Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Holiday Blessings

I once had the opportunity to teach briefly in a school that held various personalities and characters from affluent families. That year, just as every other year, I began with a journal entry on "the worst thing that ever happened to you." Most of them said things like "the worst thing that ever happened to me was when my mom took my DVD player out of my room" or "the worst thing was when we had to leave Disneyworld early because of bad weather." Christmas holidays in that school were interesting in that I received so many gifts, it would take me three days to get them all home. I could have opened a Bath and Body Works store, and I had several cashmere scarves and numerous gift certificates to fine restaurants. My children would wait anxiously at home to see all the loot. It was quite embarrassing.

When I began teaching remedial reading at a different school, things began to change. The journal entries now read "the worst thing that ever happened to me was seeing my brother get shot" and "the worst thing was when my dad went to jail." No DVD players in these bedrooms. And on the last day before holiday break, I would hear many stories - "I'll bring you a present after Christmas when my grandma gets paid..."

Well, today I received my first ever gift from a student in this school. Nikki, a sweet but troubled little seventh grader, brought me a haphazardly wrapped box this morning. I opened it, expecting some candy or a handwritten note. Instead I pulled out a little music box, white and pretty, with a winter scene on the top. I opened it and immediately my rambunctious last-day-of-school-before-break class became totally quiet as the sound of Silent Night tinkled across the room. In the box lay a single, tiny nail file. Nikki began trying to explain why she put a nail file in there, but I talked over her, telling her how badly I needed one. I told her that I loved the music box and gave her a hug. As she walked away, she turned and quietly said, "I used to listen to it when I was a little girl." I silently gasped. Nikki had given me her music box. She had wrapped something meaningful to her, placed the only thing she could find in it, and handed it to me with more pride than I've ever seen her display over anything. My first thought as I look at the music box sitting in my den tonight is how important this gift will always be to me. My second thought is that I don't know why anyone would ever choose another career. We are truly blessed...

Friday, December 14, 2007

Reading Minds

It happened again today. I had yet another altercation with a student because I was unaware of disruptive circumstances in his personal life. This scenario has played itself out many times in my career. In 1990, I watched as Curtis, my big teddy-bear-football-player, came into his seventh grade classroom and started wreaking havoc. Shouting at this student, talking back to that teacher, I cornered him in the hall to determine the reasons behind his change in behavior.

"You don't even care!" he yelled in my face. "You don't even care that my dad died last night!"

"Curtis," I said quietly. "We didn't know. What are you doing at school? Why didn't someone tell us?"

My teddy bear was back to himself in another week or so, but I haven't forgotten that I need to be more careful when students act out of character. Or at least I thought I hadn't forgotten.

Today I watched as Jamie banged everything within reach on his desk - a pencil cup, a toy skateboard he grabbed from his pocket, his binder - he was unusually agitated. I couldn't get him focused; he refused to listen to me teach. Instead he was giggling and in constant motion, rocking back in forth in his chair for thirty straight minutes. I warned him repeatedly and used all of my strategies to redirect him. Finally, I drew my "last resort" card. I told him I was going to call his mother.

He jerked his head around and screeched at me, "SHE'S NOT THERE!!!" I assumed he meant she was at work. I called anyway. His dad answered and broke in halfway through my rantings - "I'm sorry to interrupt you, but you need to know: his mother left us last week."

I felt miserable. Everything now made sense. But what's a teacher to do? How do we tell the difference between regular adolescent drama and life-changing traumas in a child's life? I think I'm pretty good, after all these years, at recognizing when something is troubling my students. But I am human, and I can't read minds. Because I teach remedial readers, who bring many issues to school in general, I established my "mood cards." Every desk has a cup that holds several colored "mood cards." Red means "I'm angry" and "Leave me alone." Orange means "I'm annoyed and agitated." Blue means "I'm sad." Brown means "I'm bored." The best card, green, means "I'm happy and everything's on GO." Students place their mood cards in the middle of the desk so that I can do a quick "mood check" when class starts.

Today Jamie's card was green. I thought he was fine. I didn't, and couldn't, read his mind. And now I'm facing a very long weekend before I can get back to school and talk to him face to face. Most days being a teacher is a joyous endeavor. But some days I want a "do over" and a crystal ball.