I have been working in education for 17 years. Yeah, I say that number and I have a hard time accepting it. Let me tell you why: When I was in my early 20’s, I wanted a career in fashion or writing or both. I was young and hopeful and living at home with my parents (eh, we made it work). My parents decided, though, that a life of leisure was not going to happen (I didn’t really have a job and wasn’t going to school at the time...all I was doing was volunteering once a week in my mum’s class) so my mother got me a job as her school’s secretary. I started on my 24th birthday. After a few months working there and seeing a whole lot of things I did not want to (parents signing in their kids tardy wearing negligees under ratty robes at times), I decided to get my ass to school again. For a year or so, I went to an art school to study fashion design (again...I went to a total of 5 colleges before actually graduating from one). Fast forward to 2008, I was graduating from college #5 with a degree in English Literature and being rejected by my dream graduate program (I blame my GPA from college #2...apparently being simply enrolled in classes wasn’t enough...I was also supposed to attend those classes?). Without a plan, the awesome principal I worked with offered me a teaching job. I took it with no intention of staying in the profession longer than like three years. Well, I’ve been teaching now for 13 years, just starting my 14th year. And I’ve had some experiences...allow me to share some with you.
While I was a secretary, I don’t know if I was just super efficient at my job or just didn’t do what I was supposed to do, but I had a lot of time on my hands...and well, you know the saying about idle hands. Because of this, I was given a lot of extra “assignments” or roles. For example, I was put in charge of all the winter programs (they were phenomenal if I do say so myself), the school newsletter, was given a writing club, etc. I even painted murals in the office and redesigned the conference room at one point. Another activity I started doing was volunteering in the school’s special education classes. We had SED (Serious Emotional Disability), TMH (Trainable Mentally Handicapped), and EMH (Educable Mentally Handicapped). These were self contained classes that had a classroom teacher and aide; the SED classrooms also had “time-out” rooms which were basically padded closets that could be locked from the outside when a student was showing violent tendencies. I didn’t even know those sort of things existed until I worked at the school and saw one in action. Oh, did I mention this was an elementary school?
I liked the SED classes and would try to volunteer in the class as a “tutor” when I could. I worked with a few of those students. One was autistic but would have horrible outbursts at times--this was why he was in this classroom. Another student I was quite fond of was Danny (all names have been changed for privacy concerns). Danny was a kindergartener and could put up a fight...like, literally-the boy had a mean right-hook and kick. Sometimes, they would bring Danny up to hang out with me when he was on shaky ground...not quite violent yet but not quite calm and collective.
I've Got You, Ms. Heather
Another student we had at the school, that I didn’t work with too often due to his ability to turn on a whim, was Jaime. Jaime was about 1st grade if I remember correctly, maybe even 2nd grade. I remember he was in foster care when he originally came to our school; one time he was having a fit and she came to the school to get him (he was in no state to ride a bus home). She spit (yes, spit) water at him and started an exorcism. We quickly stopped that and called child services immediately. Jaime was then placed in a boys home that also sent students to our school. I remember that this student was an excellent artist, so far beyond that of elementary ability. I also remember when he was Baker Acted...during school hours.
Let me set this scene for this special moment that will truly melt the coldest of hearts:
It was around the winter holidays, and our ESE Specialist always took the time each winter to introduce the SED classes to Hanukkah. She would show them a dreidel, read a book, and prepared latkes. Those latkes! They were awesome. I would usually just pop into her little area to try to grab one when one of the classes were in there for it. Normally, the homeroom teacher or class aide would stay with the Specialist and a few students. Jaime arrived late to school that day, though, so he missed this opportunity. Our Specialist had a heart of gold when it came to our ESE students, so arranged a special latke making session just for him. She had just placed a few latkes into the oil to fry, Jaime looking on with curiosity, when she was called down to one of the SED classes due to a student’s outburst. She called for me and asked if I would watch Jaime and take care of the latkes while she went to help.
With spatula in hand, I looked at Jaime and he looked at me. I was nervous because I had seen Jaime in action. I should also mention I have never cooked a latke until then so I was going in as a novice. I took a look at the spatula and the latke floating in oil, sizzling, and then back to Jaime. I said, “Let’s do this.” Jaime stood patiently next to me as I flipped the lightly golden latke over. I finally just turned to him and said, “Jaime, I’m going to need you to be patient with me because I have no idea what I am doing.”
I guess Jaime could see how nervous I was and thought it was really about the latke. Next thing I know, I feel a hand patting my back. I froze, until I heard Jaime say, “Ms. Heather, it’s going to be alright. You’re doing a good job.” And then I knew that he was right...it was going to be alright.
Now that I’ve melted your heart with that nugget from my days working at a school in the US...how about a few more to shake it up?
For about six years, I worked at a Renaissance school (basically means all of our students were on free or reduced lunch). It was...challenging. I was exhausted by the time I left--mentally and physically. The students needed so much more than academics and it was difficult to find a balance. During year 5 there, the school basically ran out of classroom space so asked my teaching partner and I to move in together. We agreed, without realizing we would be blessed with several students that required special assistance and guidance. That first year co-teaching, we started with 36 students in one classroom. We were busting at the seams! We eventually went down to 28 by the end of the year. In that classroom, we had about 5-6 that needed an extra eye at times due to behavior issues. One of these students was Evan.
Evan would have psychotic moments. During class, he would crawl under one of our tables and pretend it was a fort. This became a weekly thing. I often taught with the door to our classroom open since we were sardines, plus I had implemented a garden outside of our room and it was just a pretty view. In this garden, we had a few bird feeders, a picnic table, and a wonderful shady oak tree--yes, this is important.
One day my teaching partner was absent so we had a sub for her; I taught the entire day with her providing a second eagle eye to help any students that may need an adult nearby (she was a good sub). Well, Evan was having a moment this day. So, instead of letting him build a fort, I told him to go count acorns (this is something I discovered could easily distract him and keep him from bothering the other students). I had the door open so didn’t think anything too much of it. I’m in the middle of trying to get students excited about their math assignment when I heard a “ca-caw” coming from the tree area. I chuckled and let the students do so as well, but then quickly focused again. Evan once again “ca-cawed” and continued to do so, but we were all able to ignore it fairly well. Next thing I know, out of the corner of my eye, I see Evan run across the table flapping his arms like wings, “ca-cawing”, then jumping off the table. I popped outside for a quick second to tell him perhaps he could keep his tail feathers on the ground for now. He “ca-cawed” back and I went back into the room to continue teaching. About two minutes later, he took off again--running across the table, flapping his arms before jumping off, “ca-cawing”. I looked at the sub and asked her to go out and prevent any more take-offs.
You Wake Him, He's Your Problem
During my final year teaching in the United States, my teaching partner and I were so good with classroom management and behavior, that the administration decided to give us many "special" gifts. We began the year with 44 students, about 10 of those students needed to have an adult near them the majority of the time due to severe discipline issues. Midway through the year, the principal gave us the gift of Matthew. Matthew was on medication for a few things and you could tell the days that he forgot to take them. His mother was a drug addict as well and so discipline wasn't really a thing at home.
When Matthew joined our class, many of the students became annoyed with him easily. I could understand why: he'd walk around the class randomly, have tantrums on a rare occasion, didn't know personal boundaries, would talk often. Now, I enjoyed Matthew. He was just one of those characters.
Once, Matthew was walking around so much in class while my partner was teaching. So, I tied a rope to my belt loop and his; I stood in the doorway of the classroom and had him outside the room so he could still wander but not too far since he was attached to me. The movie Gravity (with Sandra Bullock) had just been released in theaters. I shit you not, Matthew held onto the rope and slowly moved about, like he was floating in space, and he yells, "Oh no! I'm in Space! Don't let go and lose me." I admit, I could not contain the laughter, especially when he yelled, "Oh no, my pants are going to be ripped off!"
When my turn to teach the class would come up, I would often have Matthew sit next to the table I was sitting at (in the front, with the laptop, document camera, and all my fancy pens for writing) on the floor (he was totally cool with this). That way, I could easily give him a look when he was starting to become too distracting. Often, he would fall asleep there during my lesson, tossing dirty carpet tiles over his head to block the light out. The students in class became used to this routine. Once when Matthew was sleeping: I talk with my hands a lot and sometimes will get a muscle twitch at the same time (just comes with my autoimmune disease); if I'm not careful, I may hit things on accident. Yep, remember me mentioning those fancy pens for writing? Let's just say I swiped that container of pens right off the table before I could realize what was happening. The class looked at me in horror as the container dropped (almost in slow motion) and hit the carpet tile laying over Matthew's head. We all waited...Matthew continued sleeping, thankfully, and we got back to the lesson.
But because we had a class full of personalities, some students would have an outburst at times. Outbursts can be loud...loud enough to wake up sleeping students...like Matthew. So, a new rule was made while I taught: You wake up Matthew, you get to deal with it. Needless to say, from that moment on, when Matthew slept, the class was blissfully quieter.
Conclusion for now…
As you can see, Jaime, Evan, and Matthew are just three stories from my teaching days so far. I’ve been blessed with many other moments and would love to share them. If you would like more of these stories, let me know! I’ll definitely add some!