By Stephanie Filio
So much happens within a school year for educators that I think we process each detail all summer. What have I learned from my students this year?
- There is never enough time.
- Students are incredibly resilient and make a conscious choice to persevere every day.
- Students are more open to their own abilities than adults are.
- I still like middle school kids, even if they are not the same kids I have had for years.
- Being a middle school kid brings double the pressure: to disappoint people as a child and as a young adult.
- There is a reason to admire every student.
- Social media is the devil—it gets in the way of supporting middle school kids.
I come into each year with varying degrees of confidence in my abilities as a school counselor. Some years are tough; some throw fun curveballs. Some years I feel less patient, and some years I have endless energy to get everything right. It’s interesting how each year has its own spirit and its own life. School years become known by standout events instead of by numbers . . . that was the year we lost power and had class in the hallway . . . that was the year I almost lost one of my very ill students . . . that was the year students protested beautifully after another school shooting . . . that was the year I organized inclusive lunches and the kids had a blast . . . that was the year the kids set record highs on their standards of learning . . . that was the year my student’s dad committed suicide. Some years my students smile and play, and some years they experience trauma and tragedy.
To adapt to changes between the years, months, and days, I have learned to lean on the original message I sought to share when considering a career in education: There is a freedom in understanding that we all make mistakes (as individuals, as parents, as teachers), but none of our mistakes ever have to define or victimize us. Being human, I feel, means being able to trip, fall, get back up, and return faster than before. I love teaching students how to find beauty and strength in this process. I love when they learn with me to feel pride in their ability to recover. I am still taken aback when I witness it firsthand, and sometimes I need this testimony from the kids to get through my own hang-ups!
This year, I was starting at a new school and still mourning my last group of kids who had moved on to high school after three years with me. Teachers from my old school joked that I had moved schools because I was so distraught over losing them. Truthfully, it was way tougher than I’d thought! I had developed 400 individual relationships over those three years, and my daily expectations revolved around the same faces and personalities. In the first few weeks this year, I spent so much time comparing my new hallway to my old one. I would notice a similarity between a new student and an old student and communicate as I would have in the past, only to feel misled when the student did not respond.
I worried that I was a one-trick pony. What if I would never bond with kids the same way I had before? What if my former students just liked me out of habit? What if I had lost my touch and would not be able to best serve these kids? What in the world had happened to me?! I was coming off one of the most professionally strong years in my career, and here I was, reduced to a first-year counselor by a little change!
So I decided I had a choice. I could sit back, complete the clerical pieces of my job, and coast for the year, or I could allow myself to reset and foster new bonds between me and my students, and me and this new school. Basically, I needed a school counselor kick in the pants.
Here is what I learned I had to do:
- Reframe how I was viewing things. I was viewing everything based on how it had been done in my old school. How, then, could I embrace the present and future if I was living in the past? I needed to start simply being open to new people, procedures, and feelings. These new kids and colleagues deserved for me to properly introduce myself.
- Allow myself to be natural. In my momentary lapse of confidence, I had forgotten to just act natural. I am loud, playful, sarcastic, and fiercely motivating with my students, but that is not for everyone. It was time to let that out instead of worrying about what others would think of my
- Regain trust. Perhaps part of my difficulty grasping the new school was in part me kicking my legs at the fact that I had to start over. The kids and teachers did not, and should not, trust me by my word. I needed to prove myself again, and I needed to put in the work and start unpeeling the onion from the outer layer.
- Understand the power of identity. I wondered how many people someone could actually connect with and remember in a meaningful way. If I had already had two groups of 400 students for extended times, would I even be able to process another group of kids? The answer is yes, I can. My new students are not like my old students, and they are not like the kids I will have in the future. They really solidified for me that identity is so strong that you can stand out in hundreds or thousands of other faces and personalities and that each one of us is memorable.
- Let go of more time. The end of the year always entails some sort of mourning for time. When students will roll with me to the next year, I know that they will return from summer transformed by age and development. When students are leaving for high school, I can’t imagine not seeing them every day, and I miss the relationships tremendously. I want to keep protecting them, to keep being the person who knows the one phrase or activity that will help each individual on a tough day, to keep hearing their daily stories and jokes. But students have earned their growth, and they have earned their next step, so I have to let them go.
It took me about two or three weeks to fully come out of the new school/new year cocoon. And guess who was waiting right there for me when I was ready to rebuild? My new kids! I had a whole hallway of students who had trusted all along that I would have exactly what they needed as soon as I was ready to show up. This was a strong indication of their spirit, too, because when I did emerge, I could not believe how dynamic and resilient these kids are. They repeatedly refuse to be knocked down, and they have shown such an enterprising and industrious quality. They make me want more and more out of my profession and my life. They make me laugh every day. They allow themselves to heal when they hurt and smile when they relish. They would be great friends with my former kids.
I have since visited some of my former students in high school, and I still live for getting emails and updates from them. They are thriving, of course. They are resilient and amazing and growing just as they should. And my new students? They are gearing up for ninth grade, and they have impressed me beyond measure. I have seen them tackle trauma and moves and family changes. They have allowed me in, they have allowed me to counsel them, they have allowed me to advise them academically, and they have become “my kids.” The only problem? They are so amazing that I’ll never like another group of kids again! How will I ever move on from them?!
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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