What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way
In the fall of 2017, I was asked to do a training for the Belvidere School District middle school staff, students and parents. Below is an article written by an 8th grade teacher who took one of the concepts (The Obstacle is the Way) and had a break through with one of her more challenging students. Ms. Nash thank you for sharing your story and journey with Bunny.
Please take the time to read this story about transformation for this gifted teacher and her special student/teacher.
Choose to be the Light in others Darkness
by Jen Nash
Everyone who knows me knows that I love quotes. I am the ultimate quote gal. My desk is surrounded by quotes. My students get a “Quote of the Week” every week. I have a quote for every occasion. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I connect a life event, a story, or a person to a particular quote. So in October of 2017 when I attended a SIP Day session led by Kevin Polky and heard this quote, it stuck with me. I didn’t know why, but I knew it would be meaningful to me. Here’s the quote:
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
I pondered this quote over the long weekend, and for some reason it popped into my head daily for weeks after that. I had been assigned what has probably been my most challenging group of students ever (and I’ve been doing this job for a long time!) Have you seen the movie Paper Tigers? This is my paper tiger class. Almost all have a significant number of ACES (adverse childhood experiences). Many have suffered pain and loss that is unimaginable. Most struggle with behavior, coping skills, and overall resilience. I had just begun reading and learning about social/emotional learning, trauma, and resilience, but this group hit the ground running from day one. It was trial by fire every day. To put it bluntly, they were hell on wheels. By Columbus Day weekend when I attended Kevin’s learning session on resilience, I was already exhausted. I teach 8th grade instructional special education. I don’t have an ED classroom, yet I was running it as one. I have no training in psychology or social work, yet I was providing it. I had reached out to our school guidance counselors, our school social worker, and an outside agency called Remedies. All were incredibly supportive and helpful. And yet, here I was feeling like it should be March, and it was only October. It was destined to be a long and arduous year, or so I thought at the time. My overarching thought every day, multiple times a day, was this: how could I get these kids to learn and achieve while they were dealing with the overwhelming pain of just being them? Why me? I was ill-equipped. It wasn’t my job. I hadn’t signed up for this. The impediment to action advances action.
Which brings me to “Bunny.” Often sweet, funny, and adorable Bunny with the million-dollar megawatt smile. Who turned on a dime. “You ugly!” she would often call out at classmates, staff, or random students passing by. “You stupid! You fat!” she would venomously spit out at classmates when she got angry. Prone to verbal and physical altercations, it wasn’t unusual for her to require separation from peers who “triggered” her. At other times, she would withdraw, sitting silently, huge painful eyes leaking, hot tears streaming down her cheeks for no apparent reason. During these episodes, she was unable to speak, unable to articulate what was bothering her so. She sucked her thumb, pulled out her own hair, and would often “melt down,” flinging books and other objects all over my classroom floor then curling up in the fetal position beside the mess she had created.
I’d like to tell you that I immediately loved her and took her under my wing. I didn’t. I argued with her. I ignored her negative behaviors whenever possible, and I gave her consequences, discipline, structure. I frequently vented and fumed to my dear friend and social worker, Melissa, “Why do I have this girl in my class? She’s a behavior issue! She’s babyish and needy and immature! I want a change of placement. She needs a different program. I want her re-evaluated. I can’t possibly address all of this behavior. And she’s low. She can barely read!” I was loud. And obnoxious. And oh-so-wrong. Bunny needed me. And I didn’t know it yet, but I needed her.
By the time Fridays roll around, I’m pretty worn out. At the beginning of the school year, it wasn’t uncommon to find me crying in my car all the way home. On one of these Friday afternoons, I turned up my music, began my drive, and started to ruminate on Bunny, of all people. Why was she so immature? Why were her emotions so volatile? And why wasn’t she able to recover from a setback, no matter how minor it was? How was I going to put up with this for an entire school year, given some of the other students I had in the mix? And all of a sudden– my quote! What stands in the way…
All of a sudden, I got out of my own head and tried to put myself in hers. She acted babyish. Why? I knew that Bunny had been through trauma as a baby and young child, extreme trauma that I won’t write about here. Suffice it to say, she had been severely neglected, deprived of food and milk and her mother’s arms. She hadn’t been loved or cared for or kept safe. Life was unsure, scary, and chaotic. It had been filled with pain and disappointment and unmet needs. I was dealing with a 3-year-old in a 14-year-old body. It made sense! What stands in the way…
I didn’t know what she had been exposed to before birth, but I knew these things about her early life. Cognitively, she was low, probably for all the reasons I just listed. Her memory and retention aren’t good, and she truly struggles to process information. That makes teaching her harder. But it makes Bunny’s life easier in a way. She doesn’t remember a lot of details about her earlier life. She doesn’t have a lot of painful memories about what she’s lost, and that’s such a gift to her! She doesn’t have to carry all of that painful baggage– for her, it’s all gone. She’s an in-the-moment kind of girl. What stands in the way becomes the way.
I literally had chills up my spine thinking about it. I have lectured so many students about how overcoming their struggles made them stronger and wiser. This was different. It was the proverbial “light bulb moment.” And it mattered… because when we returned to school the following Monday, things between Bunny and me had changed. I had changed. That fast. It was noticeable. It is literally the one and only time in my life that anything has ever changed instantaneously, and this is why: I stopped looking at Bunny’s issues as stumbling blocks in my way, and I started seeing them as her path to survival. That made all the difference! Once I took myself out of it, I could look at Bunny as a person. What did she need from me? From our class? How could I get her to take ownership for her behavior? How could I help her learn to control herself, open up and show her sweet side? How could I honor what she had been through without allowing it to become her excuse? Once I started looking at her situation from this perspective instead of looking at her as a problem I needed to remediate, it was like magic happened. And I’m old and sometimes cynical, but there it was: MAGIC. There it was: LOVE.
My encouragement for all of you– and my challenge to you as well– is to look for those behaviors that upset, anger, or irritate you in your students. But then look beyond the outward behavior to figure out the why. How does this behavior help the student survive? What reward do they get from it? How does it benefit them? The reasons will give you insight. The insight will help you figure out how to use those behaviors positively or replace them with others that are positive. In the meantime, you will grow a bond with your student. You’ll be “that one teacher” who really gets them. What stands in the way becomes the way.
As for me and my little Bunny? She’s come miles since the beginning of the year. No more meltdowns, and her crying spells are shorter and less frequent. When something upsets her, she’s now usually able to process it and put it aside so she can carry on with the rest of her day. It’s not perfect; we still have a rough day every once in a while, but there are so many more great days than there are difficult ones now. I am beyond proud of her and all the progress she’s made! She’s getting ready to complete 8th grade; I’m getting ready to let her go. And the tears I cry now are because I’m going to miss her. Yes, really. She’s made me a better, more effective teacher and a better, more compassionate human being. I will always be grateful to her for that. And every day, at some point, she comes and gives me a hug, and it usually goes something like this, “Ms. Nash, I love you!”
“I love you too, Bunny!”
“I’m gonna come sit by you. You pretty,” (the ultimate compliment, meaning she likes me).
“Thank you so much. Pull up a chair right here by my desk, sweetie, and let’s check your work.”
“Imma stay right by you.”
Bunny and I found our way.