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Teachers work in many different environments: charter schools, private schools, or public schools. We all have our own opinions about school choice, but my most interesting teaching environment was in the woods. Teaching adjudicated youth in a wilderness therapy center was where I learned more about myself than I ever knew possible, both as a teacher and a person.
[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"]Teaching in the woods is exactly what it sounds like. Click To Tweet
Teaching in the woods is exactly what it sounds like. Every morning, I would lock my keys up in the company’s safe, have my bag searched for inadvertent items that could be used against me as a weapon, and hike a mile down to my group’s campsite. As the group teacher, I worked with the counselors who lived with the group 24 hours a day. These counselors had goals for survival, professional therapists had goals for rehabilitation, and I had educational goals. The team approach was very effective in treating the whole child, considering what brought them to us was a complex combination of family life, school troubles, substance abuse, social issues, and more. Education took place at camp site, at the group cafeteria, by the river, on the trails, in canoes, and in a library, equipped with books and computers.
My group was composed of students who had committed minor offenses: drug charges, battery on a peer, gang involvement. We were not equipped to take serious offenders, nor were we expected to do so. Until one day, Jimmy (name changed) showed up with his charge of sexual battery on a child. Somehow he had slipped through the cracks of the screening system and onto my class roll, as nontraditional as that roll already was. My response to his presence was emotional for many reasons, as you can imagine. My intention was to present him with curriculum and not try to bond with him, as I was convinced that anyone who could hurt a child that way was unreachable and beyond my scope of “saving.”I was convinced that anyone who could hurt a child that way was unreachable and beyond my scope of “saving.” Click To Tweet
Jimmy was a talker. Oh. My. Goodness. What a talker he was. Typically when students talk nonstop, we look for ADHD, medications, and ways to assist with self-control. Jimmy had none. The counselors felt the same way that I did, and we all tried to limit our interactions with Jimmy, but he wasn’t having it. He needed to talk! So I bit the bullet and struck up a conversation with him one day as the group was walking on trails. He completely changed with just a little positive attention and an adult to listen to him. I learned that he had been molested himself. I learned that he was left to care for the child that he hurt and truly hadn’t known better until he got caught.
Ok, let’s stop. This sounds like an excuse, right? Jimmy was barely a teenager with no appropriate family support, physical abuse his entire life, and sexual behavior as a norm in the household. So the more I learned about Jimmy, the more I realized that the people in his life had failed him consistently. I began to believe that if he had ONE adult that believed in him, perhaps he could change.I began to believe that if he had ONE adult that believed in him, perhaps he could change. Click To Tweet
Turns out that Jimmy was completely illiterate. He couldn’t read anything except his own name. However, he knew a LOT about computers. In fact, Microsoft PowerPoint was a very new program at this time, and I was just learning its caveats. Jimmy was a PowerPoint expert, except that he was unable to write anything on the slides. He had memorized all the commands available at the top. This was our connection. He taught me PowerPoint, and I taught him to read. He was a quick study, too. Within a few weeks, he was pulling age appropriate books from the library shelves and working on a journal.
Jimmy became social with his peers and was more accepted by the counselors, who initially resented him terribly because of his offenses. He began to talk about his actions in group therapy, expressing remorse as he realized the true impact of his actions on the lives of others, including all of us: his peers, counselors, therapists, and teacher. He began to examine his childhood and family’s lifestyle, comparing it to the group discussions and to the books and articles that he was reading, devouring them like water to a man in the desert. Jimmy began to change.
All camp stays must come to an end, and Jimmy’s was a myriad of emotions for all of us. We were so proud of his growth in all areas, but we feared his response to his return to an environment that even he recognized as terribly dysfunctional. He began to cry at night and act out in the daytime to sabotage himself from graduating the program. It was the first time in his life, he told us, that he had predictable people, an environment that was stable, and interactions where he understood the expectations.
We were about to send Jimmy back to his own personal nightmare.
I would love to tell you that Jimmy went back, stayed strong, went to college, came back as a doctor, and we all lived happily ever after. To be honest, I have no idea what happened to Jimmy after our camp stay together, but these are the things I learned for myself.
-No one is beyond saving or at least trying.
-People only change if they see that it is necessary.
-Just because someone made a mistake, that doesn’t give me the right to withhold my love.
-Everyone will respond to get attention. Negative attention is better than being ignored.
-I am capable of loving someone who had done terrible things.I am capable of loving someone who had done terrible things. Click To Tweet
So when you get “that child” in your classroom, the one everyone has warned you about, please don’t panic. That child may be what you need to awaken something in yourself. Give him a chance.