10 things a year as a therapist taught me about life, work & growth

As of 6pm on Friday, I am no longer a therapist.

It’s a strange, bittersweet feeling. For over a year, being a therapist was more than just a job–it was part of my identity. Work didn’t get to stay at work; it was part of my life in a deeply profound way. My co-workers became my supporters in ways that were unlike anything I’d experienced at any other job; the concept of a “mental health day” took on an entirely new meaning, being present in my work became more important than ever.

Looking back on the past year, it’s hard to pick out the things that I learned from being a therapist as opposed to things I learned simply by getting another year older (and maybe a few months wiser). But that, I suppose, is why self-reflection has become such an important part of my growth process. I’ve written before about journaling and how daily reflective practice has changed the way I spend my time, but it really has made a huge difference–not just in my ability to look back at moments of gratitude, but to watch myself experience learning and growth. It’s also allowed me to read old entries and see the places where I learned hard lessons and received some painful reminders of my own limitations–limitations that, thanks in part to that active self-reflection, I was sometimes able to turn into strengths.

But not without challenges, and not without luck, and not without help.

For better or worse, I’m a lists person, and I do my best memory collection through organization. So, here we are:

10 Things a Year as a Therapist Taught Me about Life, Work & Growth

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embracing vulnerability (happiness project, part 5)

Fairly early on in my graduate social work program, our program director sat down with my cohort and talked to us, pretty frankly, about the burnout problem. Some fairly ridiculous percentage (like, 21-67% across multiple studies) of mental health workers report high rates of emotional exhaustion and cynicism with the profession, leading to increases in anxiety, depression, and stress-related health issues. She told us, gently but frankly, that in her experience, a significant number of MSW grads end up leaving the social work field, or at least direct service work, within five years.

I remember, distinctly, looking around that room of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed MSW students, and thinking to myself, “Okay, some of us are gonna burn out, but I’m not going to be one of them.”

What’s that saying about famous last words?

When I chose social work as a field, I knew I was getting into a profession with long hours, low pay, and high rates of compassion fatigue. I’ve written before about the struggle I’ve had balancing my own need for self-care with the desire to spend all of my emotional energy on my clients, and in all honesty, it’s something I’ve struggled with throughout my career–and probably always will, regardless of whether I’m in direct service work or not. It’s just another part of who I am, much to my husband’s chagrin.


But as convinced as I was at the beginning of my graduate program that I was not going to be one of the social workers who burned out in their first five years, I’m beginning to admit that maybe I am. It’s impossible for me to ignore that in the year that I’ve been in clinical work, my health issues–both physical and mental–have gotten worse, my stress levels have skyrocketed (despite pretty significant work over the last six months on self-care routines), and overall, may happiness has just decreased. I love my clients, and in many ways I feel deeply fulfilled by the work that I do. But I also feel tired, frustrated, angry, sad, fiercely furious with the social systems I’m forced to work within, and overall, exhausted.

So, as I recently announced to my work colleagues–and therefore now all of you readers–it’s time for a change.

Besides being one of my absolute least favorite things on the planet just on principle, being on the job hunt means exposing myself to one of my biggest anxiety triggers: putting my own future in someone else’s hands.


I spend a lot of time hanging out with my therapist and talking about why this is such a big deal for me, and in all honesty, we’ve been digging around in it for awhile. We’ve spent a while going back and forth talking about how much I love to plan and control things (case in point), and how job searching is basically impossible to plan or control, because all you’re doing is sending cover letter after cover letter out into the void, hoping like hell someone will send you an email.

(Also, can I just say that whoever started the “due to the amount of responses, we will only contact you if you are invited to interview” thing is an absolutely terrible person? Because seriously. Send a batch “rejection” form email if you have to, but leaving everyone else in limbo is awful, and I hate that it’s become the norm.

Anyway. I digress.)

Wrapping my mind around just why it is that this job search thing makes me so uncomfortable–beyond just the aforementioned frustrating limbo–has been an ongoing challenge over the past month or two that I’ve been engaged in this process. I’ve probably spent two or three days’ (or at least nights’) worth of time trying to connect to the feelings of fear and anxiety that come up every time I think about writing another cover letter or sending another email, and each time, I find myself back at the beginning of my thoughts, deciding that this must just be some kind of personal failure.

But help comes through in weird places.

In my post about New Years’ Resolutions, I talked about wanting to make an effort to watch one TED Talk each month. I spent most of January vaguely scrolling through the TED site from time to time and occasionally bookmarking things to maybe watch later, and ended up scraping in right under the wire last night, thanks to a list of 5 Must-See TED Talks for Social Workers that a friend of mine shared on Facebook. The one I picked was “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brené Brown, and you guys, I don’t say this much, but it was actually life-changing.


In her talk, Brown talks about the biggest barrier to human connection is shame–something that each and every one of us feels at one time or another. Shame is that deep, emotionally exhausting feeling of not [blank] enough–not good enough, not smart enough, not worthy enough. And that to overcome this shame, what we need to do is allow ourselves to be vulnerable; “to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen,” in order to embrace connection. And that, of course, is absolutely fucking terrifying.

So Brown set out to do some research, to deconstruct shame and kick vulnerability’s ass, and to figure out just what it is that separated the people who were able to overcome shame and believe themselves worthy of love and happiness from those who couldn’t. What she found, at the heart of the matter, was this:

“There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”

Brown wanted to dig deeper, so she sat down with her interviews and did a more in-depth analysis to see what those people with a belief in their worthiness had in common. And she found four factors. The first three, I thought, seemed to make pretty perfect sense. They had a sense of courage, or as Brown phrased it, “the courage to be imperfect.” They were compassionate to themselves. They had connection.

But the last factor, to both Brown’s and my chagrin, was this: they embraced, wholeheartedly, vulnerability. They knew that in life, vulnerability was a necessary, if uncomfortable, emotion–necessary for connection, necessary for learning, necessary for growth.


Brown’s reaction, and mine, was essentially this:

What the hell, research?!

(It was at about this point in the video that I realized that Brown and I would probably get along really well.)

I’m not going to recap the entire video, because you should really watch it–please, please watch it–but I will tell you what I really took away from it. Vulnerability, as awkward and stomach-churning and anxiety-producing as it is, is something that we must connect with if we are to connect with all of the emotions that come with growth and progress. When we close ourselves off from vulnerability in order to avoid the painful feelings that sometimes come with it–fear, anxiety, disappointment–we also lose out on happiness, on personal growth, on excitement.


When I meet with my clients and they bring an uncomfortable feeling into the room–depression, grief, worry, pain–I ask them to spend a moment sitting with that feeling. I ask them where they feel it in their bodies, where they carry it–in their shoulders, in their chest, in their belly? I ask them to connect with the feeling and allow themselves to feel it, rather than instinctively away, because listening to those feelings is part of the process of understanding them. But doing this for myself has always been something I’ve recoiled against, preferring instead to press past vulnerability and project an air of surety or calm.

It may seem strange to bring vulnerability into my happiness project, but the more I think about it, the more I begin to understand that embracing vulnerability is a critical part of practicing happiness. Where my clients need to connect to the feelings they bring into my office, as I prepare to leave that office I need to connect to the vulnerability of allowing others to control where I go next. I need to lean into my discomfort, not push it away, and only through that discomfort and vulnerability will I be able to reach out to opportunities.

As uncomfortable as it is, I don’t know where the next step in my career will be. But I know that vulnerability is part of the journey.

And, strangely, I’m excited to start.

#readingwednesday: is it me or my meds?

“On Prozac, Sisyphus might well push the boulder back up the mountain with more enthusiasm and creativity. I do not want to deny the benefits of psychoactive medication. I just want to point out that Sisyphus is not a patient with a mental health problem. To see him as a patient with a mental health problem is to ignore certain larger aspects of his predicament connected to boulders, mountains, and eternity”

– Carl Elliott


I’ve had a complicated relationship with psychotropic medication.


When I was in college, I spent a lot of time being not-so-gently nudged into therapy by multiple people (my family, my friends, my then-boyfriend who is now my husband). While it might sound odd coming from a now-therapist, I really wasn’t into it. It seemed very weird to be talking to a stranger about my problems (cue ironic trombone noise), and I didn’t like the idea of doing it–it set off major alarm bells with what I now know is my anxiety. But hey, hindsight is 20/20, right?


While I wasn’t in therapy in college, my sophomore year was when I started seeking medication to specifically deal with my fibromyalgia and migraines, and suddenly found myself on a series of antidepressants. I didn’t realize it then, but SSRIs and SNRIs are often used to treat physical  conditions as well as psychiatric ones, and that meant dealing with all of the many side effects, some of which exacerbated the very conditions they were supposed to be treating.


Now, working as a mental health therapist for a child and adolescent agency, I often find myself referring clients for medication evaluations with our psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses–sometimes at their request, sometimes at the request of their parent or guardian. In our practice, clients receiving medication are, with some rare exceptions, also required to be in counseling with a therapist. I would estimate that probably about 60% of the clients in our practice take psychotropic medications, which leads to a lot of questions about the nature of how we refer kids for meds, how we decide when they need meds, and what it means to use psychotropic medications on young, still-developing personalities and minds.




I first read David Karp’s Is It Me or My Meds? for a sociology course in college, but found myself drifting back to it a few weeks ago after having a conversation with a teenage client about her difficulty in deciding whether or not she wanted to give meds a try to manage her depressive cycles. Part interview report, part research project, Karp’s text explores the relationship between “pills and personhood”, looking at the ways in which people of different ages, backgrounds, and mental illnesses relate to their diagnoses and prescriptions.


When I read this book back in college, my knee-jerk reaction was almost to recoil. It freaked me out to learn about the ways that psychotropic medications changed the way people think and feel. I didn’t like how easily it seemed that psych meds were prescribed and the high rates of people–especially kids and teens–on multiple meds at once. (In all honesty, this is something that still worries me–the CDC reports that one in thirteen American kids between the ages of six and seventeen takes at least one psychotropic medication, and rates of psych medication prescription soars when kids are involved in the special education, foster, and juvenile justice systems.) That said, even in my first read-through back in college, I could see that Karp is careful to take a nuanced approach to understanding psychotropic medications, and for good reason–Karp discloses in his preface that he himself has taken antidepressants for years, and had spent a significant amount of time struggling with the changes he noticed in himself when he began taking medication.


Reading the book again as an adult and a therapist, I have a different experience. I’m more appreciative of the way that Karp works to understand the entire system of each person he interviews–looking at the whole person, the context of their experiences. In the work I do now, I’d estimate that eighty-five to ninety percent of my clients come to me with a trauma history–some kind of experience of pain or fear that had a significant impact on the way they currently function. I’ve learned the way that trauma can disguise itself as ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder and depression and anxiety, and while I deeply appreciate the ways in which psychotropic medications allow my clients to function while we work through the underlying issues that contribute to their symptoms, I also understand that without the therapeutic component of their treatment, medication alone would not be sufficient to keep most of them functioning.


There’s a reason why the recommended treatment for most mental health disorders is to utilize a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Two of the many medications I take currently to manage my physical chronic health conditions are psychotropic, and even though those meds aren’t prescribed for to treat my anxiety and depression, I’ve found that I do considerably better managing those symptoms when in therapy than I do while taking those same medications without therapy. Is It Me or My Meds? isn’t the most academic or always-engaging of texts, but it is a great read for anyone who is trying to explore the decision to start medication, and I would absolutely recommend it for clinicians who want to improve their insight into what their clients might go through when they make the decision to start–or to stop–psychiatric medication.


Karp’s book asks its main question right in the title, and in all honesty, it doesn’t find a real answer. As clinicians, we tell our clients that medication can help them be the best, safest version of themselves; as patients, we do our best to hope that medication isn’t changing who we are. There is no single experience with psychotropic medication, but each person who takes them makes that decision carefully, and often uncertainly. If nothing else, what I take away from this book–and back to my clients and myself–is that medication is a step on a journey to living as one’s best self.


It’s not the destination.


For more great images about conquering the mountain of mental illness, check out The Doodle Chronicles on Tumblr.

if you’re going through hell (keep going)

As someone who has always favored stability over uncertainty, I’ve been feeling totally unbalanced by the number of changes that have happened over the past few months. Some of these changes have been truly amazing (marrying the love of my life, starting (and almost finishing) an awesome internship working with some of the most wonderful, supportive people I have ever met, adopting a crazy but adorable dog) and others less amazing (losing my modest but important income at the end of my grad assistantship in May, having my chronic pain go from “manageable” to “barely tolerable”, having my marriage be a bit more long-distance than originally planned, losing some of the function in my hand thanks to some broken bones and torn ligaments), but change in general can make me feel like I’m treading water and barely keeping my head afloat.

A week from Friday, I’ll be leaving my amazing internship and heading up to Maine. I’ll be going from having a lovely little place to live and a job (well, an unpaid internship) to, as of now, a friend’s couch and a continuing job search. This means more changes–lots of them–very quickly: destabilizing my living conditions, figuring out how to move more stuff (wedding gifts: awesome, yet so bulky!) with less space in the car (because dog), trying to find an apartment without (as of this writing) a job offer to figure out the budget, finding a new vet, trying to see my own doctor to figure out the cluster-you-know-what of my own health, adjusting the pup to a new place and a new routine as Husband heads back to school and I (hopefully!) head into work, trying to re-establish a support system of friends so that we don’t all go off the walls. Needless to say, my anxiety is through the roof, bringing my stress-induced pain levels along with it. I’m holding regularly-scheduled prayer circles to hold off the stress-induced migraines; all are welcome to join in.

UnFortunately, there is a time and place for showing how anxious you are, and (fun fact) working as a therapist with traumatized children is really not one of them. My general rule of thumb: these kids have been through enough crap, so they definitely do not need my crap on top of it. Noooope nope nope they do not. So there might be a lot of this going on in the moment from when they leave my office to when I close the door behind them:

but the rule is that from the minute they enter the office to the moment they leave, my problems are not in the room. I’m there for them, they’re what matters, etc, etc. That’s how it works. My job is to be there for my kids, to listen to them, and to let them feel like they’re first. They have had plenty of time being second (or third or fourth or fifth or not even listed) priority, and I want to make sure they have at least one hour of the week where someone is there just for them.

To help out on this venture and to get more positive thinking into my life, I went and downloaded the Transform Your Life: A Year of Awareness app. It’s a nifty little app that gives you an inspiring quote and a daily assignment to try and incorporate the quote into your life for that day. Cheesy? Yep, 100%, but it gives me a moment of thoughtfulness in the mornings when the alarm chimes and I read the quote or think about the daily message. And I’m getting to the point where a few moments of positivity are enough to give me a boost for at least an hour or two, which can be the difference between actually getting some progress notes done or just putting my head down on my desk and being dead for a few minutes. So, yes. Mindfulness. Hooray.

On August 5th, the quote was one from good ol’ Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” The day’s assignment: “Today, whatever you’re going through, keep going–and smile!”



Being told to smile when I’m not happy is one of those things that makes me want to hit my head against a desk. I have always been of the belief that you don’t owe anyone a smile. Now, again, given my line of work, I’m also not going to go around looking like Grumpy Cat (who is apparently totally misunderstood, poor critter), but putting a big smile on my face that a kid who is hyper-alert (which almost all my clients are) is going to see through in a millisecond and then get suspicious over isn’t the solution, either. But the first part of the assignment, I like.

In health fields, particularly mental health and trauma fields, we talk a lot about resilience. There’s a lot of back-and-forth about the definition of resilience–is it a construct, a characteristic, a process, an outcome, etc–but to me, what it really boils down to is the essence of that quote: resilience is going on when you’re going through hell. And “hell” comes in all shapes and sizes–medical trauma, social trauma, emotional trauma, physical trauma, illness, abuse, mental health, adjustments, pain, relationships, conflicts, the list goes on forever–but to be resilient is to go through it. And that doesn’t always mean taking on your issues head on, solving every problem you’re facing all at once. Sometimes it’s taking a breath before you respond to a statement that made you angry. Sometimes it’s going to work even though your body hurts and your social anxiety is through the roof. Sometimes it’s making it home and watching Netflix instead of having a cigarette or a drink. Sometimes it’s having one glass of wine instead of four. Sometimes, it’s just getting out of bed.

There’s a sense of freedom that comes with acknowledging the quiet forms resilience can take. We put a lot of emphasis on boldly tackling issues, even in the language we use to describe resilience: “power through” your problems, “face your problems head-on”, etc. In fact, acknowledging personal struggle without also providing a list of the things you’re doing to counteract those struggles is often seen as asking for sympathy, or just whining. For those with chronic struggles, people get sick of hearing about the same things: “Aren’t you over that, yet?” To own the softer forms of resistance, to say, honestly, “I can’t solve this, but I am still trying, and I’m getting through every day, and that’s enough” gives a certain sense of release, like letting out a breath you’ve been holding so long your chest has started to hurt. It’s a good feeling, even though your ribs still hurt for a few moments until you’ve really started breathing again, and then you wonder why you ever stopped.

Last week, I was sitting with one of my clients, working on a puzzle, nursing a headache and trying not to think about the epic to-do list that’s been building up in the margins of my planner.  After a few moments of working in silence–my usually-quiet client had just spoken for almost four minutes straight, and was taking some time to recover from her surprising moment of verbosity–my client said, “Miss Shelly, you seem tired today.”

In clinical practice, there’s a line between appropriate and inappropriate self-disclosure. When working with kids, you need to be even more careful about this line. But kids are often more perceptive than adults, and if you’re trying to hide something from a kid who’s hyper-vigilant, they’ll figure it out, and it’ll hurt their feelings. This particular client has had to deal with a lot of dishonest adults, and I didn’t want to be one more of those. I put my puzzle piece down. “I am tired,” I said. “There’s some stuff going on for me at home that is a little stressful, and it makes me feel tired.”

My client looked at me. “I feel that sometimes, too,” she said. Apparently satisfied with this part of the conversation, she turned back to working on the puzzle.

A few moments later, she turned back to me. “What do you do when you can’t fix it?”

“You do your best,” I said. I handed her another puzzle piece and she tried to slot it into place upside-down, then reversed it and put it into the picture correctly. “And then you try again.”

choosing kindness, learning patience

As much as “Kind, Caring, Compassionate” is a motto for social workers and one I try to internalize, I am becoming more and more comfortable with admitting that kindness and patience are not things that come naturally to me.

This isn’t to say that I’m an unkind person. I spend what might be too much time thinking about other people and trying to do as much as I can for my clients and my various social justice causes. But at the same time, I have a lot of inner Gryffindor that needs to be contended with.

When I grew up reading Harry Potter, I always thought I was too smart to be in Gryffindor. “Surely I’m a Ravenclaw!”, I thought. “I’m so clever! And practical! And I always think about things! And I get really passionate about social justice, but I try to be well-researched, and…”

(oh. oops.)

So, here I am, trying to reconcile my Gryffindor identity (which is starting to make an uncomfortable amount of sense with my Leo personality) with my social work career path, which asks, amongst other things, that clinicians be kind and compassionate, understanding and thoughtful, careful with our words and actions, gentle with our judgments, and cautious with our interventions.

There are a lot of ways baby social workers might go about learning the skills that don’t necessarily come naturally to us. Read a book, role-play with a friend or supervisor, seek extra supervision…all great ways of developing those skills.

I decided to get a dog.

sammi face

(she’s sad because I took her picture instead of cuddling her)

Meet Sammi, my new housemate. She’s a hound/lab mix, with a little bit of Rhodesian Ridgeback thrown in there somewhere (she looks freakishly like my brother- and sister-in-law’s dog, Charlie), somewhere between a year and a half and two years old. She is a cuddly sweetheart who bounces back and forth between “let me lie on your lap and love you!” and “I WILL RUN EVERYWHERE GOODBYE.”

What was that about patience, again?

Here’s the thing about dogs. Dogs are, by nature…dogs. They don’t have the same moral reasoning that people do, and as such you can’t hold them to the same moral standard. If a dog gets freaked out because you’re leaving the house and runs back and forth across the house REALLY FREAKING FAST because they’re terrified that you will never come back ever (even if you’re just, I don’t know, popping out to the car to get the last bag of groceries), they’re not doing it to piss you off. All you can do is remake the bed, straighten the carpet, and go back to your day. If they slip by you on your way out the door to go to brunch and lead you on a wild goose (dog?) chase through the woods around your house for an hour and you only catch them because they’ve decided to become BFFs with the neighbor’s St. Bernard down the road and tire themselves out, they’re doing it because they are dogs, and outside is SUPER FUN, and of course they want to run around without a leash! All you can do is snap their leash back on, wash them off at home, thank your lucky stars individually and by name that they didn’t run into the street, and sign them up for a training class.

And as frustrating as it is, you just…can’t get mad. Partially because they turn those big puppy eyes on you and you melt like butter on a warm pancake, but also because it doesn’t help anything. All you can do is take a deep breath, handle the situation calmly, and come up with a better training regimen or a more careful way to leave the house.

A lot of this comes from the understanding that dogs can’t tell us what they’re thinking. They can’t tell you that they’re sad that you’re leaving because they’ve been bounced from home to home, or that they run when they have the chance because a person was mean to them or they saw something they really wanted to chase.  For those of us who adopted our dogs, there are a ton of blank spots to fill in. Who left you so often that you’re terrified every time I leave for work in the morning? Who didn’t train you to wait by the door so that you don’t bolt out if I fail to close it behind me fast enough? Do you bark at any sudden movement because it’s instinct, or because something scared you? Do you bark at me because you need something you’re not getting, or because you want something and aggressiveness was the only way to get it in the last place you lived? TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED TO YOU SO THAT I CAN FIX EVERYTHING.

(Spoilers, they don’t usually answer that question.)

After awhile, this train of thought gets uncomfortably close to the tenets of trauma-informed care. Which, for someone who is definitely on the struggle bus with the whole “give the benefit of the doubt” thing, is actually pretty awesome, because it slots everything into place. “Oh,” you think to yourself as you sit across from a client who is throwing things against the wall again, “this is how I felt when Sammi was barking up a storm yesterday. Something must have happened that made this the reaction that makes sense to this client in this situation.” And all of a sudden, instead of wanting to bash your head into the wall, it makes a lot more sense to take a deep breath and respond with patience. You can’t undo whatever happened to them before you came into their lives. All you can do is try to be the best person for them moving forward, whether that’s deconstructing and changing negative behavior or reinforcing positive behavior.

Just because patience is not your instinctual response doesn’t mean you can’t become a person who practices patience. Just because your initial response to conflict or aggression is to snap right back doesn’t mean you can’t learn to react with kindness, even if your mind is still mentally listing all the snappy comebacks you could have used. There are times and places for action and debate and all the other fun things we Gryffindors like to do instead of quietly and calmly and kindly discussing an issue (anyone who has ever had a social justice conversation with me knows how low “be friendly” is on my list of priorities in those chats), but there are times and places where patience and kindness are what works better. Are what’s needed.


Take a breath. Flip through your mental Rolodex of kind words and find the right ones for this situation. Handle this moment with kindness and compassion. Finish your session. Finish your walk. Gently disengage your client’s fingers from whatever she is throwing. Sit quietly until your dog understands that barking will not get your attention. Breathe.

And when it’s over, have a nice glass of wine.

(You earned it.)

on learning from bad teachers

There’s a fairly wide-spread belief in the Harry Potter fandom that Delores Umbridge is a more hated character than Lord Voldemort.

There’s a reason for this. Voldemort is like Darth Vader or Wizard Hitler, however you want to put it–scary and terrifying for the things he can do, but not something that readers (especially kids) can actually connect to on an emotional level. Harry’s experiences fighting Voldemort aren’t something that kids can really empathize with, because most kids aren’t going around fighting giant snakes or breaking into government buildings to steal prophecies, etc.

But every kid has had a teacher like Umbridge. The teacher who, no matter how you tried, never respected the things you said. The teacher who always had to be right. The teacher who wrapped hypocrisy and condescension in sweetness, who shot you down for any opinion that didn’t match their own, the teacher that doesn’t just punish you for expressing your opinion, they punish you and then tell you you earned it.

(a little extreme, maybe, but the point stands.)

These are the teachers that you can’t self-advocate with. Self-advocacy is a great buzzword, especially for social workers. Someone treating you poorly? Advocate for yourself! Your needs aren’t being met? Self-advocate! Yay, self-advocacy!

But self-advocacy only works when you feel safe, and with teachers like Umbridge, you can’t feel safe. You can’t go to an office and say, “I felt disrespected when this happened,” or, “I’m concerned about what I observed in class today,” or, “Can we have a conversation about the way conflicts are addressed in class?” You can’t do this because not only is there a skewed power dynamic, but there is an almost definite assurance of negative consequences. And this is always terrifying, because these teachers do so within the rules of the educational system. They punish you in ways that you can’t prove or protest. A lack of validation of your ideas, little acceptance of your needs for scheduling or academic accommodation, negative reinforcement, even altering your grades. You try to report them to a supervisor, and get no help.

I have a teacher like this now, and I am stuck. People who know me in real life know that I have very, very low tolerance for bullshit and disrespect, but even I have a line that needs to be drawn. This teacher determines whether I not I receive my degree in August. I have already reported her once for disrespectful and triggering language, and received an email back that said–you guessed it!–“this is a great opportunity for self-advocacy!”

These aren’t situations when you can self-advocate. Students have a right to feel safe, and education professionals have a responsibility to ensure that. (To clarify: when I say “safe” I don’t mean that every student has a right to perfect grades or having every opinion validated and supported, especially if those opinions are harmful to others. When I say “safe”, I mean that students should not be afraid to approach teachers with questions, and should be able to express concerns about a teacher’s behavior in class in a respectful way without fear of retribution.) What is the course of action when students can’t self-advocate and the administration doesn’t offer support?

(let me dream)

At a certain point, you have only three options:

  1. Stand up for yourself and others as much as you can, and accept the consequences.
  2. Learn how not to act when in a position of power.
  3. Collect anecdotes for an absolutely scathing letter that you will send the millisecond this teacher no longer has power over you.

Or, in my case, do all three.

I might be an exception to some rules, but (and yeah, we’re going Harry Potter again, deal with it) I think this is where my inner Gryffindor actually comes out pretty clearly. My bullshit tolerance level is extremely low, and my tolerance for people in power being disrespectful to people not in power is extremely extremely low. So I tend to call it out. And I try to do this in a respectful manner, using affirming language, “I” statements, contextualizing my opinion, etc, though I’ve still been told that my voice says “friendly” but my eyes say “murder.” This is something I’m half-heartedly working on.

I see it as a sort of tiny ounce of civil disobedience. The criticisms I give are within the bounds of respectful discourse (although the teacher in question doesn’t see it that way), and if nothing else, the rest of the people in the class get to see at least one person refusing to lie down and take the you-know-what she doles out. And I’m fairly sure that that’s how I’ll handle the semester: call things out as I see it. Know when to step down and end a conversation, even if I don’t have the last word. Refuse to let problematic statements stand without challenge, because a class full of social workers in clinical internships needs to see positive modeling of language and skills, not a clear example of how not to act.

Which brings me to the next point.

You can learn a lot by watching a bad example of power dynamics. You can watch how the people around you react to things someone says or does, and feel the changes of emotion in a room. You can see what happens when someone tries to voice an opinion or advocate change, and is struck down by someone who can’t stand being questioned.

(literally this is how it feels sometimes)

And when this happens, you get to make goals for your future. You get to make professional promises for yourself. You grow up enough to realize that this is not an okay way to treat people. That as a professional, as a leader, you have a responsibility to create safe spaces for the people you work with. That if you are a trauma-informed professional who genuinely embraces the tenets of trauma-informed practice rather than just paying lip service, you will question yourself, and take criticism of your actions with grace, and understand that the intent of your words matters less than the perception of them. You’ll take responsibility for the things you say and do that are hurtful, rather than placing the blame of injury on the person who is hurt. You will not say, “sorry for the miscommunication,” but rather, “I’m sorry that hurt you with my words. What can I do in the future to be better?” This is how to learn from a bad teacher: you mark each and every thing that they do wrong, and commit yourself to doing the opposite.

But the end of a class doesn’t mean the end of your responsibility. When a teacher no longer has the power to hurt you, this is the time to act. Whether it’s a letter to their supervisor, a letter directly to the teacher, or simply a sit-down meeting (maybe with a mediator to protect your safety), you have a responsibility to future students to make it extremely clear that the teacher’s behavior is not okay. Keep a record of what they say and do that is harmful. Write down comments, actions, anecdotes, and present them to the person or their supervisor. Demand that action be taken. If nothing else, you have explicitly told someone in power that this person is not actin appropriately. You can’t necessarily make a change, but you can make a start. And if you can get others to join you, all the better.

(Do you hear the people sing?
Singing the song of YOU ARE AN AWFUL TEACHER.)

Ultimately, I have found, the best revenge is to live well. With crappy teachers, sometimes the best thing to do is to simply be better. Take the things that they do that make you feel small and powerless, and pledge to do the opposite. Raise people up. Make them feel empowered. Never believe yourself to be above criticism, and take critiques with grace. Call out harmful words and actions, and teach people to be better. Unlearn the harmful lessons and dismantle the structures that put the wrong people into power.

The best thing you can learn from a bad teacher is how to be a good one.

So go be better, and bring others with you.