what the school is like and then if he wants to return home I will bring him back."

Juan, who had been standing quietly in the background, nodded his head in approval when Pam asked, "Are you willing to come with me?"

As they started to drive off, Pam had a sense that something was wrong.

"Do you have anything on you?" she inquired, maintaining a smile on her face. "Any guns or knives, marijuana, crack, or cocaine?"

"How did you know that?" Juan inquired, half startled, half impressed. (Later, Juan explained he had two joints in his pocket that he had forgotten about until Pam reminded him.)

"If you have anything you will need to leave it at home, or I could get into trouble," explained Pam.

Juan quietly got out of the van and went into the house, returning quickly to begin the trek to Long. Pam and the social worker now knew that whatever Juan had to bring back home was something they would have to deal with in the classroom. As Pam always said, "Assessment is not just formal."

Juan’s first visit to Long lasted only an hour and a half, but Pam learned that Juan was a good football player, and she even saw an occasional smile. When she brought him home, she promised a bus would be there to pick him up the next morning.

The next morning, Juan came into the classroom looking "ready." Through the first few weeks, for the most part, he worked like a model student. There were, however, occasions when Juan would come to school moody and spend much of the day with his head on his desk. Sometimes he would stay in the corner and if anyone would go near him he would say, "I’m a vulture. Don’t come near me or I will eat your flesh." He would snarl, bare his teeth, and make claws with his hands.

The psychologist, Mr. Lang, believed this behavior was a defense mechanism developed in response to an insecure childhood in which Juan felt he needed to protect himself. Sometimes these bouts would last an hour, but slowly Juan became more familiar with the classroom and staff and the episodes decreased.

Assessment results showed that Juan had average intelligence. A behavior rating scale completed at his previous school indicated that Juan had difficulties in the areas of compliance, peer relations, and dealing with frustration. Achievement data indicated that Juan scored at least one standard deviation below the mean in all areas except math, where he scored in the average range. His previous teachers and Pam believed, however, that this was not a true indication of his ability. When Juan applied himself, he could produce above average classwork. He loved praise and seemed to get satisfaction from completing classwork.

On many occasions, Juan took lead positions in class role-playing. His favorite roles were a doctor and a preacher. He would take Pam’s leather case outside the classroom to begin his role-play.

Knock, knock.

"Who’s there?" one of the students would inquire.

"This is Doctor Juan." The students would invite him in, and Doctor Juan would talk about his life as a doctor.

"I have a very nice house, a house on the water. I have two wonderful children and a lovely wife." Juan would go on describing for the students in great detail his life as a successful doctor. He could describe the house he wanted to build down to the landscaping. He had quite a vivid image of what he wanted.

He also liked to play the role of a preacher. He knew the Bible well from going to church with his grandmother, and it became clear through his sermons to the other students that he knew right from wrong. He would often offer a Bible verse to illustrate every point he wanted to make. Pam videotaped the role-plays, and the students enjoyed watching them. They especially enjoyed how Juan blended traditional church hymns with a Michael Jackson style.

Slowly, Juan began to open up about his home life. He began to talk about his mother’s drug use. He also talked about being left alone in the dark when he was a child. As he talked about his memories, it was clear that they evoked fears and he often responded by pretending he was a vulture. By the end of the school year, Juan’s grades improved. The vulture disappeared, and Juan was a warm and affectionate young man.

Everyone at Long agreed that Juan should go back to general education even though they were going to miss him. They didn’t want him to return to his old school where he had a bad reputation, so they recommended a different high school to give him a fresh start. His program at the new high school included two periods in a class for students with emotional handicaps.

He started out doing well. He joined the football team, and occasionally went back to Long to visit. Sometimes he would call Pam at home to check in. The psychologist, Mr. Lang, was concerned about Juan’s continued involvement with Pam and her classroom aide, Linda.

"How often does Juan contact you and Linda?" inquired Mr. Lang. "I am concerned that Juan is dependent on the two of you."

"He calls only once in a while. Is it so wrong for him to keep in touch?" replied Pam.

"No, but I understand that your classroom aide has been using Juan as a baby-sitter and has been inviting him to family celebrations. That is not appropriate. The climate you create in the classroom and your attachment to your students encourages this kind of behavior. You’re displacing family," Mr. Lang argued.

Pam replied, "I agree with you on the significance of the role of the family in a child’s life, but I am not sure I agree that our maintaining contact with Juan is detrimental to him or his relationship with his family. I certainly would not want to do that! How would you suggest we deal with this situation?"

"You could simply start refusing phone calls. Let your answering machine take calls, and try to be short with Juan if you do talk to him."

Pam and her aide followed through with Mr. Lang’s suggestions. A few weeks passed and they heard that Juan’s behavior had  started to deteriorate at school. He was suspended for fighting with another student and was kicked off the football team. He was arrested for trespassing, and eventually was sent back to Long Center.

Immediately upon returning to Long, Juan was once again the model student. He would orient new students to the program and teach his classmates social skills and etiquette. He also took on the responsibility of pulling together lessons for Black History Month.

Six months passed, and it was again time for Juan to leave Long. A meeting was scheduled to coordinate his return to the general education program at the high school. That very day Juan was arrested for damaging community property. He was held in jail for 21 days, which postponed the meeting. When he was released, the meeting was re-scheduled.

Mrs. Porter, from the high school, called Pam just before Juan’s re-entry meeting. "We are concerned about Juan’s returning to school here. Some of the staff are fearful that Juan’s behavior will escalate and someone will get hurt."

"I appreciate your concern, Mrs. Porter. Let me take some time to think about how we can help with Juan’s transition. I’ll get right back to you."

Just then, Mr. Lang walked in. "That was Mrs. Porter. The staff at the school are concerned about Juan’s return. I said I would get back to her with some ideas about how to facilitate or assist Juan’s transition," Pam said to Mr. Lang.

"Well, you know what I have to say about it. I can’t emphasis enough how important it is that school personnel not replace family. That is what you and your aide have been doing. By maintaining your relationship with Juan you are putting him at a great disadvantage. A successful transition requires a student to move on. You need to make sure you don’t hinder that process."

"My contact with Juan outside of school time is only on the phone," Pam said defensively.

"Keeping in touch is one thing, but it is important that your relationship with him stay professional. You and Linda should only be a part of his school life. It is important that you not overstep your bounds. Teachers and aides should have a distinctly different role in a child’s life, different from family and friends," Mr. Lang continued.

Pam was troubled by Mr. Lang’s position and thought to herself,

"We have to ease Juan’s transition or we will just be setting him up for failure. How can I do that without being too attached?"


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. Do you think Mr. Lang’s position was valid? Why or why not?
  2. What do you think are Pam’s rights and responsibilities in terms of Juan’s educational program and transition? What are the rights and responsibilities of the other school staff members and teachers involved?
  3. What do you think is the nature of appropriate relationships between teachers and students? How can those relationships effect a student’s success/failure in school?
  4. What could Pam do to prepare Juan for the transition before he leaves Long?
  5. How could Pam work with the staff in Juan’s new designated placement to develop an individual student program for him?
  6. What education plan would you develop for Juan?


CEC Competency/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

Major Areas:

Variations in beliefs, traditions, and values across cultures within society and the effect of the relationships between child, family, and schooling.

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

Developing individual student programs working in collaboration with team members.

Other Areas:

Teacher attitudes and behaviors that positively or negatively influence student behavior.

Educational implications of characteristics of various exceptionalities.


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