By Paul Stein, Schools for Children Executive Director
Three staff members:
A teacher, a milieu supervisor, a principal
They’re colleagues at Dearborn Academy, where students receive specialized help learning skills needed to overcome challenges that often are the result of anxiety, depression, executive functioning, language-based and/or other learning difficulties. They were drawn to their work by a shared goal – to make a difference in the lives of these students.
When asked how the three colleagues became interested in working with this population, their answers reflected a commitment, not only to teaching and learning, but also to providing the therapeutic support that enables their students to thrive. In fact, their individual journeys started with an interest in social work or psychology. As their careers evolved, they discovered how well working in a therapeutic school matched their personal and professional interests.
In some cases, this interest stemmed from their own life experiences. For example, one staff member spoke of now his father had died when he was just two, instilling in him the wish to become a model for students in a way that he didn’t himself experience. Another staff member spoke of her own children’s struggles in school, and the understanding and empathy for both caregivers and students when they are pulled from their home community to attend a therapeutic school. This initial isolation was mitigated when her children moved into therapeutic day schools, which forged a powerful, affirming difference in their lives. The personal inspired these staff members’ professional journey. Their work became more than a job; it became a mission.
These staff members pointed out that small school communities, like Dearborn’s, are right-sized to be able to give students the supports they needed. They enable teachers and clinicians to test things out in a supportive environment, and to employ best practices in terms of special education, teaching methodologies, behavioral supports, and therapeutic interventions. Entering this field, as one of them noted, “felt like it was the right thing for me because we can do the right things for kids.”
Unexpected and Wonderful Rewards
And then, of course, there were the daily joys and tribulations of working with this particular student population. The staff spoke about how one needs to be drawn toward this population: how one needs to be able to be firm and free-spirited, serious and good humored, involved and able not to take things personally.
The rewards are rarely immediate, yet they arrive in unexpected and wonderful ways. Consider the students who return to tell a teacher how thankful they are, knowing there were many difficult moments that took their toll.
One of the greatest rewards is watching students acquire the skills they need to return to a less restrictive setting or to function successfully and independently in college or the workplace. And then there are the moments that appear so commonplace at first glance which turn out to be powerful, touching examples of the importance of making authentic connections with individual students.
One teacher told the story of how she made a birthday cake for a 7th Grade student who, it turned out, never had a birthday cake made for him. (His family always used store-bought cakes.) She received a note from his mother a year later, after he had left the school.
The student was so excited about that cake that he’d asked to come back in order to celebrate his birthday with the class. He had made a cake himself and wanted to return the gesture. The school had made a difference in his life, and this was his way of celebrating.
For each of these three Dearborn staff members, the work is a calling, just as it is a cause for celebration.