On going to heaven

A few times a year, I’ll find myself in a conversation with someone who doesn’t already know what I do for work, often a stranger or an acquaintance, and I’ll explain about my school, my student population, and my role. I’ll give a couple of examples of the challenges facing my students and the structures we use to serve them well.

Every so often, the response will be: ” “you’re an angel,” or “you’re going to heaven,” or “amazing! I could never do that.”

I don’t fault people’s intent behind these comments. I understand and appreciate the compliment, but (even putting aside the religious undertones) there’s something about these comments that rubs me the wrong way. The implication (and sometimes plainly stated message) is that “I could never do that.” There’s a sense that to work with challenging or high-needs students, there must be something holy about you. You need to operate at a higher level, be driven by a spiritual mission, or expect an otherworldly reward. There’s a connotation of sacrifice and goodness, of purity. Sometimes when I hear these “compliments,” what I really hear is, “thank goodness you’re doing that work so the rest of us don’t have to.”

In reality, working with challenging students, working with high-needs students, working with all students is a job for everyone. It doesn’t require holiness. It doesn’t require spiritual belief. It requires hard work, perspective, and empathy. It isn’t angelic; it’s messy, full of mistakes, and profoundly human.

We need boundaries, not martyrdom. We need a support system, not a pedestal. We don’t need to hear “I could never do that,” we need to hear “I want to do better for my students too, how can we work together?”

If you feel driven by spirituality and mission, that’s wonderful – many people draw on their beliefs to feel connected to their work. However, projecting these values on others may have the opposite effect of your intent. If you make an assumption about me – that I hold certain beliefs about God, heaven, and spiritual mission, or find meaning in a compliment related to those beliefs – it makes me wonder what beliefs you’re projecting onto my students.

If we’re not meeting in a context related to our shared spirituality, I’d prefer a compliment about my perseverance, creativity, or resourcefulness. I’d prefer you asking questions to better understand my experience. Instead of telling me, “I could never do that,” let’s talk about how you actually could – and help you get there.

Students with behavioral challenges, disabilities, high needs – whatever the label, they’re all children. They’re people. I’m not an angel – I’m a human, working with humans. Let’s see each other as people, as equals working together toward a common goal. Let’s talk about heaven another day – today, I’m doing the work here on earth.

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