I try really hard to keep my teacher-self off of here. Here, I am Alice. But today, I need to talk about Mrs. Thompson. I’m a special education teacher at a low-income elementary school. Depending on the year and student needs, I span from kindergarten to 6th grade. I also do autistic support and emotional support. I’ve been doing this for 5 years now, and while I am by no means an expert or a veteran teacher, I do have something important figured out.
For all of you soon-to-be teachers out there, I’m sure you’re being pounded with being “standards aligned” and making adequate yearly progress. You’re probably so sick of hearing the words “specially designed instruction” and “progress monitoring”. Vygotsky, Erikson, and Piaget are like your BFFs. But you’re plowing through it – you’re almost at the finish line, and you’re ready to walk into the classroom and make a difference!
You have all of your adorable unit plans ready to go. You’re probably going to do something awesome like hatch chicks in your classroom, or dissect a frog, or do an entire unit on Romeo and Juliet but have the students analyze it using a modern technology like Twitter. You’ll trudge through the hard things, like teaching regrouping, polynomials, and appositives. You’ll have killer lesson plans ready to go, you’ll ace your observations, and Charlotte Danielson will have nothing on you. You’ll attend professional development sessions with a cute notebook and those bright pink and purple roller pens that we all have secret and not so secret obsessions with. You will have parents that love you, parents that hate you, but either way, you will be a team. Your kids will bring you flowers, make art for your classroom walls, and make cupcakes that they give to you from hands that you know were just in the restroom and probably not washed. You’ll be called the best teacher ever, and you will feel great.
But let me tell you – None of that will matter when you get a student that doesn’t care about any of that.
I have a little boy I work with one-on-one. We can call him Tom. Tom is one of the hardest students I have ever had to educate. He did not know all of his letters when he came to me, but I was expected to teach him to read by the end of the year. He was not able to recognize all of his numbers up to 10, but I was supposed to teach him how to add double digit numbers with regrouping by the end of the year. Tom’s attention span is about 2 minutes with just the two of us in the room. Throw in another student and you have about 30 seconds at a clip to work with. But none of this compares to Tom’s life outside of school. This little guy was significantly abused. The things that this poor boy has witnessed and had done to him in his short time on this Earth are unimaginable. He comes in every day with horrific stories. CYS knows me by first name. He was a HUGE behavior problem in my classroom, even with just the two of us.
When he first came to me, my thoughts were, “What am I going to do with this child?” I did what most teachers would do and I jumped right into the academics. I drilled the alphabet. We practiced numbers every day. He made some progress, but not enough to look good enough on paper. And he fought me tooth and nail every day. He would tell me how much he hated me. He spit on me. He swung at me a few times. He would crumble up his papers and throw them in my face. No matter what I did, I felt like I wasn’t reaching him.
One particular day, I was exhausted. He had just thrown his papers on the floor and called me some pretty colorful names. I said, “Alright Tom. We are done for the day. Let’s just sit and talk about what is on your heart.” Tom stopped. He got super quiet. He got super still.
“What did you say to me?”
“We are done. I’m drained, my friend. There’s obviously something going on that is hurting your heart that is making you treat me like this, even though I have done nothing but loved you and tried to be a good teacher. Let’s just talk.”
He then went on to explain how he is afraid to live in his home because someone broke into it. He thinks that someone is the man who abused him and his brothers and sisters. He said he doesn’t sleep at night because he sits by the door to protect them in case the bad guys come back. He said his clothes are dirty because they don’t have the money to go to the laundromat and the car broke down. Sometimes mommy stops breathing and the boyfriend of the week has to put spray in her nose. He isn’t sure why she won’t let the kids use any of the spoons for their lunch because they’re always dirty, but no one ever uses them. His brothers beat him up because they are angry that they have to do all of the chores. His sisters beat him up because his brothers beat them up. He never brings in his homework because his siblings hide his stuff if he cries so then he gets in trouble at school too. He told me all of this with tears in his eyes.
With tears in my eyes, I apologized to him. I apologized to him that his life is terrible and that his family doesn’t always seem like what a family should be like. I told him when he is at school, he is in a safe place. He is loved, he is cared for. No one is going to hide his homework. No one is going to beat him up. No one is going to stop breathing, no one is going to abuse him, no one is going to break in. He doesn’t have to protect anyone because there’s nothing to be protected from. We hugged, and he said, “Mrs. T, can we get back to work now?”
Tom and I still have our ups and downs. He still lashes out at me from time to time, but we get over it much faster than before. He is now reading. He can add and subtract. He is able to decode most unfamiliar words. He says please and thank you. He holds the door open for me when I enter and leave classrooms.
I didn’t set the world on fire that day. I didn’t do anything earth-shattering, I didn’t do any voodoo. I didn’t do anything that you’ll learn about in your textbooks and your teaching classes. Tom changed because he knows he is safe, and he knows he is loved. You will learn there are some days that academics matter, and you will learn that some days, love matters more.