Classroom Stories: What Makes It All Worthwhile

A Rescue In Class: Sometimes It's What You Prevent That Makes Teaching Worthwhile By Robert Bacal

Sometimes teachers and group leaders have a chance to make a significant contribution to someone's life that has absolutely NOTHING to do with what is being taught, or about what goes on in the classroom.

Here's what happened:

I was teaching a month long three hour a day course for college instructors, and flew in for the month to deliver the course. It was somewhere in the first or second week, and my wife came down for a few days to visit, and on this particular day, she was attending the class, since she rarely had a chance to see me work.

About an hour into the class, there was a knock on the door, and one of the support staff asked to speak to "Jack". I was to later find out that there was a phone message from Jack's best friend in the small town they both lived in. Jack had come to the big city just to take the course I was offering.

While it wasn't unheard of to have a phone call for someone in the class, there was the usual apprehension that something was "wrong" and the phone call was one to convey bad news.

It was.

It turned out that Jack's best friend had somehow stumbled across Jack's wife, and another man in an adulterous "act".

Jack's Return To Class

When Jack came back to class he was clearly upset. He asked to speak to me privately, so I excused myself and we went out in the hall. Here's the gist of what Jack said. You'll have to imagine the tone, since that I can't convey in words.

"I just found out my wife was caught sleeping with someone and I don't know what to do. I need to go back to my town, but I'm afraid I'll do something really really bad, because I'm a recovering alcoholic, and I've also been jailed in the past for assault -- don't have much anger control."

Then he stopped speaking. His hands were shaking. His concerns were two fold (well at least). He was worried he was going to go back home, get drunk, and kill his wife and/or the man she had been with.

I answered as I would hope most would. I offered help, and asked him to give me a minute to notify the class. I rushed in, told my wife we had an emergency, and to let the class know.

I decided that Jack needed IMMEDIATE help, so I walked him back to my office area, and informed another staff member to contact Alcoholics Anonymous, the local crisis line, and the local addiction foundation, to explain the issue, and ask for help.

Very quickly she transferred the call to another office, where Jack and the phone counsellor talked for a good half hour.

Things seemed settled for the moment and the support staff indicated they could handle the situation on their own, so I went back to my class, to resume teaching. MY hands were shaking.

The Outcome

Jack was waiting for me at the end of my class, and was still clearly upset, but much more in control of his emotions and thinking.

In conjunction with the counselling he received via phone, and that day in person, he decided it would be best if he went back home, since he felt he would be unable to benefit from being in class, and that it would be better for him to be around his usual support system.

So that's what he did. He withdrew from the course.

He was very grateful for the help, and suggested that I just might have saved him from sinking back into alcoholism and more assault charges or worse.

I lost track of him, so I don't know how things worked out with his wife and his "best friend".

Why It Makes It All Worthwhile And What I Learned

  • that it isn't just important to help people learn the "curriculum but that teaching is really a helping profession where you can have an important impact on a person's life.
  • that relationship building IS a part of training and teaching. If Jack hadn't seen me as someone he could talk to, I'd never have had the chance to help.
  • that people come to class with a whole life going on, and that we need to respect that.
  • that I had skills and presence of mind that I had not been aware of previously. While I'd taught counselling psychology at the college level before, I was not trained in clinical skills. I'm still not a "shrink", but I felt I knew enough to handle this emergency.

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Bacal & Associates is a small training, consulting and publishing company specializing in customer service, communication, performance management, and other management challenges.

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