This is a story about a real person. This particular story happened many years ago, but similar events have since happened over and over in my work with both children and adults. In case you are wondering if it is someone you know, I have changed the student’s name. I had been warned about 13 year-old Phillip by several people—his former tutors of whom he had scared off several—his teachers, his principal, and his mother. “That boy is a piece of work” was the general consensus. When Phillip and his mother arrived in my office, his face was red and his eyes swollen. His mother announced, “I wish you good luck. It was all I could do to get him into the building.”
As she departed, I introduced myself to Phillip and attempted to build some rapport. I anticipated a challenge. “I know I’m not the first tutor you have had,” I helpfully pointed out, “so I’d like to know what your goals are for our sessions together so that we can be sure to incorporate them into the meetings.” Phillip did not wait to formulate his answer. It spilled out of him. “My goal is to never see your face again!” he spat angrily, narrowing his eyes to thin slits and turning away from me with his arms tightly crossed. I was briefly shocked; it was the first time I had ever been told this by any client. I tried not to react too quickly lest I respond with anger at a boy who had merely answered my question quite honestly, and the thought of what to say came to me surprisingly easily, despite never having had his particular answer offered to that question.
“Phillip, I think that’s a wonderful goal,” I said with real enthusiasm and a lack of sarcasm that astonished even me. He turned to me looking quite stunned and listened as I continued. “I only work with people until they don’t need me anymore, so I will do everything that I can to make it possible for you not to need to see me again. I can’t promise when that will be, but I will promise to honor your request. ” By now Phillip was quite confused, but he wasn’t as angry, and I wasn’t feeling threatened by his very straight-forward comment. And he did need me; he needed to learn to use his powers for good.
During subsequent meetings, there was sometimes tension. He complained to his mother that I was positively the most stubborn person he had ever met, but he never refused to attend a session. (Perhaps he meant that I was stubbornly the most positive person he had ever met. It can be frustrating to work with someone who is sure there are solutions to problems!) There was also lots of growth, and one day I knew that Phillip was ready to use his toolbox of strategies and self-knowledge independently. I reminded him of my promise when we had first met, prefacing what I was about to tell him—that his goal had been met and he didn’t need to see me anymore—by reading Phillip the notes about our first conversation. “Wasn’t I just awful?” he remarked with embarrassment. “Well, were you happy then?” I asked. “Were you being your best self?” It’s not just that Phillip learned skills like reading and writing, and learned content like Biology and Algebra. He developed self-efficacy: that he had the power to produce results. Your kids do, too.