Every day you approach the computer
“What are we doing again?” I show you where to see the assignment. I review the expectations, the objectives, the criteria.
“Oh! Okay! I get it!” you say, and set to work.
The next day, we do it again.
Today you stare at me with blank, hollow eyes.
“I don’t get it,” you say.
Everyone else is busily working. You’ve been absent. When you come, you have to study for a test in another subject. Or see the counselor. Or help your friend. In fourteen hours of research time, you’ve been here for eight. Do you have anything to show for the time? Others have the list of the websites they consulted, pages of notes, excitement over how they’ll turn research into a presentation next week.
You have confusion.
The same confusion from the first day. Repeated again. Some days we can help you. Some days you are confident and productive.
But nothing stays in your memory more than an hour.
Other days you are sullen and oppositional, because you’re sure you’ve never seen this before, and you’re angry about it.
“This is stupid.”
What more can I do? I ask. They tell me your parents refuse to have you tested. They don’t want you to have a label, so we don’t know if this is a cognitive impairment, learning disability, or the results of drug use or a sports injury. A label comes with funding to give you the additional support you plainly need. Keep repeating expectations. Keep explaining the criteria. I agree. This is stupid.
The course is almost over and you return each day to week one, living a personal Groundhog Day loop,
and no one knows how to pull you out.
unpacking lessons October 20, 2010
Tags: challenging students, labels, teaching
A while ago I got a note about a student. I was told by a relative, “You should know that he’s a bad kid.”
Wow. Labels already. Does the kid self-identify as a ‘bad kid’ and if so, how hard does he have to work to ensure his label is properly affixed? (Not hard, actually, most people seem willing to accept it).
I wrote her back and said,“There are no such thing as ‘bad kids’ there are just ‘baggaged kids’ and it’s our job as teachers to help them to unpack.”
I thought it was a profound sentiment, and I realise that it’s not an easy chore. Some kids come from homes where instability is the order of the day. They have addicted parents and often have intimate experience with physical, emotional and sexual abuse. They see violence as the routine way to interact in their community. Their behavior only manifests their reality.
In Restitution workshops a few years ago, I learned one key concept that has been guiding my teaching practice since:
The behavior is meeting a need, or the person would not be doing it. Whether they’re having a tantrum, doing drugs, or staring at a wall, they’re doing it for a reason. The skill comes from teaching the individual how to meet his or her needs in a way that is socially appropriate. We have to meet the need and coach growth and confidence.
Have you ever unpacked after a kid’s trip to camp? The dirt ridden, crumpled articles that come out of the bag look nothing like the pristinely clean and neatly folded articles that went in. Socks stand by themselves. Underwear may be slightly green. Knees are missing from pants. Things are a mess. There may be unfamiliar creatures along for the ride. It’s unpleasant pulling the stinky, disgusting mess out of the bag. Unpacking is a challenging thing. No one wants to do that work.
We need to haul it all to the laundry to scrub things back into a semblance of their former state. We need to stitch up the holes. Sometimes the articles are so thoroughly destroyed that we need to replace them with new ones that can do the job better. We need to get the kids squeaky clean and polished like they are heading off on the first day of school: full of promise and confident that they have the skills to face any challenge, secure in the knowledge that when there are things that they can’t cope with, that adults will be there to help them through it.
Every kid deserves a fresh bag of clothes.
PS. Sadly, I know that there are some situations that go beyond these skills. Sociopathy and psychopathy are going to require far more than metaphorical laundry soap, but society requires we endeavor to do our best.