“‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” (Bilbo Baggins, from The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien, p.82)
When I was in college, I had a professor who really liked to plan and organize—had his schedule down to the minute. I asked him one time, “What about spontaneity? Where’s the space for that?” His response was, “Spontaneity doesn’t accomplish anything.” And I get it that in special education one of the greatest tools in our toolbox is planning and predictability (Carter, Swedeen, Trainor, 2009). We regiment their daily schedule with picture schedules, routine, and sameness. It helps them to minimize the overwhelming “OhmyGodsomethingisdifferentwhatdoIdonow” kind of disasters.
Frodo, used to the sedentary life of a Hobbit settled around routines of parties, eating, and long rests, had to learn spontaneity. He had to learn to think on his feet (good Hobbit feet!) and be ready for the unexpected day—whatever that day might bring or be or become.
I suppose this holds true for every teacher, not just the special education teacher. Yet something tells me special education teachers are different kinds of Hobbits, more like Bilbo and Frodo than others. Every day is a long walk filled with adventures we cannot plan for, disasters we cannot predict, and joys we cannot anticipate. There is no telling where we will be swept off to after we walk out of the front door of our house and in the front door of the school. Every day is an unexpected party.
That’s what I love about my job. And with all due respect to my professor and his tightly managed, perfectly manicured schedule, I love the fact that I never know exactly what is going to happen with my students. Oh, sure, I have those lesson plans that I have to turn in to the principal each week, behavior management plans, and picture schedules. But I could never predict that one of my students -- one who cannot yet read and barely knows the sounds of the 26 letters of the almighty English alphabet -- would look at me in the middle of our reading lesson and tell me the 15 steps he has learned to load, cock, and fire his BB gun.
Neither could I imagine another of my students, one whose dad sleeps during the day because he works at night, saying to the class, “When my dad sleeps he is dead to the world.” Really?! A perfect metaphor, a brilliant colloquialism, and used in a masterly way, but, again, from a student in the fourth grade whose reading skills are below the first-grade level.
I could not predict with any certainty that one of my students would go into tantrum mode after he went to the lunchroom, saw the chicken and rice dish being served and announced to anyone listening “that looks like slop!” It was all downhill from there.
Then there was Friday. I simply did not see the meltdown coming. I should have. The signs were there, and I am paid to pay attention—to anticipate, to notice, to be classroom aware, and to do five or six things at once—alas, I did not. I failed and the meltdown ensued. It was all over cardboard blocks, the play area, and some toy cars.
The end result was the emergency removal of the student from the school. I spent the rest of the day feeling absolutely horrible because as I reflected on the situation I realized what I could have done differently, should have done differently, and how, maybe, I could have influenced how that all played out.
It reinforced what I already know: The special education teacher needs to be able to multi-task while multi-tasking. We have to expect the unexpected. We have to be spontaneous, ready to think quickly. We have to be prepared to scrap a day’s worth of beautifully written lesson plans in order to struggle together with a student who is having a tough time.
I love that I never know exactly what’s going to happen with my students, now I just need to plan better for it. I need to plan for unexpected. That probably sounds strange, but if I cannot predict what will happen, then I need to be aware all the time of things in the classroom that may be catalysts of things I cannot predict.
My professor said that spontaneity doesn’t accomplish anything. I disagree. It does accomplish something because it leaves the door open for learning and growth that may not occur within a rigorously planned schedule. Sometimes it is not the student who needs to learn, but the teacher.
Last Friday I walked out of my front door with a plan and was subsequently swept off my feet, just like Bilbo warned Frodo. In the process I learned something valuable about teaching from my students who are differently-abled. We did not plan for a meltdown to occur, but in a sense, it’s okay that it did. I’m glad my students are capable of spontaneity.
Walking out the front door keeps us humble.