Sunday, December 11, 2011

Don't know what you got 'til...

When I found myself unexpectedly thrown into the ED/BD (Emotional Disorder/Behavioral Disorder) domain four years go, I tried to face the daunting task by convincing myself students of this nature afforded an opportunity I wouldn't find with other special education populations. That sunny view was that, unlike many "special needs" people, these kids had the intellect and social awareness to acknowledge what a positive influence I was in their lives, and that, once we had developed a solid bond and mutual trust, we would develop a lovely little classroom family based on their admiration and respect for me.

Clearly, I was having delusions of grandeur. By the end of the first quarter of my first year teaching, I had come to a grim understanding about my impact. The naivety to believe I could undo twelve years of dysfunction and transform these children into my little walking legacies in 9 months was, what I imagine, a classic rookie mistake that chases teachers who are weaker (or perhaps less crazy) than I from the field very early in the game.

At my second--and current--job, I found myself repeating the offense with a little less hardened, albeit still very challenging, community of kids. For all the blood, sweat, and tears I had put into lovingly disciplining them to be better people, many days it felt as if they might as well have never even met me. It takes a little air out of your balloon when you spend a week engaged in heart-felt discussions about bullying and then a day later you find out someone got caught doing just that.

But I don't go completely unrewarded in terms of expressed appreciation from the students. There is a specific formula which almost always guarantees the desired results, and here it is:


I've never found my students to be so captured and concerned for me than when I announce an anticipated absence. Where am I going? Why? How long will I be there? Who will be in my place? It doesn't matter how capable, self-sufficient, or in control the sub is. I inevitably return from being away to hear that something has gone awry in my absence, and even hear first-hand from the kids about the gaping hole in their day where I should have been.

This past week I had an unexpected meeting with a parent right before my 8th period class was to begin. Most of those students are with Annie during 7th period in our room when I have plan time, so they are very used to seeing me working at my desk, then watching me walk out of the room a few minutes early to where I teach them English. At the bell they head to 8th period class and find me there preparing and awaitingtheir arrival.

Knowing this impromptu parent-teacher conference could go longer than just a few minutes, I warned the aide in my 8th period class that I may be pretty late and he'd have to hold down the fort. Fortune would have it I escaped the meeting rather quickly and ended up back at English class only five minutes later than normal.

But the reception I received when I walked through the door may as well have been a "Welcome Back" celebration from a year overseas. "Miss T!!!" a few of the boys screamed in unison, as the aide--John--approached me with wide eyes.

"Wow, Miss T," he exclaimed. "They sure were worried about you." I beamed and gloated inwardly a bit as I imagined their mild agitation at my unexpected disappearance and the confusion that ensued. All this seeming unnecessary commotion about being MIA for five mere minutes. Most middle school students think they're scoring the jackpot when their teachers go *poof*. But these are no ordinary middle school students (if you haven't figured that out yet).

Consistency--that's what it all boils down to. I bring to the table six years of undergrad and grad school teacher training, my clever behavior management strategies, my engaging lessons, my penchant for wit, and that's all good and fine. But, if there is one single most important thing I do to touch these kids' lives, it's showing up on a daily basis. For a group of boys and girls who are tossed from parent-to-parent, or see family members come and go through the proverbial revolving door, or often don't know what unpleasantries they will find when they go home each night, the simple promise that I'll be standing at the Smartboard first period hassling them about their homework, is a crucial comfort that sometimes they don't even recognize.

The result of this realization: a little less pressure, a little more humility. The former, because even on the days I feel like chopped liver to those kids or worse--the target of their anger and loathing--I know that just being there, and staying the course with them has done wonders. The latter, because I am suddenly reminded of my place. I have believed for a long time now, and still sincerely believe, that I was called to this profession for a purpose. But any faint expectations that it might elevate me to the sort of glory worth making into a motion picture (a la Freedom Writers), I've had to squelch. My purpose does not necessarily involve some major breakthrough in the teaching profession, or even major breakthroughs in the lives of children. Perhaps my purpose is simply a presence--a constant vigil over a classroom that brings some stability to my students and my school at-large.

So, it seems to me that my best chances at making an impact don't lie in going all Michelle Pfeiffer on my kids. It's all about my integrity and commitment--even on the days I'm not particularly feeling like Teacher of the Year.

And taking an impromptu day of absence every once and awhile can't hurt either.

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