Muir Wood therapist, David Laing

How to Plant the Seeds of Hope in Teens

By Ben Spencer, Teacher and Academic Director (Google+)

At the end of last week, I had a chance to sit down with Jason Lechner, Muir Wood’s Program Director of the Intensive Outpatient Program. Jason also acts as the Primary Therapist for the Residential Program. During our conversation, I filled Jason in on the academic program at Muir Wood, how it works, and the types of experiences I’ve had during my first year. I expressed the enormous gratitude I have for being able to work in an academic capacity with our students during their short stay in treatment, while also citing the simultaneous difficulty of having such a short amount of time to work together.

When I taught in a traditional classroom, things were a lot more straightforward. I had thirty desks filled with thirty students who were roughly at the same age and academic level as one another. I had a lesson plan for each day with clear, concrete objectives and a short assessment to be administered at the class period. I measured the success of each day by analyzing whether or not the progress we made in class was allowing us to build toward a measureable, realistic, and rigorous “Big Goal” we had set for the end of the year, which usually had something to do with passing a state test, though, in every year I taught, we had a goal to match it focusing on some aspect of college readiness.

In the classroom of an adolescent treatment center, the formula isn’t so simple. In the Muir Wood classroom, I have six students at any one time. Students range in age from 12 to 17, which essentially encompasses grades 7 through 12. Each student is at a different academic level, and each student has his own needs. Some students are incredibly gifted in a traditional academic sense and are independently motivated to complete their work. Other students are gifted in different, equally important ways. In my year at Muir Wood, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of the most promising young artists I’ve encountered in all my years in education.

As a very concrete thinker, I feel the intense need to be able to measure my students’ progress and successes in class—for example, looking at the improvement in academic performance between two tests or exploring how a student’s writing has improved by reading one of his essays. I’m able to see those smaller gains each day. While I’m able to acquire data and measure student progress concretely in this capacity, I can’t always see how the successes students have during our 45 days at Muir Wood will impact their lives in the long term. But, as Jason Lechner put it during our conversation, any kind of education involves “planting seeds” that will eventually flower, sometimes quickly, sometimes more slowly. Before last Friday, during the four previous years I’d been a teacher, I didn’t actually have a feel for what “planting seeds” actually meant.

Last Friday, we graduated the thirty fourth resident from Muir Wood: “Jim.” I value my intuition and my ability to read people, but Jim’s stoic nature made it difficult to get a read on how he was feeling each day and if he was actually learning anything. He rarely spoke up in class and any efforts I made to connect with him were halted by the barriers he put up around himself.

During his graduation, I saw Jim open up—he figuratively blossomed before my eyes—and I got a feeling for what Jason and many other people I know mean when they describe the importance of “planting seeds.” Although I was unable to see if Jim was actually ingesting any of the information I relayed in class, or whether or not he was learning anything in the program, he proved that he had gained a great deal from Muir Wood when he spoke about what his relationship with each staff member and resident meant to him.

Although I still find myself wanting a more concrete picture of whether or not the seeds we’ve planted have begun to grow, I’m starting appreciate the human quality of the treatment field. I’m beginning to see that the best way we can measure our progress in the field is by looking at the small day-to-day successes. “Success”—as it manifests itself in the existential journey that is recovery—doesn’t always look as pretty and clear cut as we imagine or hope it would. But if we capitalize on those small successful moment, when individual, meaningful seeds take hold, then our collective success is much easier to measure, and we can better appreciate the profound impact we have on the live’s of the young men who come to Muir Wood.