Elizabeth Rivera has taught for 17 years at the Lorge School, a UFT-represented nonpublic, year-round school for students ages 5-21 who are diagnosed with learning disabilities, emotional disturbances or other health impairments.
How do students come to the Lorge School?
My school is an intervention school. We get students who are emotionally disturbed who have exhausted their resources in the city Department of Education. They come to us before they may have to go into day or even residential treatment. If we’re able to correct the issues they’re having, they can return back to a less-restrictive setting.
What makes your school the appropriate setting for them?
It’s the environment. I find a lot of my students have given up on all the adults in their lives. They’ve been betrayed in their minds by a lot of people. The staff at our school works together to make sure kids feel safe. We have a whole intervention team, and we do really well putting together behavioral plans. When I tell a student, “We had a meeting about how to help you,” they love that: ‘You had a meeting? All for me?’ We have only 10 classrooms, and we group students by age but not by grade. Sometimes we stay with our students for three or four years so we really get to know them.
Your school was remote for the entire 2020-21 school year. What was it like returning in person for 2021-22?
Returning back to school was super difficult for the kids but also for us because we were out of practice. We were extremely short-staffed. We didn’t have a social worker; my students weren’t getting counseling. I had six 10- and 11-year-old students, three of whom have severe disabilities. It was fire every day.
What are some of the behavioral issues you confront?
A student might be dealing with a lot of inconsistency with her medication, and her behavior is out of her control. Some days she might come in cursing and targeting other students; other days she might come in and want to help. A student in foster care might have visitation with the parents, who sometimes don’t show. I need to be on point the day after a visitation, ready to address the student’s emotions before they enter the classroom. Having special stickers or a special activity for them to look forward to always helps. Our students can go from 0 to 100 in an instant. You have to be willing to de-escalate the situation and still stand your ground.
How do you deal with a student in crisis?
I’ve had training in crisis intervention, but sometimes I just get an instinct. The biggest thing is I don’t want kids going to the hospital. Crisis is traumatizing, and going to the hospital doesn’t make it better. I squeeze their hands to let them know I’m there because sometimes they can’t even make eye contact. If they hit me, I say, “You didn’t hurt me; I’m fine, I still love you. When you calm down, we’ll go back to class.” It’s about what you tell them. If a kid has a crisis and spits at you in the face and goes to timeout, you have to be ready to welcome that kid back like nothing happened. Kids need that. You have to smile and keep it moving.
What kind of skills or personality does an educator need to work at a school like yours?
You have to be genuine. These kids can see through insincerity like nobody else in the world. If you don’t care about them, they know. But rational detachment is part of our training. That’s difficult, especially when staff are brand new. They come into the building with their hearts open because they love kids. Kids know what’s going to hurt you, and they might say something that will offend you. That’s when you have to rationally detach and say, “That kid is having other issues that led to this.” You have to look past it and around it, or you will burn out.
— As told to reporter Rachel Nobel