When I was a teacher thirty years ago, one of my assignments was as a long-term substitute. The teacher left lots of engaging assignments, and I did my best to implement them. The students had a break from their “real” teacher, and I felt little pressure to invest myself in the assignments because I knew I’d be leaving. That attitude, and my subsequent behavior, could have brought on tragic consequences.
Shirley was a pretty, soft-spoken girl in this class. She rarely smiled and I sensed that she was unhappy. But I left her alone. I had twenty-three other students to attend to. It was two weeks before I asked her if she had a problem she wanted to talk about, and she broke down in tears. I was relieved that she was so able to open up. She said that she was treated very badly at home. Shirley lived with a much older sister and her children, and this sister resented her living there. I asked her if there was any physical abuse and she said no; they just made her feel like she wasn’t welcome. Shirley said she was so miserable she wanted to die. I told Shirley I should tell the counselor about this, but she begged me not to say anything because she was afraid it would make things worse. This is where I made a huge error in judgment. Partly because I lacked experience with child abuse and partly because I had promised Shirley I wouldn’t tell, I naively hoped that the problem would correct itself.
But for three days I didn’t sleep well. I had a terrible sense of misgiving, and finally realized that I had to tell Shirley’s counselor what she had told me. There was immediate intervention, and Shirley was placed in a foster home where she eventually finished high school.
The weight of those three days still burdens me sometimes when I think of how my poor judgment could have proved disastrous. The fact that I was a substitute in no way should have diminished my responsibility to my students. My inexperience would have been a poor excuse if anything had happened to Shirley. Needless to say, after that I was very vigilant with my students, and often went to their counselors with my concerns.
But a larger truth I realize now as I’m telling this story is that we teachers are all imperfect, vulnerable human beings who have been given a large and important responsibility to care for other people’s children. How we regard that responsibility is at least as important as what we do in the classroom. That is the lesson we learn. We will make mistakes. If we are good, well-intentioned people who strive to do our best, are open to critical reflection and can learn from those mistakes, then I believe the teaching profession is better off with us than without us. And that’s what making a difference is all about.