Two Chairs

Two chairs always sit outside my classroom door. Sometimes more; never one. It is my “office” where much of the real impact of being present with students happens. Here is where I meet, knee-to-knee, to talk with students about the worries and troubles of their lives; the things making them late for class, dull-eyed and even duller-spirited. Words between us are sometimes whispered, sometimes cried out in anguish and sometimes only said with the slow body language of a slight nod and downcast eyes.To write this blog, I flipped through my now two-decades-old book. In nice, quiet, rural America…

“Someone I love was raped last night at a party at our house. I want to beat up my father because he was too drunk to help her.”

“That guy my mom is dating? He keeps coming into my room at night.”

“I can’t breath when I am taking a test.”

“Those are cat scratches, I promise.”

As their teacher, I can help with the test anxiety issue. That I can do. Let’s talk about anxiety management.

The other “Big Three” sexual, physical and mental abuses. CPS calls made, perhaps an investigation. And then often nothing….Rarely do I see a child removed from their home. Far more often, the child’s world is disrupted for a moment and then it is back to life as normal.

It is obvious my students need a counselor for the trauma. But wait. We do not have one. Being a K-8 school, we are not required to even have one. Levy dollars would have to be spent to hire a counselor. Levy dollars in high poverty, rural schools are hard to come by. They are reserved for things like collapsing roofs and cracking foundations. These are things people understand and know how to fix. Mental health issues? Collapsing children with cracked foundations? Not so easy to understand. Or fix.

According to Washington State law, high schools are required to have at least one counselor. Apparently suicidal feelings, deep depressions, and good old garden-variety panic attacks are only for whose main concerns are dating and driver licenses. If only that were true. These issues, sadly, are in my book too.

There is not a lot of room for jealousy by the K-8 schools of high school counselors. According to the RCWs (http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=28A.410.043), the role of a school counselor is defined by our state is “a professional educator who holds a valid school counselor certification as defined by the professional educator standards board. The purpose and role of the school counselor is to plan, organize, and deliver a comprehensive school guidance and counseling program that personalizes education and supports, promotes, and enhances the academic, personal, social, and career development of all students…” (emphasis added).

I just got the first of my own five children through high school and launched into college. I know what goes into that process. The job description of a school counselor? That is a tall order for ONE person to accomplish for sometimes over a thousand students. How could each student’s personal development be supported, promoted or even enhanced? How can they help those that are struggling the most when counselors are being asked to do all of the other tasks on their plate? What will be the result if they can’t?

Beginning in 1995, a long-term study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/index.html) or ACE, explores just that question. It is composed of a simple questionnaire about negative incidents that may have occurred in childhood. The results showed that the higher the participant’s score on the ACE, the greater the risk of experiencing poor physical and mental health, and negative social consequences later in life, higher blood pressure, depression, and more prison time, just to name a few. Children who live in poverty are drowning in ACE. They do not even begin to have the resources they need to get to the surface of the water.

Back to my chairs. I am not a counselor. I cannot speak as a counselor. I can refer my students and their families to one. The nearest full time counselor is 31 miles away – about $36.00 a month just in gas to get there and back once a week. Life choices are often calculated in the cost of gas money, when every dollar is precious. The nearest counselor specializing in childhood trauma is 102 miles away.

It is often the same students sitting knee-to-knee with me. I speak with them. I tell them how their brains work, that the neuronal tracks they lay down now through the thoughts they CHOSE to think are what they will have to rely on throughout their lives. They must chose wisely, even when those around them may seemingly not be. I speak to them of their inherent worth simply because they exist, their strengths and the power that is theirs if they decide to claim it. I tell them they are NEVER at fault for what has happened to them. They are not the trauma they have experienced, but the survivor sitting in front of me. I speak with them, but not as a counselor.

Our rural children of poverty are facing issues that would pull many a well-adjusted adult under water. These are big things, painful things, things that are forming their lives and the world as they will forever see it. These are things over which they have no control and are drowning in. There must be better help for them beyond the life preserver of two little chairs outside a classroom.

8 thoughts on “Two Chairs

  1. Shari C

    The demands on school counselors are immense. There aren’t enough of them in our schools. We ask them to help students with their mental health, plan for college, get their schedule rearranged, ensure they have food, transportation, and enough credits to graduate. Funding structures must adjust so that our schools are more equipped with the resources needed for social, emotional, and mental health.

    Reply
  2. Mark Gardner

    I too think that there is greater-than-ever need for counseling staff at all levels. At the secondary level, the counselors I know often lament that they don’t time time to do the kind of mental health support for kids that they want… they are tied more to “guidance counselor” roles around credits, graduation, truancy…

    It is disheartening when we make reports and it seems like CPS/DSHS doesn’t come through. I’ve felt the same struggle when my high schoolers share experiences that I have had to report…and then I saw nothing. My wife worked for DSHS (children’s services) for many, many years, and they are likewise perpetually overworked and understaffed. Chances are, if that CPS investigation was pursued and a case was opened, the case was likely handed off to a caseworker already at double their caseload max, and for whom it is physically impossible to be everywhere the law requires them to be (in court, doing health and safety visits, coordinating family care plans…) After being married to a social worker, I know that they, like us, are frustrated that they don’t have the resources, person-power, or time to do what they in their hearts know needs to be done for kids.

    Reply
    1. Gretchen Cruden Post author

      HI Mark,

      I can totally understand the overworked part on the behalf of CPS workers. We have adopted two children through the foster care system and I have a total appreciation for the work the case workers do and how often their hands are tied or overflowing with the impossible. It is not a system that makes it easy for the social workers by any stretch of the imagination. In so many regards, we need to be putting our financial resources in areas that will bolster our most fragile population-the health of our children! It is so frustrating for anyone working with children…

      Thanks for commenting!
      Gretchen

      PS And please thank your wife for the work she does!

      Reply
  3. Lynna

    Wow, reading this amazing article from someone who really impacted my life was very moving! I was one who sat in that chair across from you, many times expressing all my feelings I had going on and had no idea what I was supposed to do, being so young I knew my feeling were real but not sure if anyone really cared. But you always cared! You were there more than i can remember and I dedicated all my good work in school/work life to you, the encouragement you offered not as a counselor but a ordinary teacher that went above and beyond!

    Reply
    1. Gretchen Cruden

      Lynna,

      I have never forgotten you or the times we have spent in “our” chairs. I have watched you grow into a strong woman and I am so very proud of you!

      All the best to you,
      Mrs. Cruden

      Reply
  4. Gail Kite

    I love you and your heart and your wisdom and your voice. Thank you for sharing this, so others may be encouraged to also be a beacon of light to those feeling the dark. The takeaway for me is “You are not the trauma you’ve survived.” ❤

    Reply
  5. Gretchen Cruden

    Thank you Gail. It is so humbling to know we are ALL entrusted to be the beacons that can light a child’s darkness. Teaching truly is such a work of hope, love and intellect. In that order, I do believe. So glad you are on the mission with me!

    Reply
  6. Lynne Olmos

    This was so beautiful, Gretchen, beautiful and tragic. On the one hand, you bring to light a very common problem for rural, remote, poverty-stricken communities. However, you also show us what the heart of a great teacher can do for her students. It’s life-changing. Even though we have one counselor in our district, his job is huge and we are the front line for these kids who need us so badly. I spend so much time being a life coach, that I think I might actually be better at that than I am at teaching the content!

    P. S. As a survivor of childhood poverty and abuse, let me thank you truly and deeply for what you do. Someday one of those kids will become a teacher so that they, too, can make a difference in a child’s life.

    Reply

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