Report from the front lines: Am I a teacher or a therapist?

When a teacher plays counselor’

7 minute read
In theory, it looks so easy to teach first graders.
In theory, it looks so easy to teach first graders.
In school the other day, I was sitting on the rug with my first-grade students, discussing words with a short “a” sound. I asked a pretty difficult question. Several hands went up, but Lois blurted out the answer before I had a chance to call on anyone.

When I reminded Lois to raise her hand, she looked away from me.

I called on Sue, an equally brilliant girl, who gave me the same correct answer. Lois shouted, angrily, “Cheater!” Sue, confused, looked at Lois, who scowled at her and then at me.

“Lois, that was not nice,” I said. “Do you think that was a respectful, kind thing to say?”

Not making eye contact, Lois shook her head, no.

“Lois, can you please apologize to Sue?” Lois did so immediately, as many first graders do. But she continued to scowl.

“OK. Lois, “ I continued. “Why don’t you go back to your seat for a moment and when we are done at the rug, you and I can chat, OK?”

Something in her hand

After Lois obediently returned to her seat, I moved my chair an inch or two sideways so that I could watch her while I worked with the rest of my class. I saw that she had something in her hand. Probably an eraser, I thought to myself, since she’d been playing with one the day before.

But when I walked over to Lois a few moments later, I freaked out.

Somehow, Lois had found a staple on the floor, had picked it up and was aggressively poking a hole in her leg. She was bleeding—not profusely, more like a pinprick.

I panicked slightly because our school— like nearly all public schools in this financially strapped season— lacks a full-time counselor. This meant that, for a little bit, I would have to change my hats and become the counselor.

Right and wrong

I stopped Lois, gave her an antibiotic wipe and asked her to come over to my “office” on my rug.

I sat in a chair so that she looked down at me, but not much: Lois is is, after all, only six years old.

“Lois, can you look at me for a moment?” I asked quietly. “Can I see your pretty eyes?” She raised her eyes to look at me.

“What were you doing at your seat?”

“Nothing, “ she replied

“It didn’t look like nothing to me,” I said. “In fact, it looked like you were bleeding. That’s why I gave you the antibiotic wipe. I don’t want you to get hurt, Lois. You are that important to me.”

She swayed gently now, as little children do when they stand.

“Lois, do you know what you did wrong on the rug?” I asked.

“Yes. I blurted out the answer.”

“What happened next?”

Define stealing

“I called Sue a cheater.”

“And do you know what a cheater is, Lois?”

“Yes. Someone who steals the answer!”

I smiled. “Sometimes, yes. But not always, and certainly not in this case at all. A cheater is someone who is taking a quiz or a test at her desk and looks at someone else’s paper for the answer. Is that what happened on the rug, Lois?”


“OK. Do you know why I called on Sue?”

“Because you knew she was going to steal my answer?”

“No. Because I knew she was probably going to have the same answer as you. You know, Lois, out of all of the raised hands, probably all of them had the same answer. Do you think the question was hard?”


“Well, guess what, Lois? Neither did anyone else on the rug!”

Now Lois smiled. “I’m sorry, Miss Kean. I didn’t mean to call Sue a cheater.”

“That’s OK, Lois,” I said. “Now, let’s talk about your leg. What happened to your leg?”

Lois put her arms around her back and began to twirl slightly. She stopped making eye contact. I wished the counselor were here.

“OK, Lois. So what were you thinking about when you poked yourself with a staple on your leg?”

Lois paused for a moment and looked at the floor. “I was angry because my dad wouldn’t let me watch my show last night,” she said.

“Lois, I don’t think that is what happened at all,” I replied. “Would you like to try again?”

Lois said nothing and again refused to make eye contact with me. My counselor hat was wearing thin.

Roots of anger

“OK,” I said. “Were you angry when I sent you back to your seat?”

She nodded her head yes.

“But, you know what you did wrong, correct?”

She nodded her head yes.

“So, Lois, what you did to your leg— did that feel good?”

She shrugged— not a good sign.

“Lois, can you think of something you could have done that was different that would have involved me a little more?”

“Yes, Miss Kean. I should have talked to you about what I was feeling instead of what I did.”

I nearly fell on the floor.

Words of encouragement

“So, Lois, the next time something happens here at school or in life, that you don’t like, it’s probably a good idea to talk to me in school or some other adult.”

Lois looked up at me.

“It’s probably not a good idea to go around poking yourself with things so that you bleed or hurt yourself,” I added. “Especially since you are my most favorite student in the whole wide world and you are also a great little artist. The other students know that. That’s why they always ask you for help”

Lois was smiling now. I grabbed her hand and held it.

“Lois,” I continued, “I know you are really bright, and I also know that sometimes I don’t move fast enough for you. But you can always talk to me. You are so, so, so, smart and good, Lois!” Now she was really smiling and twirling.

“I would simply hate for anything not good to happen to you or to any of my beautiful children. So if something happens and you don’t like it or you don’t feel well, please come and tell me. I am always here to help you, Lois. I will always be here, OK?”

Lois smiled a first-grade toothless grin at me. “OK, Miss Kean. I promise that if things are not going well or something is wrong, I will come to you right away.”

And with that, Lois returned to her seat, smiling.

Back to work

But I was exhausted. My other students were busy reading books on their desks. As I surveyed my room, I realized that I still had an entire day left. I wanted to go home and lie down, at least or have a nice, cold beverage.

Instead, I wondered how in God’s name was I going to get through a year of teaching without a full-time counselor to help. And I’m just one teacher in one classroom in one school.

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