Special education teachers seemed programmed to help. Most people who work in the field are driven to give of themselves to better the lives of others. The entire field could be seen as a charity effort. Some teachers subscribe more than others to this charity angle. Doing so can implode in unexpected ways.
Students with special needs often live in difficult situations. Their disabilities pose difficulties, but they frequently face additional challenges such as poverty and the host of potential problems that come with it. The wellbeing of these students concerns the caring professionals who work with them. These professionals feel compelled to help. For some, this becomes a defining mission.
When educators take on such missions, they tend to immerse themselves in their cause. The get involved in the lives of particular students because they feel they must. Rationality can become secondary. Some begin to feel they are the only layer separating needy students from abject disaster. With a few, a sainthood mindset settles in. Only a select few become insufferably self-righteous, but any who step outside the bounds of instructing students and into the realm of pro bono social work risk morally ambiguous dilemmas.
Judgments aside, these teachers-on-a-mission have an effect on the school community. Their actions establish precedents that aren’t sustainable. They might buy meals for students. They might buy clothing for them. They might step into their student’s personal lives. They might offer varying degrees of support beyond what schools have an obligation to provide. They might give and give and might feel better about themselves for giving. In the short term, their actions could very well help needy students during vulnerable times. The impact might be lasting, at least as an indication that someone cared. All of this should be commendable. More immediately, the rest of the school community might have to deal with unintended consequences.
What happens to the teachers who aren’t willing or able to give without end? Those without the resources or time to give might not be able to replicate the support that a teacher-on-a-mission has provided. Others might object to stepping over particular bounds and might refuse to adopt a student as an ongoing project. These teachers can end up looking like heels to the student and parents, even if they are doing their job well in every other capacity. What if a principal has to stop a stream of support for some reason? Now the principal looks like the villain. The student and the parents can come to rely on the help they’ve been getting. When the original teacher-on-a-mission can no longer give—either by mandate or because of some other interruption or change of heart—the student and parents might become indignant.
Beyond the issue with perception, the teacher-on-a-mission can become an enabler. This person might help some troubled student through middle school, but what happens when the student goes to high school? A relationship might benefit the student during high school, but will this teacher become a surrogate parent who can help the student through adulthood? At what point does this end? The student can come to expect a safety net that isn’t going to last. Weaning might prove to be arduous. The effort to help could stifle independence rather than foster it.
Publicity is another problem. Word gets out about these arrangements. Other students and parents might raise eyebrows over one student getting unorthodox support. Is that teacher going to invest in every needy student to a similar degree? Why not all students? Sure, every student might not be as needy. Sure, most students and parents would recognize the exceptionality and admire the efforts of the teacher-on-a-mission. Others will wonder why no one is making a similar effort to help their family during their time of need.
This isn’t to say these efforts are entirely negative. This isn’t to punish noble intentions. Good deeds shouldn’t go undone because of potential backlash. However, prudence should be applied when seeking to give needy students an extra nudge. Long-term and broad effects should be considered. One can hope that a student’s needs and outcomes are foremost in the thoughts of those teachers-on-a-mission reaching out beyond what is required of them. Noble intentions are usually pure and not about self-aggrandizement. Whether selfish or selfless, good deeds can end up backfiring for everyone else in schools. Teachers-on-a-mission should tread cautiously.