Tuesday, June 17, 2014

This will be my last year teaching in the hospital -- here are 3 things I learned

This will be my last year teaching in a children's psychiatric assessment unit. Next school year, I will be moving to a middle school where I will be teaching grade 6 language arts, grade 6 social studies and grade 8 social studies.

I've spent almost four years teaching in the hospital, and I know that I am a better teacher for it -- I think I'm a better husband and father, too. Teaching in a children's psychiatric assessment unit has forever changed my perspective on what matters most.

Here are three things I have learned from teaching in the hospital:

1. Children who are loved at home, come to school to learn -- children who are not loved at home, come to school be loved. Too many of the children I taught over the last 4 years were suffering from a toxic combination of abuse and neglect. These children are not stupid or lazy, and they are not bad, but they are lost -- and our job is to help them find themselves.

These children are struggling with a wide range of problems from anger to depression to eating disorders to addictions, and yet there was a common denominator among almost everyone of the more than 500 children I taught in the last four years: Almost every single child I have worked with in the last four years thinks very little of themselves. Too many of these children hated themselves, wanted to hurt themselves and actively tried to kill themselves.

Over the last four years, we read a lot and we wrote a lot about topics that truly mattered to them, but not before I worked tirelessly to nurture a relationship with each of my students. This is why the best teachers understand that students will never care what you know until they know you care about them.

2. Children don't give adults a hard time -- they are just having a hard time. I can't tell you how many times I had to remind myself that the children who are the hardest to like, need us the most. When we understand that hurt people, hurt people, it's easier to see our students' struggles not as problems to be punished but as opportunities to be taught. This is why my teaching philosophy is defined by a purposeful shift away from doing things to students and a move towards working with them. This is why I proudly hang Thomas Gordon's words in my classroom:
The more you use power to try and control people, the less real influence you’ll have on their lives. 
3. Great teachers can do a lot -- overcoming poverty or inequity is not one of them. I've worked hard over my 15 years of teaching to become pretty darn good at it. I'm not great everyday, but I'm great more days than I'm not and I was humbled daily by factors that are completely out of my control such as poverty, abuse, neglect and mental health problems.

When I say that poverty and inequity matters, I am not making excuses, and I am not saying that poor children can't learn. What I am saying is that poverty and inequity stunts potential growth and explains why so many children struggle to learn and teachers struggle to teach.

Great teachers make great schools, but great teachers can’t do it alone – they require the support of an equitable society.


  1. This is a great post Joe and really resonated with me.

    I've been working in a remote Aboriginal community in central Australia for the last 5 years. My experience is that it's critical to understand the source of a child's behaviour and recoil from any labelling of children. Relationships are absolutely key (particularly is a small community) to any progress and genuine interactions that promote students' curiously and self-esteem are vital.

    Thanks for sharing and best of luck in your new role.

  2. Well written, Joe - I hope you find meaning in your new position.

  3. Thank you so much, Joe, for your meaningful service and insights shared with us. I will share it with as many parents and teachers as possible. Lucky kids having you as a teacher next year.

  4. #1 is powerful. Thanks for sharing (and reminding me how lucky I am with my teaching gig).

  5. Thanks for this post, Joe. It is full of always much needed reminders about our role as educators. Kindness, love, and understanding are very powerful!

  6. This is distilled wisdom born of rich, personal experience. Thank you so much, Joe, - I learnt so much from it, and am going to preserve it. Merci again.

  7. Inspirational, Joe. So true! If a child feels good about himself, then he is an open vessel for learning. Best of luck to you in your new venture.

  8. Thank you for writing this post. It hits home for me in so many ways.


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