I met with a former university student last week to offer some support and brainstorm solutions for her current challenges. And they are many. What she identified as her main challenge was dandelion flowers repeatedly popping up in her yard. ( I am tired of the putting out fires analogy, aren’t you?) It is her job to remove the dandelions when they pop up. She knows the real issue is systemic, the roots. No matter how she treats the dandelion flower, no matter how many times she mows it over, that flower is going to keep popping up again and again. Her day is all about chasing after those dandelions and cutting them down. There is no time for effective root removal.
Anna is a first year teacher. She was just hired, mid year, as a long-term sub in an urban district, in a neighborhood school with a high percentage of free and reduced lunch kiddos. She was hired to help manage the ever-growing and increasingly problematic EBD population in that elementary school. However when she showed up, the administrators told her there was a change in plans. They wanted her to start a self-contained program for the chronically misbehaving.
Right now. That day. Here is your room, we’ll be in touch. Oh, and you will have to share the one paraprofessional with the other two special education resource teachers. Here is the list of your 6 students.
I am going to digress here for just a minute before I share today’s tip. This district is way out of compliance. No IEPs have been reconvened, none of the 6 has an FBA or BIP, there is no evidence of any interventions tried, no documentation or collected data. The grade range of the notorious 6 is 2nd through 5th. Anna was hired as a long-term substitute which means the district is getting really cheap labor to start up a new program. How can a long-term sub be expected to start a whole new program? They gave Anna a very small space, no real supplies, no budget. And until she gets the self-contained program set up she is to cut off the dandelions as they pop up, to provide services and consequences when her students are kicked out of class. Really, the whole situation is appalling in so many ways.
Anna has noticed that her students are invariably being removed from their classes during writing instruction. Evidently none of them is fond of writing. What is she supposed to do with the kids when they get sent to her for writing? The expectation is that they write. But this is only her second week on the job!
Stop the clock. Just stop the academic clock.
Anna is worried that an administrator will expect to see lesson plans and evidence that she is following the curriculum when kids are sent to her from their classes. That’s a legitimate concern under normal circumstances. But these are no ordinary circumstances.
I asked Anna if she really thought any administrator was ever going to check on her and call her out for not following the curriculum. Given they are ignoring special education law, are paying her as a long-term sub, have given her little space, no real direction or budget, there is no reason to believe they care about the quality and content of her academic instruction. They just want someone to cut those dandelions off. We discussed how much freedom she actually has. In that moment she seemed to move from feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable to overwhelmed but a bit hopeful.
I asked Anna what she thought was the single most important thing right now. Because Anna is a shining star, she identified building relationships with her students as the priority. Without that, how can she possibly develop meaningful IEPs? She must get to know her kids. Until then, stop the academic clock.
When our kids are removed from class for misbehaving it is OK to play cards, make something, build with Lego, go to the playground and shoot hoops. That is exactly what Anna is doing. And while doing those things, she is watching those kids closely, chatting with them, being a safe place for them, showing them she enjoys being with them, that she genuinely cares. These things are second nature to Anna.
Intuitively, Anna knows this is the right thing to do. She is good and will be a fierce advocate for her students. She will work very hard to make things better for them. But as a new teacher in a new job, insecurities tend to override what our gut tells us to do. Anna is worried about how to explain and justify what she is doing. She is worried about her colleagues judging her for not extracting a pound of flesh for misbehaviors, for letting those little naughties do fun stuff with her, for not ‘making’ them work. She knows she will be critisized for not making life more miserable for the acting out kids. She will be fighting against many myths about what motivates students to behave.
My advice to her is this. Tune it out. Come up with a standard statement to be used when colleagues start to question.
“I am getting to know the kids. Through play I can better understand how to help them. Right now they are in a bad cycle, they hate school, they are really uncomfortable. Their brain chemistry is in survival mode. My job is to get them in a healthier state of being so they can learn and function in school.”
Say it with confidence and a smile. And before that colleague can say another word, ask a question, make an unrelated request. Disarm them.
“Have anything planned for the weekend?” “That picture of your kids is adorable. How old are they?” “I am looking for ideas from seasoned teachers about the best way to format lesson plans. How do you do it?” “If you like chocolate and find yourself in need of a fix, I keep lots of it in my file cabinet, bottom drawer. Help yourself whenever you like.”
Then walk away smiling, head held high.
I did end up sharing an academic writing activity for Anna to do with her students when they get kicked out of class for refusing to write. She needed a safety net.
Writing involves engaging a complex set of actions. Until Anna can figure out where each of her kiddos is struggling in the writing process, here is a way to encourage her students to write, to help them get comfortable with writing.
Keep it informal. Do not use traditional writing paper, implements or prompts. Keep it minimal and build from there as the kids are ready. Here is how.
Put a large piece of paper on the floor- newsprint, chart paper- whatever. Sit on the floor with the kids. Tell them you are going to ask them questions and want them to write their answers anywhere on the paper, as small or as large as they want. Tell them the answers can only be one or two words. No sentences allowed. Then start asking questions. You must write your answers as well.
- favorite color
- favorite animal
- favorite snack
- a food you hate
- what you want to be when you grow up
- favorite subject at school
- something you do every summer
- favorite TV show
- something that makes you mad, happy, sad, excited
- something you want for your birthday
After each one, have the kids share what they wrote. Oh, the social and communication skills you can practice with this gem of an activity! Remember to share what you are writing as well. You might have to do this many times over many weeks. But you will notice that on their own, many kids will start to write more than one word. Sentences will start to form. Sharing personal stories is motivating. We all want to be heard. And kids like Anna’s really need to be heard and valued. A really good thing will happen. Once you have done this often enough, students will start requesting this activity. Expand when they are ready by having them take turns asking a question for everyone to answer. Again, the social communication practice this activity provides is priceless.
Always listen closely. Never judge. Hang these little beauties up with pride. The stories will unfold, the room will become theirs, the kids will start to develop more positive self-identities, they can soon call themselves writers.
And if this is the only writing you do all year, congratulate yourself. You made it safe for your students to express themselves and take learning risks.
Anna is the best thing to happen to this little gaggle of misbehaving geese.