As the beginning of the new school year approaches, I find myself reflecting on previous years and wondering what has become of former students. Lately my memories are usually of my most difficult students, the ones with whom I never found a connection. These students haunt my classroom and soul, causing regret to this day that perhaps I short-changed them or failed to see their potential.
My own son's experience in school has magnified this fear that I bury deep inside because teachers' interactions with him through the years have impacted him beyond words. His teachers can be divided into two categories: those that believed in him, valuing him as someone who had something to contribute and those that didn't.
After starting 4th grade, he began having difficulty in class. He often asked the same question several times in a row causing the teachers frustration which they took out on him. Believing he just wasn't paying attention, they often resorted to attempting to shame into listening by sarcastically asking the class to repeat the instructions. He would often begin reading his own novel during the lesson, further aggravating the teacher. Complicating this, he had been identified as gifted. The teachers mistakenly assumed that a gifted child should be able to pay attention and complete perfect work. But he didn't; he couldn't. His grades were good because he was bright, but the frustration he caused the teachers escalated each year. After two more years of his continual inability to follow directions and complete work as his intellect indicated he should, we had him privately tested using the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement, suspecting perhaps a learning disability. The testing showed he did not suffer from a learning disability (often found in gifted children), but that he had a cognitive proecessing disorder with severe ADHD. The implications of this disability in the classroom kept him from being able to keep up with the pace of the teacher's talking/instruction in class. There was a reason he asked the same question over and over. There was a reason he didn't complete work timely or correctly. We finally had the answer! I was ecstatic because the teachers would now understand he wasn't just being lazy; they would be able to work with him and help him! Armed with this new information, we were hopeful he could once again be successful in the classroom.
Despite the cognitive problems testing revealed, 7th grade was torture for him. At a time when students are already insecure about who they are and where they fit in, his issues were compounded by his processing speed disability. And tragically, he had two teachers who truly believed he was simply lazy nor did he belong in the gifted classes. They based this on his repeated interrruptions to ask the same questions over and over. He didn't follow oral directions correctly. He didn't do his work. He had terrible grades. He was misplaced. He was a behavior problem. It was 4th grade times ten; it was a livng nightmare. Unfortunately, he spent a majority of 7th grade in the hallway and lunch/after school detention. But what broke my heart as parent more than knowing he was missing instruction, was the message he recieved loud and clear from these teachers--they didn't like him, he was unwanted in their class, he wasn't bright, and he had nothing positive to offer. Going through that year with him I saw first-hand what happens when a teacher doesn't like a child and lets them know it. I saw first-hand a child's self-esteem plummet with no way for the child to ever redeem himself in the teacher's eyes. And I saw first-hand my son begin to hate himself because he couldn't get it right.
So, as I prepare for August 23rd this year, I am thinking about the children I might have in my class. The student who is disinterested or disrupts class. The student who really doesn't care about reading novels or identifying nouns and verbs. The student who doesn't understand how to write a good lead or an anecdote even though I have taught it. The student who never follows directions or does his/her homework. How will I respond to that child? Will I project my frustration on that child causing irreversible damage, never having to witness the ramification of my (in)actions? Will I cut off interaction with the parent because I believe they don't know as much as I do about what goes on in my class?
Which of my students will be my son? I pray I see them. I pray I find them. I pray I show them patience and compassion and above all else let them know they matter. I want them to know they have potential. I want them to know they have value, and I welcome them into my classroom. And I thank my son for the lesson he taught me after 20 years in the classroom. And I thank him for being who he is--a priceless individual with a world of potential and much to give if you just look.