In 2019, at the start of The Unexpected Ever Afters blog, I introduced myself as a Middle School Social Worker, one of the first highlights I shared in my “Meet the Authors” post. This job title has been attached to each post as part of my author bio, reminding just how important my role as a school social worker has been to me. I have shared honest and nuanced stories about my life and many of my posts have included experiences of my struggles and successes working with middle school students. At the end of this past school year, having just completed my 9th year as a school social worker, I made the very difficult decision to change career paths and resign my social work position. Although I remain convinced this was the best decision, I found myself unexpectedly unsettled as I began to realize the significance of my career change. Similar to the grieving I felt after moving out of my first home, I found myself caught up in similar emotions after leaving the school where I had spent so much of my time, energy, and love.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had some time to reflect on my nine years as a social worker and one of the interesting things I realized is that, whether intentional or not, parts of the role had blended into my identity. Being a school social worker was not simply “my job,” but it was part of who I was. Over the past decade, I had spent a significant amount of time researching how to best support my students, information which I often applied at home with my own kids. Additionally, the life experiences of my students impacted my world view and expanded my understanding of our community. The time spent navigating struggles with students taught me how to navigate aspects of my own life: how to prioritize big versus small problems, how to sort stress, and how to lead with love and gratitude.
Throughout the years, there were a few quotes that especially impacted my social work approach. Early in my career, my mom shared with me the following quote from Jeffrey R. Holland:
“And if those children are unresponsive, maybe you can’t teach them yet, but you can love them. And if you love them today, maybe you can teach them tomorrow.”
This quote in particular had a powerful influence on my perspective. The students who were referred to me often were not in a headspace to learn. To be honest, they were not typically in a space to feel “loved” or cared about either. Their behaviors were often hurtful and their outbursts were usually directly related to their attempts to protect themselves from being hurt again by someone who claimed to care. I would spend hours with these students, and, when things were especially difficult, I would focus on the reality that my consistency of just showing up day after day for them made a difference. Persistently pushing through their layers of defenses, at times, resulted in significant growth for my students. I would frequently remind my coworkers that if all we do is shift our students’ perspective that school is for them, that they are capable of learning, that people do care about them, then we have exponentially increased their chances of success. I often repeated this reminder: Let’s love them today so that they can learn in the future.
Another important perspective was shared by one of my college professors who explained that social work was essentially “planting seeds.” Ever since college, a voice in my head always reminded:
“You’re planting seeds.”
Working with middle school students, just like planting seeds, does not always produce immediate results (a fact that anybody who has spent time with middle schoolers would likely agree with). They are independent, strong-willed, hormone-filled, emotionally driven, think-they-are-adults, kids. There were weeks where I was not sure I had accomplished anything with certain students. I recall lamenting to a colleague that, “I did nothing today.” Not that I had physically done nothing, it had been a typical busy day, but it had felt like I was talking to the air in all my student interactions. This teacher responded with my own advice, “Jessica, you planted seeds.” Sometimes I had the opportunity to see the results of student growth and success, and sometimes the growth happened after the students had moved on. Through it all, I did my best to remind myself of my role in planting seeds.
Finally, one of my favorite quotes was said during a podcast interview on the For the Love Podcast by Dr. Jim Burns, a preeminent author:
“Every child needs one adult who is irrationally positive about them.”
Some kids have many adults in their corner, they have cheerleaders in every direction propelling them forward through the nuances of life. However, some of the students I worked with had none. If I could do one thing for each student, it was to show them that they had one adult in their corner, cheering them on no matter what. All of the research I came across said that just ONE positive adult can change the trajectory of a child’s life. On days where I felt I had done nothing, I would remind myself of that. Day in and day out, I was that “one adult” to many of my students.
My social work training, research, and years of experience will always be a part of me, having impacted many aspects of my identity. And although my new career path is a shift from my role as a middle school social worker, I will always hold onto the memories I shared with my students. I want to always remember the times I witnessed how persistent caring makes a difference and has the capacity to plant seeds:
-The 8th grader who, when she saw an A in one of her classes, teared up and told me, “Nobody ever told me I could do school before.”
-The parent I went to see at the hospital when her child was struggling, said, “I didn’t know other people could care so much.”
-The 9th grader who had a bad day and, when asked by a different adult what would help her, responded, “I need you to bring me to see Jessica.”
-The girl who sent me an invitation to her high school graduation that said, “Thank you!”
-The boy I met in my office after reopening from a lengthy COVID school closure who shared, “Man, this still feels like home.”
It was an honor to provide a “home” away from home for so many students who hadn’t found that elsewhere. Even through the difficult days, I know that meeting students where they were at, caring for them as they were, encouraging them to be themselves, all of it mattered. It is the students I will miss the most. The end of this long chapter is bittersweet, but I will always be thankful for the experiences. I look forward to learning new things, carrying aspects of my experiences into the next role, and continuing to form my identity and find who I am as a person outside of the role of “school social worker.” I look forward to sharing more about this process as I continue to share unexpected stories celebrating everyday life.
Author: Jessica is a wife, mom, former school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.