Wind in My Sails

Tomorrow marks the end of the most difficult year I’ve had in 26 years as an educator. I will shed tears tomorrow, not of sorrow at saying goodbye to another group of kids, but those that come from being emotionally spent and utterly exhausted.

My hands have been full this year with several students who required a myriad of interventions, systems, schedules, and documentation. I used every management tool in my toolbelt and acquired new ones along the way. I feel like most of my tools have been put through a grinder and spit back out. A few of my students with high needs made progress, but still have a long road ahead of them while others are still on square one. Many days I wondered, “Do these kids even care that I’ve worked so hard to help them? Do their parents even give a rip? Am I making any difference at all?”

After school today, the parents of one of my students approached me. His father held out his hand and said, “In case I don’t see you tomorrow, I want to thank you,” at this point he had to swallow back tears before he continued. “For all you’ve done to help our son. We appreciate all the hard work you put in. It means a lot to us.” As I wiped tears from my own eyes, his wife hugged me and said, “We know that it’s tough with our son, but you are the only teacher who has actually cared about him.” Then their son gave me a hug and as I hugged him back, I told him that I love him and am proud of his progress this year. I encouraged him to keep working at things and make more progress next year.

These parents could have given me any myriad of gifts: a candle, coffee mug, Starbucks card, or any other “teacher-gift,” but their words put new wind in my sails. I told them that that they have no idea how much their words mean to me and reassured them that I love their son and consider it an honor to have been his teacher. Their gift of a genuine, heart-felt thank you was the best gift they could have given me.

Is there someone in your life who could benefit from your heart-felt words of gratitude? Don’t delay my friend. Fill their sails with fresh wind. It may be just the push they need to make it through one more day.

Identifying with Christ

About a week ago, J., the special education student in my class, got upset over something and refused to come into the classroom after P.E. I don’t know what set him off, but our behavioral intervention aide was outside when we were coming in and saw J. standing under a tree. He went over and said, “Come on J. It’s time to go in.” J. just stood there. The aide tried again, “Come on let’s go with your class. ” J. stubbornly refused to move. The aide asked him, “What’s wrong?” Again there was no response. J. just stood there.

I was heading into the room, and the kids were trickling in from getting drinks and using the restroom so I didn’t know that J. was out under the tree. We had this situation once before, but J.’s mom came down and sat with him for the remainder of the day. After a few minutes I noticed that J. wasn’t in the room, but I saw him standing by the door and the aide was talking to him. I thought they were just chatting, but several minutes passed and he didn’t come in. Through the window I could see him out on the playground, and sure enough the aide eventually came to me saying that J. was refusing to come in so his mom was coming to get him.

I stepped out the door and said, “Hey J. what’s going on?” He turned his back on me. I patted him on the shoulder and gently turned him around so I could see his face and said, “J. I’m here to help you, but I can’t help you unless you tell me what’s going on. Did someone tease you or do something that upset you.” He literally closed his eyes and refused to even say anything to me.

The rejection stung, and inwardly I prayed. “God, I want to help this child, but how can I help him if he won’t even look at me or talk to me?” The Holy Spirit spoke to me and said, “I understand your pain. I died for people and they won’t even look to me. They won’t pray. They won’t read my word. They won’t turn to me for the help that they need.”

Eventually J. went home. I wasn’t able to help him that day, but I got a very minute taste of what Christ must feel when we won’t look to him or when we refuse to read his word because we are angry about life’s circumstances. Just as I can’t help J. without his cooperation, God can’t help us unless we allow him to.

What a Day!

In my recent post, “Interruption or Opportunity?” I wrote about J., a special education student that has been placed in my classroom. Our week was going well until yesterday when J. got upset with an aide who was working with him in the center room of our pod of classrooms. He doesn’t have very good reasoning skills, and when he gets upset he puts his head down on the table and refuses to budge. Well, he was in this mode when the aide needed to leave. I just told her, “I can see him from here, so he’ll be okay.” She left, and I continued teaching, leaving J. to himself. This is the first time he has gotten upset since being in my class, but I had heard about episodes like this at his previous school, and I really didn’t want it to escalate into something more.

After a while he came back into the classroom and sat down at his desk. I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking he was over it. Then recess rolled around. I had yard duty so I needed to get out on the playground. J. refused to budge. After explaining to him that I had yard duty and needed to go to the playground, he just ignored me and refused to get up. I finally grabbed his hand and said, “Come on buddy. We need to go to the yard.” I finally got him out of the classroom and to the playground.

When recess ended, he wouldn’t come back into the classroom. I wasn’t going to fight it so I said, “Okay, I’ll just call the office.” In the past the scenario would play out like this: J. would get frustrated and shut down. Eventually he would run out of the classroom and refuse to go back in. The principal would call his parent and suspend him for the rest of the day, or call the police.” I really didn’t want things to play out in the usual way because I didn’t want to reinforce that when J. doesn’t like something, he can shut down, and then he can go home.

His mom came to school and she remained with him for the rest of the day. He didn’t get to go home, and I was glad for that. He had a productive afternoon and left in a good mood.

This morning was tenuous. I didn’t know if he would work for me, be anxious about coming back into the room, or what would happen. On the way to school I prayed for him, hoping that he would have a good day. Well, his day was great today. He was cooperative, worked hard, and was all-around pleasant.

We had a math test today on place value. He struggled with the first one and was trying a second time to see if he had learned the material. Since he has such trouble with reading, I read the instructions and the problems to him, and he wrote his answers. I sat next to him and watched him write correct answer after correct answer. When all was said and done he only missed three problems. I sat there blinking back tears when I realized that he scored proficient on the standards that were being assessed. It is a great success for him, and a huge blessing to me. I called his mom after school and asked her if she was sitting down. Then I shared the story of J.’s success with her. She was blown away. What a day!

Interruption or Opportunity?

I’ve been working through Priscilla Shirer’s Bible study, Jonah Navigating a Life Interrupted.  Priscilla talks about turning life’s interruptions into divine interventions. You see, Jonah saw God’s command to go to Ninevah as an interruption to the direction his life was going. He didn’t want to go to Ninevah. He wanted to stay in Israel. But, when Jonah finally submitted to God’s direction, God did a mighty work through it.

As I’ve pondered this idea of viewing life’s interruptions with new eyes, I’ve had the opportunity to practice. Just a couple of days before school started, I received an email that J’s mom had requested an IEP meeting which was to occur at 2:00 pm the day before school was to start. My first reaction was irritation. I even complained, “I’ve got a plate full of tasks to get done. I do not need this interruption now. Can’t this meeting wait?”

Well the meeting was not going to wait, so off I went. J. is new to our school. He has learning disabilities and struggles with articulation, which makes him difficult to understand. I sat there as his mom shared about his past school experiences, which were filled with trauma and difficulty. In first grade he would get frustrated because he didn’t understand what was being taught. He didn’t understand how to do the assigned work and reading wasn’t making sense to him. He tried to communicate his difficulty, but his teacher could not understand him. He would shut down, putting his head on his desk and refusing to work. The teacher would try to coax him out of it, or force him out of it, until he became so overwhelmed he bolted out of the classroom. The principal would track him down and when he refused to go back into the classroom, she would call the police. Why she didn’t call his parent, I don’t know, but here would come a big, tall police officer in his dark uniform staring down at J. who had no way to speak for himself. Even if he tried, the officer couldn’t understand him.

This scenario repeated itself 3 times that year. Finally, his mom pulled him out of school and home-schooled him to the best of her ability. He made some progress, but it was obvious that his learning needs were great. In 2nd grade she decided to try again with similar results. Every time he shut down, the principal kicked him out of school and eventually his mom took matters into her own hands and back to home schooling he went.

They moved across town and decided to try again. We sat in that meeting and my mind was whirling in several different directions. Talk about an interruption! My classroom was already full of several high-maintenance students and now here was J. What was I going to do? Like it or not, I was stuck with him. Then I remembered Jonah. Here was my opportunity. Was I going to see this as an interruption or a divine opportunity to be used by God?

Later that afternoon I met J. for the first time. Fortunately his mom was with us so that I could understand more of what he was saying to me. One of the first things he said to me was, “I can’t read.”

I looked at him and said, “That’s okay. I don’t want you to worry about your reading. You leave that up to me. It’s my job to teach you how to read.”

We got to the classroom and I showed J. his desk and the little sticker chart that I had taped to it. I showed him how his day was divided into 5 smaller parts and explained how he could earn a sticker for each part of his day, and that 10 stickers would equal a reward. He smiled some. I knew he liked sticker charts from his summer school teacher.

He opened his desk and pulled out his math book. “That’s your math book,” I said. He grunted something that I didn’t understand. “Do you like math?” I asked.

“I don’t like big numbers,” he said.

“That’s okay,” I said. “We’ll start with little ones.”

Then J. took a step toward the window, turned around to face me, held up three chubby fingers and said, “I got kicked out of my old school three times.”

My heart broke. Here school hadn’t even started and he was already worried about being kicked out. I got right up close to him and said, “Look at me J. Are you looking? Pay close attention now because what I have to say is real important. I’m not going to kick you out J. You’re too special to kick out of my class. You get to stay all year. We might have some rough spots, but if we do, we’ll just work them out together. We’re going to have a great year.”

I looked up and saw tears welling up in his mom’s eyes. We chatted a bit more and then he departed. As he and his mom walked away I prayed, “God help me.”

“He needs to feel safe,” was the reply.

“Okay Lord. Help me to help J. feel safe. Help me to make school a safe place for him.”

J.’s first day was fabulous. He ran out to meet his mom after school and his first words were, “I didn’t get kicked out.” Then he went on and on and on about our day, talking so fast that his mom could only understand about half of what he was saying. His last words of that conversation were exuberant, “And I’m going back tomorrow!”

J. has actually done a few assignments independently. That’s a first for him. His IEP says that he refuses to do any paper pencil tasks. He’s done every task I’ve asked and has even participated in partner and group sharing that has required him to talk to others. The students are rising up to be supportive and caring and J. and I are getting along. Will we have some rough moments at some point? Probably, but we’ll work through them.

Another teacher told me about a conversation she had with J.’s grandfather. He said, “J. told me, ‘Grandpa, my teacher likes me.’” He said here he was a 60-year-old man crying great big crocodile tears.

I don’t know how things will play out with J., but he’s right, I do like him. Just this week the school psychologist told me that J. qualifies for special day class. The special day class at our school is 4th-6th only. J. is in 3rd grade so he would have to go to a different school for the special education class. Tears flowed down my cheeks and I said, “No, he can’t go. He doesn’t need another new school. He’s had too many bad experiences already. I want to keep him. He can go to special day class next year when he won’t have to change schools. I’ll do my best with him, but please let him stay. He needs a good year in the same class.”

The psychologist handed me a tissue and said, “We were hoping you’d feel that way because that’s what we were thinking as well.” Never did I think that I would actually beg for a special education child to be in my class, but God’s doing something here. He’s given me a divine opportunity with J. and I don’t want to pass it up.”

Musings of a 3rd Grade Teacher

As I’ve dusted off my bookshelves, rearranged furniture, created name tags, and set up 32 student desks, I’ve prayed over each and every child that will sit under my instruction this year. I’ve been nervous about this school year. Last year I got an earful from the 2nd grade teachers about what a challenging group this was. “Just wait until next year,” they said. “This group is a handful.”

When I received my class placement cards, I counted 11 students who either had poor classroom behavior last year or who were dependent on the teacher in order to focus and get work done. Then, when a new special needs child was added to my list, I felt overwhelmed. “God, how am I going to do this?” I prayed. “A third of my students are extra needy in one way or another. I need your wisdom. I need your insight and creativity.” I’m still praying, lifting up each student by name. The first two days went well and my outlook is tentatively hopeful that God will use me to make a difference for this group of kids. I’m praying for miracles in my classroom this year and expecting good things from my students. And hoping that I’m still sane when June rolls around.

It’s Back to School Time

Just checking in here. I’ve not posted much because it’s that time of year when I have to get my classroom set up and things in place for a new school year. It will take me a couple of weeks to regain my equilibrium and get into a new groove with blog posts. I will still be putting my Wednesday Devo up, but may not have as many other posts for a bit. Please bear with me.

Happy Birthday Clae!

Today is our principal’s 60th birthday. It is also the last work day for teachers. Clae is retiring, and we are all very sad to see her go.  She is dearly loved and will be dearly missed. One of our teachers and one of the secretaries went in cahoots with each other and hung the following signs up along the route Clae takes to work each day. They did it early, early this morning so that she would be greeted all along the way!