A little over eleven years ago, I was displaced at my job. After spending ten years teaching middle school and high school music, I was moved to an elementary school. Not just any elementary school, an elementary school that is about in hushed tones through other parts of my school district. It’s an old building with mismatched floor tiles and seventies-style bathrooms. The cinder block walls have been coated with the ever-changing pallets of trendy colors. Every once in awhile, a critter will find its way in and then fail to find its way out, not being discovered until the heat kicks on and a smell announces its presence.
But like King Arthur or Cinderella, you can’t judge a book by its cover. My school is a special place where magic happens – and not just for the kids, but for me.
When I got the call that I was being moved to a new school, I was devastated. I never planned on teaching below the secondary level. The way I saw it, I was not wired for nose-wiping and shoe-tying, and I don’t do silly kid songs. I hadn’t been trained to teach kids who had just learned how to use the bathroom (sometimes not even that), and all I could think about was how I was going to handle it when they barfed in my class. Because, you know, that’s what little kids do: pick their noses and puke.
It just goes to show you how naive I was.
After ten years of experience in education, I was basically a first year teacher all over again. I had no clue how to teach beginning music. All of my teaching experience had been with students that had the foundation laid down by someone else. I had spent years being the next step in the process, and now I had to figure out how to be the first.
Up until then, all the students I had taught had chosen to take my class. Now, I was responsible for teaching everyone, whether they wanted to be there or not. For the first time in my career, I was teaching students with actual special needs.
Those first few months I drowned. I was overwhelmed and cried a lot. My own children were 1 and 3 at the time, and I was exhausted by life in general. It is often in our most difficult times, those times when we struggle to see purpose and light, that the really blessings come. While I wandered blindly around my classroom, God had my back.
I was offered the opportunity to do some intensive training in working with students with Autism. Looking back, I don’t know that my principal expected me to accept the offer to take the course, and I don’t know that the teachers I did the course with took me seriously – but I was serious. I may not have chosen to do this job, but I wasn’t going to fail at it. I was clearly not equipped to work with students with varied needs, and it was unacceptable to me that I would fail them.
The course ignited a passion in me that I didn’t know existed. I was fascinated by the material, and became obsessed with finding a way to get through to every single student, no matter what they came to me with.
Over the years this passion grew, and I began to see the true nature of the power educators hold. I completely changed my idea of what kids could or could not do, and I became determined to share everything that I had learned with anyone who would listen.
I’m not perfect, but I am proud to say that I work every day to ensure that my classroom is a positive, rich, learning environment where it is believed that all students can learn.
My personal life has paralleled my work in education. I’ve raised two stepsons, and my own sons are now 11 and 13. I’ve been on the stepparent and parent side of the whole school thing and sat where many of you who are reading this have sat. I’ve cried. I’ve worried. I’ve lost faith and found it again.
There used to be a time when the relationship between parents and teachers was sacred – an unspoken bond in the quiet determination to do what was needed to raise another human being. There was trust. Most importantly, when something wasn’t handled perfectly, there was forgiveness, because after all, we are on the same team.
That world doesn’t exist anymore, and not just in education. The faith we used to have in each other is repeatedly under attack by politicians and media types whose superior understanding of the world convinces us of one conspiracy after another, and of how certain groups of people are to be feared and not trusted.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think people are worrying for no reason – there are things to worry about. The education system, public and private, is failing. It’s failing because our culture is failing. However, inside of a failing system, there are all the things that have always been there to make it successful, if we just get to the heart of it – and the heart of any system are the people in it.
If we were to treat people like the precious commodity that they are, instead of something to be thrown aside or used for one’s purpose, the way we choose to respond to situations would be drastically different. If you approached every person who had wronged you with the certain knowledge that they were a good person but did a bad thing, your words and actions would be completely different than if you were convinced of their moral decrepitness.
Now, imagine that the person in question is a child. A human being whose brain isn’t fully developed and who depends on you to walk them through the process of understanding behavior that is appropriate. Would you be so quick to assume that they are simply a horrible person that needs to be punished? Punishment is a moderately effective tool for correcting behavior, and on its best day, is simply a bandaid on a gaping wound.
There is one thing that I think any parent or person needs to understand before they manage any behavior with a child. In my opinion, it is the foundation of _everything_, and the first thing we need to remind ourselves of when working with any child.
The behavior is not the child.
The goodness of a child, their heart and soul, is not always, but very frequently, independent of the behaviors they display or choose. Behavior serves a purpose, and an overwhelming majority of the time, a child will use a behavior to get something he or she needs. Like a baby crying when they’re hungry or need their diaper changed.
The brain is an amazingly complex thing, and as anyone who has suffered Depression knows, chemical imbalances will alter perceptions and behaviors. There are definitely children whose chemical makeup makes the whole deciphering of behaviors more challenging. There are many experts who are bettered placed to help with those kinds of needs than I am.
What I am most concerned about in our current society is the trend and tendency to indict and crucify children because of poor behavior, instead of trying to solve the puzzle of how to meet their individual needs. I’m concerned about how the damaged relationship between parents and teachers has impaired our ability to do what is best for the children we are committed to raising. I’m concerned about a world that is so media focused and full of social justice marches that it doesn’t allow the dust to settle and emotions to die down so that a calm, logical response to a problem can take precedence over the blood-thirst of a mob to do something.
Like any mother, I worry about my boys constantly. I know that the world can’t love them as much as I do. I know that they will love me despite my mistakes as their mom. Both of these things are God’s gift to us as people. The thing that keeps me awake at night, though, is the idea that people look at the bad choices my kids make and rather than see it as part of a process of growing into a decent human being, they decide that they are horrible people and need to be taken out of contact with society. If you think that I’m being dramatic, perhaps you are unaware of the constant behind the scenes crusades of some parents that repeatedly demand children be removed from schools so that their children don’t have to be around them. Or perhaps you’ve never been in youth sports, where children are regularly cut from teams at the insistence of other parents.
We have got to do better. We. Have. Got. To. For me, it all comes down to one thing that should be remembered before dealing with any situation:
The behavior is not the child.