By Jenna Ebener
(Editor’s note: Jenna Ebener, a graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, is a social worker at a school in Colorado for students with a combination of medical, cognitive and behavior disabilities. She relies on God every day to aid her on this wonderful, yet intense journey.)
In response to the hectic school year I have been having, including some intense cases with students, someone told me, “You care too much.” I have pondered that statement, and it is a double-edged sword. On one side, I have great compassion and empathy for my students, which, especially this year, has weighed heavily on my soul at times. The love I feel for my students, and wanting to help them succeed, can batter my soul when I do not have the control to change the situation. On the other side, compassion drives how hard I work for my students. Without my passion for this population, I would not be nearly as effective at what I do.
I work with students who, compared with their typical peers, make slow growth. I am working with my 20-year-old students on developing social skills that many children have mastered by first grade. While it may sound frustrating and hopeless to work on skills that are so delayed, I have hope. One reason I know this population is an ideal fit for me is my ability to focus on my students and their individual needs and strengths rather than on their delays. What does it matter how big the deficit is when the focus is on each student and what success looks like for him or her?
Because of the desire to help my students grow, my creativity and flexibility have increased. For example, I had two students who did not seem to be grasping the identification of feelings. Since August, we have been learning about the four basic emotions (happy, sad, scared and angry) and when we might experience them. Months later, two of my five students continued to consistently respond “happy,” regardless of the situation. We read stories, played board games and made “feeling” books. Yet, the concepts did not seem to be connecting. I knew they had the potential; I just needed to find a way to access it.
After reflecting, I recalled that each of my students loves Disney movies. So, I re-designed my social group to include video clips of Disney movies. After showing the first clip, I asked one of my struggling students, “What was Sebastian feeling?” Without hesitation, she replied “Scared!” By the end of that first session, she was independently naming emotions, and my other student was correctly pointing to each emotion. Social group is now my favorite time of the week. Since we began watching the video clips, my students have been astounding me with their knowledge; we have even expanded to discussing why we feel each emotion. They are motivated and engaged, and I cannot express the joy I feel to watch their success.
Without compassion for my students I would not have nearly as many of these amazing moments. Yes, I care deeply for these students, and yes, it can lead at times to feelings of pain. Yet, look at the love Jesus has for us. He loved us enough to die on the cross, and we, being human, disappoint him every day. Imagine the frustration he feels at times when we take steps back instead of moving forward. Every step forward, however, is growth and cause for celebration. And because he loves us so much, the joy he feels when we grow is indescribable. I feel a fraction of the love Jesus feels for us. Having experienced that tiny bit of love and empathy, even in exchange for some pain, I would not trade it for anything.