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OPINION: Teachers, it all comes down to you

Anthony Pantaleno is a psychologist at Elwood-John Glenn High School.


Good morning, faculty, administration, and staff:

As you enter your classrooms next week, whether you're a 30-year veteran or a first-year teacher, I ask you to remember that students are facing more frequent, and often more complicated, emotional challenges than ever before.

This generation of children is four times more likely to develop clinical depression than their parents. The reasons are many, but the reality is that the one person who has an enormous influence on these children, day after day - in many cases more so than their parents - is you.

There is no more important person in the shaping and the character education of our children than teachers. Especially at the secondary level, where adolescents are pushing back against the influence of parental authority, kids look to all of you for support and encouragement.

Many of them will strive to work hard and achieve a variety of academic, athletic and other distinctions. But many won't.

Some will cut your classes to try to catch your attention. Some will simply refuse to do in-class assignments, homework and long-term projects, making it impossible for you to do anything but to fail them at report-card time.

Some will just seem totally disconnected from their own education. There are many "creative" ways to stand out and achieve peer recognition, and there will be a few students who'll be on a first-name basis with every teacher aide and security guard by the end of September.

These are the kids who will eventually be referred for disciplinary action or special education evaluation. But we all know that traditional disciplinary practices don't work very well in promoting positive behavior change, and special education has become overrun with referrals of children who are not truly disabled.

These kids just don't fit in. They don't attend monitored study hall. They don't attend scheduled remedial services. They don't trust adults. They don't believe that they really have a chance. They feel that failure is their destiny. Every year, we face more and more children who don't fit into our world of how things "should be."

The solution rests on the personal relationships that we as educators are challenged to develop with the very students who push us away.

It's easier for them to reject you than to give you a chance and then fail anyway. And with all of the pressures placed on teachers, it's sometimes easier for us to focus our energy and creativity on those kids who really want to learn.

But think of the most memorable teachers who ever taught you. What made them so special? Why is it that only a few teachers stand out for each of us in our whole lifetimes?

These are the ones who had the ability to reach out to the tough customers. They had the ability to touch our emotions and our hearts. They somehow knew that underneath it all, there was a lost child - someone who maybe didn't have the benefits of loving parents, caring friends, a stable lifestyle or just a consistent life mentor.

Seeing the goodness in others isn't easy. In teenagers, that goodness has often been covered with many layers of a defensive outer shell. But remember the words of Nelson Mandela: "It never hurts to think too highly of a person; often, they become ennobled and act better because of it."

The degree to which students hold this school as an important and cherished part of their lives will depend on the quality of caring they sense from you as their teachers.

This type of caring extends beyond a call home to parents when homework or papers aren't completed. It's the quality of caring that challenges us to look beyond the traditional markers of educational excellence. It invites us to try and connect with the humanity in even the most difficult of students.

We won't always be successful at first. But our efforts may be the seed that is planted for our kids to remember at some point down the road, that someone out there cared enough to care.