When trying your best to help just doesn’t work

By Caitlin Kelly

Cover of "Dangerous Minds"
Cover of Dangerous Minds

Here’s a great/depressing piece from Salon.com by a teacher who worked in Texas’ worst school — burned out and gave up:

Before I came to Pearce I knew that many of its students scored poorly on standardized tests; the school was rated “Low Performing” the year before I arrived. The only other non-elementary school in Central Texas rated “Low Performing” was in the Travis County Juvenile Detention Center. I also knew that 80 percent of Pearce students received free or reduced-price lunch, and almost all were African-American or Latino.

Like many attendance-zoned high-poverty schools, Pearce was often a chaotic place where discipline issues, student absenteeism, low parent involvement and high teacher turnover were the norm. Why would a teacher with other options work in such a stressful, violent setting?  I chose Pearce because I was going to make a difference; I would do whatever it took to help these kids overcome classism and racism and escape poverty. Full of youthful enthusiasm and self-flattery, I could change the world by working at Pearce. Why not?

Here is the hard truth about my experience: I didn’t have much of an impact. Sure, I made a small part of the day more pleasant for some students, but I didn’t change the course of any of my kids’ lives, much less the nature of the school. A middle-class teacher coming into a low-income school and helping poor students realize their true potential makes for an excellent White Savior Film, but “Dangerous Minds” isn’t real life. Real life at Pearce is survival.

This piece hit me hard because I, too, tried my best — for 18 months in 1998 — to mentor a 13-year-old girl mired in multi-generational poverty and welfare dependence. Her family was noisy, chaotic, fractured; her mother had simply disappeared five years earlier, leaving C and her half-brother to live with their grandmother and an assortment of relatives.

I was matched with C — and a week or so later her mother turned up. Out of the blue.

The following 18 months proved an eye-opening, sobering and sad wake-up call. I liked C and admired her spirit; she was fun, affectionate, easy-going. I took her sailing, to play squash, to simply hang out at home and have dinner. We had some long frank conversations.

I had hoped — and tried hard through my connections there– to get her accepted on scholarship into a local prep school, a potential escape from the madness of her current life. She loved her visit there and said repeatedly she wanted to go to college.

But “college” seemed like Disneyland, a lovely far-off place she’d heard about and longed to visit, somewhere desirable that others went.

The slogging intermediate steps necessary to prepare for college-level work — consistent application, self-discipline, learning to study, acquiring and perfecting social skills — felt elusive, even invisible to her and her family. I heard no interest from her grandmother in how C might actually get there.

Instead, in front of me, she’d poke C in her belly, demanding: “Are you pregnant?”

My own privilege had, (embarassingly), been previously invisible to me. I didn’t realize that the gut-burning determination to climb the socio-economic ladder just didn’t translate or resonate with this child or her family.

The relationship ended abruptly and badly. We never even said a formal good-bye. No one ever called or wrote to me, and no one from the matching social service organization ever followed up to apologize or explain.

“Oh, that’s one of our most difficult families,” said her social worker, on one of the many times I called them, bewildered and exhausted.

C would now be in her mid-20s and I wonder if she ever did attend college, or graduate. Is she married? Working? Does she have kids? Is she happy? Thriving?

I also, selfishly, sometimes wonder if she ever remembers me.

Sadly, chastened, I haven’t volunteered for a similar role since.

Have you ever volunteered for a position where you’d hoped to make a difference in a child’s life — but burned out and gave up?

Do you regret trying?

Or giving up?

28 thoughts on “When trying your best to help just doesn’t work

  1. I worked in a high school – same dynamics, except this was an “Alternative H.S.” where low performing public schools had expelled the students. This was their “last chance” for a diploma. I got tired and burned out. But knowing the psych aspects of human change, I realize I planted some seeds … and change is halting, small and tiny increments for this population. No grand fireworks. And no, I do not regret it. 🙂

  2. I used to offer free lessons to kids whose parents are in the lower income group. I still have existing non-paying students but I have recently resolved never to offer any more free lessons. Why? Parents are not committed in sending their kids when they are not paying.

    Not too long ago, I gave a mother two options. If she let her kid miss any more lessons without a valid reason, we could either terminate the lessons altogether or she had to pay me for any lesson missed at my going rate. Well, she wised up.

  3. Caitlin, I would be willing to bet she remembers you – kids have long memories. And though you may have been fighting a losing battle don’t forget she had a choice, too. She may not have been able to follow through on it then but it is possible that you also planted a seed. At the very least you showed her that there was another way to live. I do know this as I also saw there was another way to live.

  4. Teaching in a high-poverty school, although not volunteer work, is definitely about trying to make a difference. I think what it takes is an understanding of one’s smallness in the world, and an acceptance of the limitations of one’s own power. The difference any one person is likely to make in very difficult situations are very much incremental differences. You are one person, and not a superhero at that. You will not save anyone–ever–and are unlikely to turn anyone’s life around. But what you can do is offer some nourishment for their journey, so that they have the strength to keep going with what they need to do. But I think it’s also easy to forget in working with people in very different life situations is that they also have something to offer us, and this is a gift. So, while they may be opening their hearts and lives to us so that we can help them, we also have to open our hearts and minds to them so that they can help us.

    1. I did see that with her. I was amazed by and grateful for her humor and empathy in spite of all the craziness she was living through. Increments are hard to see, but I take your point. I think the experience might have been quite different had the social workers explained things a lot better — as a professional, you chose to work in that school. As a volunteer, I stepped into a sort of insanity for which I had zero prep and very little understanding.

      1. I think middle-class teachers in high-poverty schools have some of the same experience you did: there are just so many problems, and they seem so resistant to change. I was fortunate to have specific preparation in my graduate work for the challenges of high poverty schools. Better prep work from the social workers would probably go far to helping volunteers be more effective–and to stay in the program. It’s a shame that’s not happening.

      2. I was really disappointed by their indifference — they would laugh when I called to ask them substantive questions about the child or her family; they just wanted me to be a diversion, or a fun day out. Which seemed a bit weird and cruel in some ways. I was happy to do that, but every time I brought her back to the home, it felt like something of a betrayal. No one with Big Sisters ever bothered to ask how we were doing or prepare me. It shocked me they were so cavalier and it left a very negative impression of the group. Perhaps they have since improved.

      3. Probably they have coped with their own difficulties in handling how difficult the children’s lives are by becoming hardened in a way. It’s a shame.

  5. themodernidiot

    I’m that kid. You just keep trying, but I was lucky. The universe blessed me with a big ego that can stave off other people’s bullshit pretty well.
    I hope she made it. It’s hard as hell when the system is structured for you to fail.
    My teacher friends are all burnt out, and they teach in suburban schools. The learning is declining at a rapid rate they feel. He taught at inner city schools before coming here; they hate the educational system from what it is doing to our students.

    1. I imagine takes a great deal to get through it all. What horrified me was how no one cared — not her family, not her teachers. It made me feel as if (which I was) I was abandoning her, and at an age when it would make or break what happened to her after that. I felt shame for not staying but her family was truly loathsome. Their behavior was so neglectful I could barely stand to be around them.

      1. themodernidiot

        Yeah, life teaches you in many ways that you’re on your own. You either choose to hold your head up or you don’t. Sounds callous, but true. Harder without a support network, but hard knocks doesn’t mean you have to knock yourself around for it. Same goes for you–cut yourself some slack.

  6. That’s so sad, that you two lost track of each other. I’ll bet she does remember, at 13. Who knows, maybe she’ll look you up someday…. I have never done this but live in an area with some diversity–not inner city, but different education and work ethic. We have a reading program that honestly isn’t all that difficult to accomplish, and at the end of each year there is an assembly where kids stand up and get awards and some don’t come even close to making the goal. It amazed me at first that anyone wouldn’t reach this low goal, but it’s the parents. Definitely. They don’t put an emphasis on it and then their kids fall behind eventually, but if we can teach those habits earlier, when they’ll still listen, maybe it’ll make a difference.

    1. It was a real eye-opener, and not in a good way, to see how dysfunctional her family was and how angry it made her. She found their behaviors confusing and neglectful, but whenever I tried to speak to her grandmother, all I heard were whiny excuses. I had never been around people like that — whiners, (not the money issue) — and there is only so much anyone can do if the family has checked out of their own responsibilities.

  7. You probably did improve her life, ultimately, but it’s hard to avoid becoming cynical when you realize the difficulty of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps borders right on the edge of impossibility in some cases. Maybe most. I mean, who do we think we are? You did good, just, maybe, not as much good as you thought you should have. Then again, who are we to second guess these things? Like most things, the effects of your actions can’t help but have rippled outward very far. You will probably never know.

    1. I don’t ever expect to find out. But it was a crummy ending and one that the Big Sisters should really have addressed with me in an exit interview. I was less surprised by the family than the social workers’ apparent indifference.

      1. Agreed. That is the odd thing, here. Could they have gotten that cynical? I know a couple of people who work in social service type jobs, and both say there is a high burn-out rate.

  8. Steve

    The first timer I read your blog and responded was about this little girl quite some time ago and you asked me who was responsible to help her and I said you were. You had an opportunity to make a difference and you did. She had an opportunity and made her choice to make a change. You should be commended in my opinion as you did what you were supposed to do. You are not however responsible for HER choice or her parents. They are. Some of these people have been on the public dole for three and four generations and still those of the big government persuasion think this is the solution, it isn’t, it only makes slaves of our citizenry and perpetuates more of the same failed results. I find it interesting that one of your readers made mention that she once gave free music lessons but decided to stop because her clients failed to show up because it didn’t cost them anything. They had no skin in the game as our illustrious President likes to say. It’s the same thing with government handouts, they aren’t valuable because they cost the takers nothing. I don’t mind giving a hand up to a person when they are down on their luck or UNABLE to take care of themselves but what this leviathan of a government has created is NOT that. We have created an entire segment of our population is reliant on endles government programs for their very existence. We pay for food, healthcare, heat, AC, electric, education, even cell phones and hi speed internet, and the list goes on and on. How much is enough? What is the end game in this seemingly endless rush towards some impossible utopia that is built upon the backs of those that work and provide

    1. Wish I had an answer to your question. As you might expect, this did stiffen my spine and made me re-consider the use of my taxpayer funds. It is instructive (being polite here) to see firsthand our “help” being treated as a given and the sort of time and energy I chose to give in addition to that treated carelessly and with such contempt.

      I am no bleeding heart liberal (although I may appear as such to you!) This experience left a deeply unpleasant change of heart on my part.

      1. Steve

        I understand completely, I EXACTLY how you feel. I have worked with inner city youth for the past 15years in my church. Literally hundreds of children and very little ‘results’. About three years ago one young man came back and thanked me. He was one of two young men that I groomed for leadership roles to mentor the younger children. Of those two, he went on to graduate from Hofstra University and is now a high school teacher, the other young man chose a different route and is now serving time in prison. My point in all this is we ALL have a role to mentor the less fortunate to the best of our ability. It is OUR responsibility not the governments. One method encourages freedom and personal choice, the other life long dependence and poverty. You can’t win them all because it is impossible to guarantee results but we CAN provide opportunities. What one chooses to do with their life is their choice. By subsidizing poor choices we only guarantee more of the same results.

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