“Diane is a professional, Jake. Do you know what that means?”
I looked at her anxiously, waiting for the next words - sure it was going to be something that would make the kid feel terrible, and me wish I’d never opened my mouth. Something about me not wanting to waste my time on her kid.
Perhaps you’d like some back story.
Jake, age 11, is a child with many issues. I took him as a student last summer on a provisional basis and chose to continue working with him in the fall. He falls near, if not on, the autism spectrum. He has a poor sense of his body in space, persevorates easily and was homeschooled until recently.
This week, I had sent his mother this email.
"I tried to call you, thinking it might be better to speak in person. But the more I think about it, I may be able to keep my thoughts clearest in writing.
Jake has done a good job this semester. He has truly tried, and he has been to a good sport about what I've asked him to do. That said, I don't think that I'm doing a great job with him. I have tried lots of different kinds of pieces, lots of different ways to structure the lessons and try to motivate him. Nothing that I have up my sleeve seems to be working. He's not making any real progress, and I don't feel right about getting paid to not really teach him anything.
I am very sad to say that I don't think I'm the right teacher for Jake. I find him challenging, and I always like to think that I like a challenge. But I also have to admit when I feel like the challenge is not one that I'm up to and that's how I feel with Jake.
I have to be careful about my energy and take the best care of myself that I can. With that in mind, and with the fact that I do not want to be impatient or less than understanding with Jake, I think that we should finish out the holiday season's lessons and let that be our last work together.
I know that it's difficult to find people who truly understand Jake and I think that I come close. Just not close enough.
Please feel free to call or email if you have any questions or would like to talk about this any further.
Thanks so much, Diane"
I’d followed it up with a phone call. We agreed to talk to Jake together during his regular lesson time. The three of us had been chatting a while when she made her comment about being a professional. I dreaded what would come next.
“What it means, Jake, is that Diane doesn’t just do what she does to make money. She cares about what she does, and she really cares about her students. If she didn’t, she would just keep taking our money even though she didn’t feel good about what she was teaching you. Because she cares so much about you, we are able to have this conversation and learn more about each other. I’ve learned more about you from hearing what Diane had to say, and your responses to her.”
Wow. Just. Wow.
For every time I’ve ever hesitated to speak the truth, for every time I was nervous to tell a parent what I really thought, I felt sad. Speaking the truth offers an opportunity for learning. Sometimes a parent won't be willing or able to listen. But if they can, like Jake's Mom, there is much to be learned about their child.
It’s true that I am in the fortunate position of having more students than I can teach. But even if that were not the case, I would be happy that I’ve finally learned that being professional means that you don’t just do it for the money. You do the best thing for both you and the student, even when it means you have to say that you can't meet someone's needs. Even when you wish you could.