The Crooked Path

Several years ago I had a student in my class with special needs. Nothing unusual there. Most class have several special needs students. What makes this particular student stand out is that he did more to inform my teaching than any other student I’ve had.

Andrew was his name and he was a clumsy student, sort of like that large breed puppy that hasn’t yet grown into his feet. He had difficulty with large motor skills. Andrew would come towards me for a hug and I’d brace myself, because he just might be out of control. Additionally, Andrew had a serious anger control issue. Occassionally I’d see his face turn red and the veins pop out in his neck from the frustration or difficulty of something in class. A few times he declared “It’s over!” stuff his jacket or book into his backpack and prepare to leave. The ease with which he let me stop him signaled to me that he really wanted to be in the classroom. Andrew was an outcast as well. Socially, he didn’t fit in well. Other kids didn’t befriend him. School was a difficult place for him. At the time I thought it was remarkable that he came every day. I began to understand when I visited his home.

Andrew had a horrendous home life. His father was developmentally disabled. His mother had an infant and a toddler to care for,and didn’t have much time for  Andrew or his  older sister. On a home visit, I saw the wreck in which he lived. His mattress was on a broken bed frame, hole in the door, no curtains in his room, and of course the house was an utter disaster. Seeing firsthand what Andrew was dealing with on a daily basis gave me a great deal of patience and empathy for him.

At that time my discipline plan was  was a series of checks with consequences- first infraction got the student’s name on the board as a warning. Second infraction was a check and a loss of recess. The third was a another check, loss of all recess and a call home to the parents. It seemed to work for other teachers.

One day Andrew was struggling behaviorally and was about to receive his second check. As I walked to the board to mark it, he tackled me. It was more like a hug around the ankles, than a tackle, but it brought me down in front of a class full of students.  The class was stunned. Andrew was mortified. He knew he’d crossed the line. I was surprised, but I managed to do the only thing that saved the situation. I laughed.  My laughing helped Andrew realize that he wasn’t going to be killed. At this point my memory is not clear about what happened after that, but I do remember that at that moment it occurred to me that my classroom, my management style, my discipline system worked well for the students with family support, for students that have normal issues, but t didn’t work for students like Andrew. That was the first time I looked critically at my practice to see how I could improve it in substantive ways.

Teaching is a journey of growth. Andrew started me on the road to a better classroom.  It’s been a crooked path, but well worth it.

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