Ten years ago, as a counsellor in a local comprehensive school, I worked with a teenage girl who was on her way out. Out of school for disruption, out of health because of her mistreatment of her own body, out of money because her family had little to begin with, and out of hope. Her mother was a single parent, chronically mentally and physically ill; my student was her caretaker. She was angry, defensive, panicked and scared to death. By her own estimation, she was headed for alcoholism, teenage pregnancy or prison.
Some days she spent our session standing with one hand on the door handle, ready to bolt. She had never felt safe, never seen herself as worthy of anyone’s time. She was always defensive and her behaviour reflected this. Once in a hallway she let loose a stream of invective against a teacher, then turning to see me, said, “Oh, not you, Miss.” The humour of the moment aside, I needed to take her wish to please me and use it in her service in order to help her find a way to get on with people. She would have to tone down her hyper-emotional responses in order to remain in the school and get an education. She had to learn to make choices; she had to learn to relate.
She did have talents, but she didn’t have dreams. The first step in fostering those was to enable her to feel safe enough to sit on a chair and speak. In order to do this I had to start by assuming mutual respect and allowing her to feel in control of herself in the room. Young people want to know how to be. What are the rules, where can I push? They look to adults to model behaviour not in what they say but in who they are and in what they do. Mostly, the attitude she met with at school was exasperation. Her teachers had too few resources and too little time to ease her into calm. Our agreement was based on civility, openness and a bit of warmth and light. In the counselling room there was time to listen to her, to see her, to build a dialogue with her about what made her as she was and what she could do about it. There was a chance to advocate for her with forward-thinking members of the administration, and for her to see someone do that. There were opportunities to laugh. She stayed in school and successfully completed her GCSEs.
A while ago I received a letter from this girl, now a young woman. In it she talked about her partnership, which was into its third year, her pleasure at holding a steady job, and her expectation of motherhood. She said, “I didn’t use to be proud of myself, but I am now.” She wanted to let me know that she was doing well.
We are taught, just as we are healed, in relationship; by knowing we are heard and knowing where we stand. As between counsellors and clients, the relationship between teachers and students is the engine of growth. Before we teach facts, we must teach how to listen, and the teachers themselves must be taught. Listening is the cardinal principle of counselling and of mediation, a part of a skill set that has a place in the classroom. Straightened education budgets find little room for this instruction, teachers are under pressure to deliver results, and an exam-driven curriculum leaves little time for conflict resolution, but the payback on investment is not just in Sterling but in lives.