“I’m out of here.”
And just like that, Steven* picked up his backpack, hopped out of his desk, and made his way to the door. I deftly interposed myself between him and the door before he could leave and gently asked if he’d like to talk about it.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
I shot out some directions for the rest of my class and then opened the door to Portable 4. Steven stepped outside and I put one foot out to join him, straddling the barrier into the classroom and doing my best to keep an eye on both Steven and the rest of class. This year, I’ve made a concerted effort to avoid these types of conferences, believing that they are not conducive to the success of the entire class, but Steven seemed like he was on the verge of a meltdown.
He blew up when I asked him to stand up and stretch out, which was necessary because he kept falling asleep in class. I’d had to come by before to wake him up and a second time to tell him that I’d ask him to stand up if he couldn’t get started. When I made a third lap only to see his paper blank, I made my request in a calm, firm manner.
And that’s when he blew up.
Talking to him outside, I saw that the problem wasn’t that he wasn’t trying. The problem was that the work was too hard.
My class is a remedial class. My 8th graders read, on average, at a 4th grade reading level. My work is challenging and rigorous, but I also provide a ton of supports for my students. I am clear and explicit in all directions and we move slowly from one part to another so everyone keeps up (although I mix in some flash and razzle dazzle to fool the students into thinking we’re perpetually moving). And despite all this, Steven was still lost.
Steven has it rough. He was born with Fragile X Syndrome, so he has myriad learning disabilities and social problems. He’s also the shortest kid in school, talks differently, and looks different than other students. He’s already been picked on a lot in life, so he’s bitter and easy for other students to provoke.
At the beginning of the year, I took Steven in. I made him feel welcome, expected greatness from him, and gushed to his mom about how hard he worked in my class. When I did so, she looked first shocked and then immaculately pleased. It was one of the happiest I’ve ever seen a parent during a conference.
However, it’s been a rocky road ever since. Some days, Steven is great. He works hard, is quiet, and does everything I can ask. But other days he’s intent on causing trouble. I can tell right when he walks in the door, the way his shoulders slump and his sighs rise above the din in an obvious call for attention.
Which brings me here. I spent a good part of class today focused on Steven. Outside of our conversation, he also took time away from the class during the first two instances where I had to talk to him. Both times, I had to slow down and clearly iterate things to him, asking him to repeat directions, etc. At the end of the day, every other student in this class was hurt because Steven didn’t do his part.
Was it worth it? At the end of the day, Steven still hadn’t done anything. He agreed to come back in and try, but his paper was nearly blank when he tried to hand it in. And before the whole debacle started, he wasn’t even being a problem. He merely couldn’t be bothered to do the work. But he wasn’t distracting other students or disrespecting anyone.
So, in hindsight, I gave something up (class time with everyone) in return for nothing (the amount of work Steven put in). As teachers, we have woefully few resources. We can’t afford to make these something-for-nothing trades, and that makes me wonder:
Should I have let the kid sleep?
I’ve seen him in his other classes. He doesn’t do anything in his special education inclusion classes. He plays games in his computer class. He’s not being pushed to succeed, even by the modified standards that someone on an IEP might have. And I’m supposed to get him there all by myself?
TFA Oklahoma has offered a PD session entitled “100% means 100%”, the idea being that we as teachers cannot be satisfied until 100% of our students are on task and following directions. In theory, this is a fantastic idea. Why not? But it’s just so much harder to implement in reality. Sometimes it just feels so much easier to let that girl write her note instead of taking it up, dealing with her attitude, explaining the directions to her again, and then going through the trouble of contacting a parent.
Right here and now, as I sit alone at my computer, it is easy to say I made a commitment to giving a good education to all children. The vision of TFA is that all kids will have access to a quality education. And I believe that my role is to be a model, supporter, and helper to every single student that I come into contact with.
But when you’re in the class with a million things happening and every resource, from time to energy to wherewithal in short supply, how do we get by without cutting corners?
*Name changed to for identity protection purposes. And because I don’t want to lose my job.