I am a teacher. I teach special education.
Here is a list of things that have made me seriously look into other career paths including pastry chef, school counselor, and Old Navy sweater-folder:
1. Large (read: things I can’t lift on my own) objects of furniture have been used against me as weapons.
2. I’ve watched kids get into cars with police officers to head into foster care. I know some kids that have seen more at 8 years old than I’ve seen at 28…more things than I will probably ever see, actually.
3. I’ve worked until 8:45 at night in my classroom preparing lesson plans and returned in the morning to find out another teacher had come across a crack pipe right outside the door I’d used to exit the building the night before.
4. I’ve been kicked, hit, and head-butted. Along with that I’ve had to physically restrain kids, one a 6 year old kindergartener, who are violent to the point hurting other kids and staff.
5. I’ve listened to a lot of media tell me, and about a million of my colleagues, that we’re not working hard enough, that we’re not smart enough, and that we don’t care enough about our students. The general consensus seems to be that the only thing wrong with this system is me, the teacher, and that’s disheartening (like having furniture thrown at you wasn’t disheartening enough). But, that is a way bigger issue, is incredibly complex, and is not really why I started writing this list.
Here’s why I started this list: to contrast it with this conversation.
Sometimes kids come to hang out with me at recess. Sometimes it’s because they have disabilities that make large, unpredictable crowds seem like walking through a carnival haunted house. They’re never sure what strange and scary thing requiring social skills beyond their grasp is going to run up to them next. That kid with the sweet face and the soccer ball who said, “Hey, dude! Wanna play?” That’s like when I walked out the end of the haunted house at Wild Waves and a guy with a chainsaw started chasing me. Straight up panic. Whereas in my room they can talk about legos and Transformers to their heart’s content. But sometimes kids come hang out with me because they think I’m awesome.
One of my little gems was hanging out with me during his recess for the latter reason. He was chatting on and on about these girls at his previous school who had chased him down and tried to kiss him/get him to marry them/punch him in the nose during recess.
He said, “I don’t know why they kept chasing me. I don’t even want to get married.”
“Well, sure, not right now, ” I said, “You’re in third grade. But when you’re older, probably in just a few years, you might change your mind.”
“Nope,” he said, “I never will. I never wanna get married. Ever. Or even have a girlfriend.”
Pretty decisive statements, I thought. “Ok, why not?”
Here’s where my heart broke a little. He said, “Because all married people do is yell at each other. All the time. I don’t want to yell all the time or to hear people yell all the time, so I’m not gonna get married.”
Hm. That’s a pretty good reason.
I said to him, “Friend, my mom and dad are married and they don’t yell at each other.” He looked really confused. “Sometimes they get mad, but they say things like, ‘It hurt my feelings when—,’ or, ‘I didn’t appreciate the way you—.'” Might be a slightly glamorized version of my parents’ relationship, but I honestly never hear them yell at each other. They don’t often even get a little snippy. Weirdos.
Anyway, there is no yelling in my classroom, either, even when I am really upset about something. It’s a promise I made to my students after they said I “was always yelling at them,” and that they were, “really mad and not going to listen to me anymore.” Really they had gotten in legitimate trouble and were trying to manipulate the situation by pushing some blame on me. It’s cool, that’s why they’re working with me in the first place. I wanted to say something like, “Well, quit ripping your work up into little shreds because you’d rather be a lazy bum and I’ll quit telling you to stop it and get back to work.” I didn’t say that, though. I promised that I was not yelling at them and that I would never yell at them.
After I made the promise, I did a little compare and contrast. I confronted them on their behavior in the calm, firm voice I’d been using…and then I yelled at them. They thought it was funny, which is perfect because it diffused the tension. On top of that, it clarified my point and it built a little trust.
I called that conversation back to his mind. “Remember how I don’t yell at you? Even when I am very frustrated or you’ve made a choice you shouldn’t have made or have hurt my feelings, I never yell at you.”
He looked thoughtful, so I added, “So you don’t have to yell, either.” Truth is, he’s a kid who does yell, has thrown things, and has hit me when he’s angry.
After a minute, he said, “Oh…and you could teach me to do that? Will you?”
You could wait your whole teaching life for a kid to come up with that kind of internal motivation. I just wanted to cry and hug him. Did a kid really just ask me to teach him anger-management and appropriate communication skills? Did that really just happen?
Yes, friend, I can teach you to do that. In fact, at this moment, it is all I want to do in the world. I don’t want to be a pastry chef and I don’t want to work at Old Navy. I want to teach you how to use your words to solve problems, how to read, how to write in complete sentences, and how to take on something that seems like a huge impossibility.
If I ever think about quitting, I think about that kid.
And then I think about the crack pipe…(kidding!)