Dealing with students' personal problems and the teacher's personal life is a very complicated subject which should be approached with care and tact.

Young children will often rush into the classroom shouting out their news, or they may come up to the teacher during a break or simply hang around waiting for their chance to share something. Importantly, they only do this with adults they trust and what if they need to share something personal that we feel needs to be taken further? 

Ask an experienced colleague, the home-room teacher, the school administration, the school psychologist for help at once; if needed the school administration may seek official help from the local educational authorities and child services. In any case try to keep a straight or even a blank face, no matter what you may hear. You may be the child’s last or indeed the only resort!

If you know that a student trusts you, and you are confident that you can solve a concrete problem, do. This does not depend on your age, experience, family status but rather on your own character and on the presence or absence of relevant structures in your country. For instance, when I found myself again and again in the situation when a child requested help, I knew that there was no other mechanism in place at the time. In other words it was either me or nobody. And in my family we have always followed the simple rule formulated by Dame Agatha Christie: “What’s wrong with helping those who are OK?” Very often youngsters need a kind word, a minimum of support from at least one adult. That may be enough for them to get out of a scrape or to feel confidence in their abilities.

Luckily for me I grew up in a large family; my grandmother had been a headmistress since the age of 24. She taught me this important thing: we teachers go to bed and wake up with students, figuratively speaking. If one has a family, one should watch it so that the problems one encounters at work do not destroy one’s personal life. In other words, we come across many situations when our students may share their problems with us; we can try to help only if we feel up to it, if we know what to do and have some coping mechanisms in place. The following are in no way rules and regulations; rather those are examples of what I came against, and the measures I took in each concrete situation. None of my colleagues knew about those difficulties, or if they did know they stayed away from them.

Two interesting facts

  • In the quarter century of teaching I accumulated about a dozen children of various ages, in addition to my own three kids. It started when I was very young; my grandmother explained to me that students would come up to me and trust me to help them, and I took her words as Gospel truth. Why? Because she was the same, so I had observed her performing acts of kindness since my early childhood. For instance during the war she took in several orphaned children, her pupils, and brought them up together with her own four children. Two of those orphans were ethnic Germans, and this fact alone taught all of us the meaning of the word “tolerance”.
     
  • When I worked at school I was well aware of my nickname: Mother. I was well respected for my knowledge; students and parents alike characterized me as strict but fair and kind. In a small town of course I was known to many families, and they were known to me because we had children of the same age. Well all those local families were fine so to speak. They spread the word about me I guess, and students who had problems learned that they could approach me and get some help.

Four different cases

  1. Imagine: six lessons done, you are tired, all you want is go home and be with your family. The class leaves – and you discover that one girl, 15, is hovering by her desk. “My mother told me she cannot provide for me anymore, what should I do?” One skill I learned perfectly, thanks to my own children is this: in any unexpected situation with kids try to keep a straight face. I asked her some questions, like, was there anybody else, any other adult in the picture? Her father, it turned out, had left many years ago; he lived in another city with his new family. The girl was a very good student and at the time I was actually looking at an international program for seniors intending to suggest that she try for it. I took her to the school cafeteria for dinner, elicited a few salient facts and told her to go back home. I called her father long-distance using the number she gave me – this fact alone told me that at least he stayed in touch. He came. Sadly the mother was diagnosed with a mental disorder and put into an asylum. The girl finished the academic year, with my help, and went away for her final years on the international scholarship.
     
  2. A girl, 14, again very talented, came to my class. I soon discovered that after school she stayed to wash the floors, clean up the cafeteria and help sort the library books. She was paid a small salary. It turned out that her parents lost their jobs and just stayed home; she tried to provide for her three younger siblings. It took a while to sort out the situation and arrange for some real help like the dole, children’s subsidies; I also organized a community drive to get enough clothes and shoes for the kids. The girl was a child herself, so she simply did not know about the existing programs.
     
  3. One of my students lost her parents in a car accident. Her sister, 18, became her guardian while a freshman at the university. They were alright financially; all they needed was knowledge of how to go about many things starting with a special larger scholarship for the elder girl and substantial benefits from the social services for the younger one.
     
  4. Some of the former children whom I had helped in their hour of need are now grown and married, with children of their own. When they visit me they always tell me the same story: how they first came to our home, how my children greeted them as friends, and how I gave them very good meals. “Do you remember how you gave us pies and cakes to go?” Actually I don’t remember, but I know that their memory is true because that is what I always do. Sometimes all it takes is a kind word, a good simple meal and the ability to listen.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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