While still working on my credential, I observed a teacher who reserves a space in her classroom for the students who don’t want to learn. Students can choose to sit in the back of the room and joke around quietly with each other rather than waste her time and take away from the students who actually do want to learn. After she installed that routine in her classroom, she noted a remarkable leap in productive instructional time. The students who wanted to learn improved by leaps and bounds as compared to when she tried to teach them alongside unwilling participants. At the time, I was horrified by her plan and wrote my assigned reflection on just that thought: horrified that someone would give up on kids. Here’s a quick quip from that reflection: “If I am to succeed in Special Ed, I have to believe that there should be better expectations than the simple one of ‘be quiet while I teach the others.’”
Now that I have entered my third year of teaching, I can honestly say that I see where she was going with her idea. I have met my share of students who, if given the choice, would gladly take a seat in the back of the room and choose to not learn. Indeed, there are days when half the class might choose such an option. Such was my experience last week, the week before spring break, when my students were so checked out in anticipation of a week off from school that they barely paid any attention in class. I also discovered my first gray hair last week. Coincidence?
Now that I am on spring break (and planning to dye my hair), I have been trying to reflect on the school year thus far and figure out why I am so upset. Perhaps because even after months of positive behavior reinforcements, negative behavior consequences, interventions, strategies, conferences, lesson plans and lesson plan changes, and plenty of rapport established between me and my students, I still have no idea as to whether or not I am getting through to ALL of my students. I try my best to focus on the progress and success of most of my students, but like all teachers, I have the select few who confound me, confuse me, worry me. Theresa has Juan, Richard has David, Allisence has Felipe, and I… ? I have a bottle of hair dye, which is a much easier solution to grasp than the solution to the question, “How do I help this child?”
I work with children who could be so amazing, and here I am ineffectively compelling them to want to step up and into their greatness. I feel like Stellan Skarsgård in Good Will Hunting wishing he didn’t have to watch Will throw away all of his amazing potential. But the thing is, while teachers can teach, we cannot necessarily impart the value of education. I may not remember everything about my feelings from childhood, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t see the long-term value of my education and how it related to my future. I did well in school because my parents told me that I was expected to do well in school. I cared because my parents cared. And when I needed help in school, my parents helped me. My only desire is for my students’ parents to do the same, and whether for valid or sad reasons, not all of them do.
The source of my anxiety is no longer anger, frustration, or blame. It has been reduced to a question of complicity: how do I focus on what I can do in a classroom while accepting what I cannot change in a student’s life?