After three days teaching at my new school | THE POLITICUS

After three days teaching at my new school

I thought I would offer a bit of a reflection.  And no, that is not a picture of me teaching.

As I previously told folks, last week I agreed to teach until the rest of the year at the Monroe School, a small, private, non-profit school for students with emotional issue.  I actually went on payroll last Friday when I came to turn in paperwork and get teaching materials to plan for this week, and also wound up staying for several meetings.

I had taught one class as a sample several weeks ago.  That class has five students, but one does not handle change well, although I am told she is smart as a whip.  She walked out of the sample class, and after three days I have yet to have her stay in class for a full period or even anything close to it.

I have taught Special Education students before, both those mainstreamed in regular education classes, as well as multi-level classes co-taught with a special educator.  I have taught students who were blind, who were deaf (both sign-reading and lip-reading), students on the closer end of the autism spectrum, and more than a few students with SOME emotional issues.

But consider that my last placement, Spring semester last year, was teaching all juniors and senior in Advanced Placement courses. 

Now consider that I have several students whose reading level is at third through fifth grade, yet they are supposed to be learning high school social studies.

Several of my students travel with full-time aides, including the young lady who regularly walks out.

The four 9th graders stay in the same room and teachers come in to teach them there.

In four of my five classes I am teaching more than one subject at a time.

I teach several of the students in two different classes.

I have four subjects for which I am responsible — American History (currently finishing World War I), World History I (currently at Napoleon and the French Revolution), World History II (just getting into World War II), and DC History.  Students are not given books to take home, because it is doubtful they would bring them back, so I have to copy a lot.

Classes are small, ranging from 2 (although I see one students only on Tue and Thur) to 6 (but one of them is currently not allowed into classes and has not come to school to work with his aide since I have been there).

I did say these were kids with emotional problems.   Those range the full gamet.  I spent my planning on Monday reading through and taking notes on their Individual Educational Plans. 

One thing that is very different —  I NEVER raise my voice.  I may prompt a student to take off a hat, or to get to work, or to put away a phone, but after several prompts I just note it on their points sheet and deduct the points that are appropriate.

Today I had a young lady who was having all kinds of issues with which she had come to school, put her head down, and would not work, just putting her head down.  The counselor took her out.  By the last period of the day she was willing to work very hard and do what I ask. So I gave her affirmation for what she did well.  It is important.

I have not been assaulted.  I doubt I will be, even though I have students taller than me and one new 9th grade boy who probably could crush me:  he is 6’2 and 220, and it is largely muscle.  I have been insulted, given the finger, cursed at in the usual ways.  Today one of my 9th graders was banging on the front door and ringing the bell to get in at 8 AM, even though students know they are not admitted to the building until 8:20.  I went to the door and through it reminded her.  When I saw her later in class she not only refused to work but started cursing me for not letting her in, and kept it up for five minutes until she walked out.  I reminded her several times that she should not do that, then just noted it on her sheet.

So am I doing any teaching?  More than you might think.  I try to find ways to connect the students, and I am willing to go down some side paths if students are engaged and at least trying.  I help them organize, self-correct.

Imagine 12th graders who do not know how to restate a question as part of an answer, but only to copy the question exactly then try to find a sentence in the textbook to copy as an answer.  I patiently walk them through what we call springboarding, and help them go from what they read into what the question requires.

But they are also learning content.  All of them have now corrected a previous misconception.  They knew BC meant Before Christ, but thought AD meant after death.  They now know better, and a couple of them went home and corrected their parents!

We are trying to get them through high school, and to prepare them for life.  We work as much on learning to manage their emotions (with and without medication, depending upon the student).  Would they be prepared to enter even a junior college?  Well, it depends.  Some are bright enough, if we can get them to stand still, for them to learn enough content and skill. 

Is this what I should be doing?  As a career, probably not, and yet there is something satisfying to see the progress some are making.  One young man who on Monday would not follow directions and was angry that I would not give him credit for doing the work all wrong and who was not in class yesterday, came up from the 9th grade room this morning to apologize and to work out how we were going to communicate.  He did almost all of his work as i directed today.  Now every time he sees me he greets me. 

I am back in a classroom.

I am earning some money.

I am able to pay very close attention to each student because I have so few.

I get to individualize a lot of what I do to what the student can do now and to prepare to move him/her further along.

I am learning a great deal of patience — and forgiveness.

And because I know i have to, I manage my own emotions at all times.

Will what I am learning/experiencing here be of value in other settings?  I think so, and not just in classrooms, bu also in dealing with people who may struggle in other settings, with understanding, with fear, with anger . . . .

There is a principal of a very interesting DC charter who wants to come see me here.  I might in theory be working there next year, if they have an opening, although the pay would be significantly less than what I would make from the school system which gave me an advanced contract that guarantees me a job.  I emailed her on Monday when I got home from school to explain how what she would see would be very different than what she might see were I teaching her students, in what may be the highest performing charter in DC.   That didn’t bother her, and she was effusive in praising me for doing this work.

Would I do this for a career?  I don’t think so.  And yet, one man I greatly admired was the priest/theologian/writer Henri Nouwen who spent the end of his life in a community where he served mentally challenged adults.  I don’t reach all the kids, but I know I can between now and the end of July which is when our extended school year ends make a real difference for those kinds who will work me.  And that is very satisfying.

Thinking about how I individualize the instruction is time consuming, but that is more than offset by not having over 100 gifted students whose work at a college level I have to read and correct, as was my case a year ago.  It can be exhausting, it can at times be boring and frustrating —  think of having three or four students only one of whom is willing to work.

I know I am doing something of value. I am making a difference.  I only wish I could be doing so for all of my students.

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