Thursday, March 18, 2010

Learning to Teach

Most of what I learned about teaching that was useful and immediately applicable to the classroom, I learned from my students over the years.
When I brought out that Frog and Toad (last post) story, it was inevitably greeted by loud moans. Bear in mind I worked in a middle school; everything was greeted by loud moans. But they did actually listen to the story and appreciate the simple humor of it. It was easy, then, to get into a discussion of the school's requirement that they write all assignments in a school provided day tracker and have it signed by a parent each night. For some, this worked just fine; for others, it was a struggle; for a few it was about as doable as an assignment to read War and Peace over the weekend. So some kids needed a check to see they had the assignment and the necessary materials. Some kids came to an after school homework club (How fun is that? But it saved some wear and tear on busy parents and anxious kinds of students). Some kids found a system of color coded folders for individual subjects more helpful. Some kids got by with e-mailing a parent the assignments. There were always one or two who just declined any efforts to get them to do their homework (and honestly and sadly, most of those kids had way bigger worries).
And then there was Charlie. (Charlie is not his real name. I can't even remember ever having a student named Charlie.) Remember Pig Pen in the "Peanuts" cartoon strip? Charlie was not a pig pen, but his backpack sure was. That wasn't so unusual in itself. Lot's of kids crammed three cubic feet of stuff into the black holes of their one cubic foot capacity backpacks. What set Charlie apart was his absolute resistance to any and every effort to help him organize.
I have also worked with a couple of students with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD is not fun or funny. It's a very hard thing to live with for the sufferers and those around them. I know I don't have OCD, and those kids knew it too. They could sense I "got it" though, and I could get a good working relationship going with them. Well, Charlie could sense my strong preference for neatness and order, too. He just decided he would use it against me.
Charlie didn't talk a whole lot, but the withering "leave me alone" looks I got from him spoke volumes enough. I thought, though. that we were evenly matched for stubbornness so I kept right on trying to get him to admit his lack of a "system" wasn't working and we should try to find one that would work. Study skills, like a twelve-step program, are predicated on the personal desire to change. My role was guidance and support. So for the last fifteen minutes of a 90 minute class session, other students checked their assignment books or arranged their folders, or otherwise packed themselves up for the day, using my precious "organizing time" and all the motivating encouragement I could dish out. Charlie would just stare out the window. After a while, the withering looks or complete ignoring subsided. Then, my efforts were greeted with, "This really bothers you, doesn't it?" and an inscrutable grin. I would have to admit that, indeed, it made me very nervous to even be around so much clutter in one tiny spot but I just knew I was right about there being a better way. Charlie started watching me like a cat toying with a mouse.
Finally, after a couple of weeks of this stand off, I came to the class armed with lists of missing assignments from all other classes and a challenge for everyone to come up with a plan for taking care of that business. Charlie's list was staggering of course. He had yet to hand in a single assignment for any of his academic classes. Heaven help me, I was gleeful as I slapped down his list. "Here! Proof your way is not working for you!" I got the look that wished my nagging presence out of his way, but he took the list. He proceeded to pull out at least 90% of the missing assignments, lining them up across several desk tops. They were sorry looking. On the other hand, he pulled them out with an absolute minimum of rummaging and no sending of extraneous stuff into the air, almost like he knew exactly where everything he needed was located.
What could I say? "Would you like me to find an iron before you hand those in?" At least I got a genuine smile with his "No, thanks" reply.


  1. One's man's clutter is another man's file cabinet or something like that..... I love the after school homework club. With so many working parents and after school sports etc. homework is often overlooked.

  2. That is an amazing story. I've known one child like that. I also knew of a child who didn't thrive in the chaos he was living in at home, had to have more organization around him. Isn't it interesting how people function in different ways. That's why public schools have it hard, trying to teach for all learning styles. It's amazing they do as well as they do. I enjoyed this post.

  3. Good thing we ride on different tracks or we would all collide. We can only do what works for us.

  4. okldan...The homework club was a success story and as a special educator, gotta grab them where you can.
    Linda...If you're doing it right, teaching is incredibly hard work and it doesn't get easier with time--always new challenges coming along.
    Patti...Exactly. I want to hire you to write endings for me (the hard part for me). "The moral of this story is...good thing we ride..."


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