This month’s guest writer is Lucinda Bellovich Gilligan, junior high teacher at Chaddock Special Education School. Lucinda is a mother of four boys who keep her busy outside of work and she is a die-hard St. Louis Blues fan. Lucinda loves to read and play volleyball and she has been teaching for 17 years.
I was blessed to start my teaching career straight out of college. Teaching was what I wanted to do since I was a little girl. I mean that in the most literal way possible. My two sisters and I would play school in our basement with a little school desk and pencil sharpener mounted on the beam. I loved it and it’s one of my favorite memories with my two big sisters. So, when I was asked to take a teaching position after I graduated, I definitely took it and loved it.
Now, I think the path I took in my teaching career was most definitely influenced by my own trauma. I became a young widow with a two-month-old baby towards the beginning of my teaching career. I was teaching a junior high group that most everyone had told me were awful kids. They had in fact ran a teacher off before I arrived on the scene. HOWEVER, these kids were not even close to awful. They were ornery, smart, and the most loving kids I have been blessed to teach in my 17 years of teaching. They healed my soul in ways that they will probably never really understand. Their parents were equally phenomenal. That group began my love for junior high kids. They are young enough to let you influence them if you can get passed the smart mouth sass that they love to often give.
Through my trauma and my early experiences in teaching I realized more than ever that success can look incredibly, and entirely, different. For those junior high kids, success wasn’t just good grades but also a relationship with a teacher that didn’t run when it got hard, loved them regardless of others’ opinions and could see past their learning difficulties. I found myself worrying more about what kind of young adults they were going to be and how I could positively influence that path so I left teaching (briefly) and pursued my Masters in Education with an emphasis in School Counseling.
That brought me to Chaddock. I started in the therapy department but missed having my own classroom. They gave me an opportunity to teach and of course I requested Junior High.
I had a young man for approximately 2 1/2 years that will forever be my favorite story to tell. He came in angry, guarded, shut down, and with the lowest self-esteem that I had experienced in a student. He had been rejected from many adults in his previous school experience and along with his own self-doubts he felt worthless and stupid. He would constantly shame himself and sabotage any success that he began to experience.
He wanted to be successful but firmly believed he was not capable.
He would rely on the “cool factor” to fit in and gain acceptance from his peers. He definitely had some swag about him. He had a mustache early on in junior high and was much bigger than most of his peers so many of them looked up to him and thought he was the coolest. He had no desire to have relationships with adults and it took at least a year to gain any kind of trust or acceptance from him where I was concerned.
As we built a relationship, he still continued to self-sabotage, self-shame, and believe that success was not something he was capable of – the ability to believe in ourselves is often something that many of us take for granted.
He didn’t even believe he could be successful in handling the feeling of frustration. I couldn’t tell you the year or the day that the switch flipped for this young man but I do believe that my consistent and unfailing belief in him played a big part in this shift.
My goal, in most cases, with my students at Chaddock is to teach them academics but also coping skills so that they can leave Chaddock and return to their home school. This young man was no different even though I didn’t want to let him go because I knew how fragile his soul was despite being ready.
I do know that I will never forget the last day he was with me.
He was really proud of himself. He voiced it, which was the first time he was ever able to do so, but not only that, I could see it. To see that transformation is something I simply cannot describe – many tears of joy were shed. My favorite face of success was that.
It wasn’t straight As or even honor roll grades. It was a young man who thought he was worthless and left knowing that he did something right and was absolutely worth every struggle and hard day. He knew he was loved and accepted and that was success to him.
Working with the students at Chaddock has given me the amazing gift of being a part of, and seeing success, in many different ways and they all equally remind me of the reason I walk into that classroom even when life is hard or behaviors are ugly.
I urge you, especially educators or adults in the schools, that as the school year begins that you genuinely love and accept the children that you have a daily impact on. Love on them in the best way you can because that also looks different for everyone. Accept them as they are and where they are and watch them grow under that love and acceptance. Help them find their favorite face of success even if it looks different than the “normal” success story.
Children who experience multiple and prolonged trauma, often within the context of their primary caregiving system, develop an inner working model (i.e. a set of beliefs about themselves) that is negative. They feel, deep in their soul, that they are unworthy of love, that they are a bad kid, and that they do not deserve praise or success. This is due to a lack of consistent, predictable, and nurturing, responses from the adults around them; those that are supposed to love them unconditionally.
They did not receive the message that “no matter what happens, good, bad or ugly, I am here for you and I will love you”.
When we encounter these children in an educational setting, often they try to do everything they can to prove this to us – it has become a self-fulfilling, and protective, prophecy. It is our job to show the child a different experience, a different response.
By providing the child with the consistency, the predictability, the unfailing belief, that they are worthy and deserving of love, we begin to help them believe that themselves. With that knowledge they can begin to move from a place of fear and survival (back brain), into a place of vulnerability, courage and exploration, and in turn, their own version of success.