Tuesday, December 6, 2016

When a Student is Being Abused: Part One

After writing all my thoughts down on this topic, I realized my post was too long.  I've split it into two parts to make it all easier to digest.  This is the first part and it focuses on the emotional roller coaster that I've been riding since I discovered one of my students was being abused.  The second part will focus on the coping strategies that successfully helped me navigate my way through all the emotions I am about to share in part one.  It's going to be some heavy stuff, so I'm apologizing for that now.  However, I've been googling and reading for hours and have not been able to find anything regarding how teachers cope when they learn one of their students is being abused.  I'm hoping that by sharing my experience with this delicate subject, other educators in my shoes might realize they're not alone in what they're feeling.

I've taught for 8 years now, which really isn't all that much compared to most of my colleagues, and already I've had a few experiences with suspected abuse.  Most of the time it turned out to be nothing more than a rumor, lie, exaggeration, misunderstanding, whatever you want to call it.  Recently, I've experienced "the real deal."  Nothing prepared me for the emotional turmoil that you, the teacher of an abused child, experiences.

Let's start with a very brief rundown of the obvious information that I'm sure everyone reading this already knows.  Child abuse is a blanket statement that covers a variety of abuses against children, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse, and neglect, among others.  Abuse against a child can be committed by virtually anyone: a family member, a friend, a schoolmate, a community member, or a total stranger.  As an educator, I am a mandated reporter by law, as most teachers are.  This means that I have a legal obligation to report any suspected signs of abuse against a child to the appropriate authorities or family services.  I won't go into all the possible signs of abuse, but a very thorough list can be found over at Project Harmony's website by clicking HERE.  If you notice any of the signs or have that gut feeling that one of your students is being abused, you need to contact someone (the school counselor, principal, or DCFS) right away.  Once you've done your reporting and the ball gets rolling, you'll most likely experience a variety of emotions that are unique to you.

These are some of the feelings I've experienced since "the real deal":

  • Shock/Disbelief
I've had a few abuse issues pop up during my time as a teacher that gave me some cause for worry, but upon further investigation, they turned out to be much less serious.  So when I actually saw the bruises that no one could explain away, I was hit hard. I couldn't believe this was happening to one of my students.  Maybe someone else's student, but never one of mine.  It took awhile for the reality of it all to sink in and the shock to wear away, making room for a whole onslaught of other emotions.

  • Self-Doubt/Guilt
My immediate reaction after the shock wore off was to question myself.  Why didn't I notice this sooner?  How could I have not known?  Were there signs that I missed?  I think this is probably a natural response in this situation.  We're excellent judges when it comes to other people's behavior.  We hear horror stories in the news and ask all the same questions of others, believing wholeheartedly that if we had been there, we would have done better.  But honestly, there wasn't anything that I could have done differently.  I know that now.  I haven't been able to come up with any odd behaviors I missed or clues I should have picked up on.  My situation wasn't necessarily what you'd call a "textbook" example.  Until someone invents a time machine, there's nothing I would've been able to change even if I had missed something.  But at the time, I just felt so responsible.  "It's my job to keep these kids safe," I kept telling myself.  I couldn't help but feel that I had let all my students down.  The truth was, I was completely blindsided and that's the calling card of a really skilled abuser.  I think as caregivers we put a ton of pressure on ourselves to protect these kids, when in reality, we cannot control what happens to them after they leave us at the end of the school day.

  • Empathy
After learning of the abuse, I saw this child through a completely different lens.  I was so affected by what she had endured that just looking at her some days was enough to make me tear up.  There were many nights that I just sobbed on the car ride home.  I laid awake at night just worrying about her and imaging what she might be going through.  My heart was truly broken for this girl and I could not help but grieve for her.

  • Anger/Frustration
Once I had sufficiently beat myself up and cried until I just couldn't anymore, I got angry.  Really angry.  I was mad at everyone for everything.  My students' usual excuses for being lazy and not doing their homework were such an insult after learning what some kids actually have to deal with at home.  The school counselor didn't seem as effected by this as I thought she should.  Why were horrible people allowed to become parents while my husband and I struggled to have children?  The people at DCFS were moving too slowly in "getting to the bottom" of the abuse.  Why was this process taking so long?  Where was the support I needed in managing this delicate situation in my classroom? How could I live in a world where people could do things to children for their own perverse pleasure?  I just couldn't find the right place to direct my anger because apparently beating the crap out of the abuser myself was frowned upon.

  • Fear
At some point in the experience, I wondered how this would reflect on me.  I know that sounds selfish, but I think it's a valid point. Educators get the brunt of almost everything nowadays.  A kid fell off the swing and broke his arm during recess.  Why didn't the teacher stop him from swinging too high?  A student is bullied on the bus ride home by one of his classmates.  How could the teacher have not foreseen that this would eventually happen?  A student pushes another student in the hallway.  Where was the teacher when this was going on?  I think you get my point.  So when all this started to go down, I inevitably wondered if others would ask me all the pointed questions I had been asking myself.  Would I have to testify in court?  Would others look at me disapprovingly, thinking that they could have done better or noticed sooner if they were in my shoes?  Did my principal believe me when I said there had been no obvious signs?  Did my student think I failed her? Fear doesn't often make sense, but it is powerful.

  • Powerlessness
Probably one of the strongest emotions I had during this whole ordeal was the overwhelming feeling of being utterly and completely powerless. I wanted to take that girl home with me, but I couldn't.  I wanted to make her world okay again, but I couldn't.  I wanted to punish her abuser, but I couldn't.  I wanted to make my school life normal again, but I couldn't.  I wanted to say and do a lot of things that were just not in my power.  This was one of the hardest truths I had to come to terms with.

I think it's very important to note that no two people experience a crisis in the same way.  If you've had an abused student, you might see some similarities between your experience and my own, and you might not.  This is not a guide for how to feel, it's simply my story and I hope that it can help other educators out there in some way.  Please feel free to comment below with your own experiences so we can support each other.  Check back later for Part Two, where I'll be sharing my coping strategies that helped me get through such an emotional period in my teaching career.

(Disclaimer: I'm not a psychologist.  I don't claim to be an expert on how people deal with trauma.  All I know is what I felt and how I coped.  If you find yourself in a similar situation, please remember that there are plenty of more qualified individuals out there to help you process and cope than this lowly 6th grade teacher, although I am always more than happy to share my personal experiences with you. Thank you for reading.)

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