As a Teaching Fellow I attend grad school simultaneously to being bombarded and overwhelmed with the daily responsibilities of teaching itself. Last semester in the Spring, I came up with a plan for research in one of my classes. Since my students last year presented extremely challenging behaviors, I often found myself losing my self-control and becoming angry. There was one day in September when I started yelling, and I essentially never stopped yelling thereafter for that year. So it was a no-brainer for me to focus my research on the concept of self-control–both for me and for my students. My idea was, if I could identify what methods and strategies of self-control would work for me in the face of a constant barrage of tantrums, cursing, personal insults, and other forms of misplaced aggression, then I would be able to not only model self-control for my students, but be able to explicitly teach it to them.
This semester I am in the process of gathering results from the plan I created in the Spring. My students this year present much less extreme behaviors, but they can certainly benefit from the instruction and strategies nonetheless. One of the interesting things that I am finding is that the more I build and cultivate my own self-awareness regarding my self-regulation of emotion, the less that students behaviors even present a challenge. In other words, it is within myself that I find the solution to my students’ problems. Another way of stating that would be that I find that if I really listen to my students and to myself and look beyond and through their behavior, I discover that what is really going on is that they are trying to teach me about what it is that they need.
Perhaps that sounds fairly self-evident to you, dear reader, but let me tell you, when one is not trained professionally in the art of therapy, it can be extremely daunting when you are faced with a classroom of students who are all emotionally damaged in various and sundry ways. To see through the surface behavior and into the child is not as easy as it seems. It might be easy if you were sitting with that child in a clinical setting, analyzing them and probing them. But in a classroom, you don’t have that luxury of distance. You are confronted, nearly every single moment, with the challenge of a student who needs far more than you yet know how to handle.
So I have become slightly more adept at being a good listener. When a student is demanding my attention, even if that demand comes in the form of an insult to me or a chair thrown across the room, I try to find a way to give it to them. I sit with them and talk to them until they are calm and understand how their emotions have caused them to behave. And in the process, I discover that the very process that I have walked them through is the process that I needed to walk through within myself in order to truly teach and care for them. There was no other way. Otherwise, I would have been pretending. I would have just gone through the motions. And they would have chipped off and away like an iceberg out into the sea, and they would have been lost.
In general education classrooms, they can mostly get away with authoritarian methods. They beat them down until they do what they are told. In self-contained classrooms and residential treatment classrooms, however, once you have lost that trust and respect with a student by telling them–in one way or another–that your agenda is more important than what they are feeling, it’s gone. You may not ever be able to win them back.
There are times, of course, when I simply just do not know how to help a student. Some of their behaviors can be extremely challenging, and when you have a classroom full of students with divergent needs, sometimes you can’t address all of their personal crises. It’s just not possible. But those moments when I am able to help them and guide them through the storm, it’s truly a beautiful feeling.
Let me conclude this with a specific anecdote of when such a moment occurred. This was last Friday. One of my students, L., is a pretty smart kid, but he grew up in the Dominican Republic and thus not only has an intellectual disability but is an English Language Learner (ELL). He is reading and writing almost at a pre-kindergarten level. He is aware of his deficiency and will give up when faced with nearly any academic task. He is also extremely poor. He is a big fan of the apples that I have begun providing to my students every week. The rule is, they get one apple a day in the morning if they are hungry. I go through two bags of apples a week now.
Anyway, I was trying to teach my students how to play a game that came with our city curriculum, Everyday Mathematics, which is a curriculum that is really just not suited for special education at all, let alone anyone who struggles with mathematical concepts. The game involved finding factors. I had taught all my students how to find factors by building rectangular arrays, and all students could do it successfully to varying degrees (some require manipulatives, some don’t, some know their multiplication well enough to do it in their head). But when I began trying to show them how to play the game, they all just started acting out in various ways, either by saying something like “this is boring”, or “this is work, this isn’t a game!”, talking, or drawing, or in L’s case, by pulling his chair away and sitting in a corner. So I gave up, and got frustrated, because I just thought they were not listening, and told them to do another page in their math journals. L. was obviously upset, so I called him over to my desk and sat with him.
At first, I was still just upset because none of my students had even tried to perform the game. But as I talked to L., I learned that he just felt that he was stupid and couldn’t possibly play the game. He said his teacher last year had also tried to teach them the game and had given up because no one could understand it.
“But L., you can do it!” I protested. He disagreed. I told him to go get his slate and I went and got the manipulatives. We built rectangular arrays together, and listed factors, and he realized that he knew very well how to find factors. So we played a couple rounds of the game, and suddenly he was brimming with excitement. “Hey, this is fun!” he exclaimed. Together, we came back over to the class and L. taught the class how to play the game.
The problem had not been that my students weren’t listening or weren’t trying. I just wasn’t explaining it well. So to them, it was just another time in school that they were being made to feel stupid because they didn’t get it. The excitement from L. was infectious. He had learned that he could do something that even all the rest of the class felt they couldn’t do! The most excited person in the room, however, was not L. It was me. Just as I tell my students over and over again, I learned that I can’t give up, even when I get frustrated. I just need to listen to what my students are telling me and find a better way to teach it to them.
That’s what I call a victory.