I’ve spend most of my teaching career trying to push, pull, and otherwise motivate students who have failed so often that they have all but given up on the idea of school.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that giving up on school is always a bad thing, just that there are sometimes better reasons for giving up than others and believing that you can’t learn is not one of the good ones.
When people who don’t teach find out what I do for a living they sometimes look at me with incredulity or awe, both reactions based on the assumption that I daily look chaos and mayhem in the eye and manage not to blink.
Anyone who teaches middle school – whether or not they teach inner-city special education students – knows that what I do is nothing special. All teachers face down chaos and mayhem.
But that’s enough about dealing with the inanities of local school boards and state education departments. I want to talk about students, the ones I don’t mention much but who provide most of the fun I have at work four days a week.
I work five days, but I don’t see my 6th grade general education social studies class on Mondays.
This class is very different from any other group of students I’ve taught. They are eager, driven to learn and they’re driving me to become a better teacher.
On the NY State and City exams you get scored from 1 to 4, four being the high score. Most of the students I’ve taught have been ones and twos, with the occasional low three thrown in. These kids are all mid-to-high threes with some fours thrown in.
When I ask questions these kids have answers. Even better, they have questions. Real questions, not just ones about how long a written assignment need be to meet muster.
What I enjoy most about these students is their willingness to speculate, to take the risk of hazarding an answer when you don’t know for sure if what you’re going to say is the right answer.
They even understand that most of the questions worth asking don’t necessarily have right answers.
At those too frequent times when I have to fiddle with the technology and I’m used to having things fly around the room, these kids toss around concepts and discuss books they’re reading.
I have had to totally relearn how to teach.
Instead of breaking things down into small, easily handled chunks I now have to come up with bigger ideas. I have to break my habit of trying to make everything concrete and learn to introduce more abstractions.
Last May, when my principal told me I’d be teaching general ed classes this year I was not happy with the idea.
He said I’d enjoy it.
I’m starting to.