This picture of Michael J. Fox appeared on my Facebook news feed sometime over the past few weeks. For me it was a sad reminder that I no longer teach. This quote was the hallmark of how I taught, and it was for this reason why I made progress with kids other teachers could never reach. Now let me tell you, following this quote as a teacher made me famously popular with both students and parents, but very unpopular with fellow teachers and administration.
Changing your teaching to how the student learns requires:
- Solid knowledge of each student as an individual.
- Building strong mutual trust between teacher and students.
- Truly believing every student is capable of learning (even the ones the administrators have written off).
- A great deal of time, effort, creativity and hard work.
Accomplishing these four things becomes even more difficult when you factor in standardized testing, the latest teaching methods administrators force on their teachers, lack of funds for materials, behavior issues in the classrooms and environmental conditions students live in. While educational psychologists will be hired to give lectures on this very subject during professional training workshops, in reality the administration is only concerned with standardized curriculum and scores on the standardized test. That is what the funding is based on!
My teaching philosophy is:
- Erase what the previous teachers said about students so you can start with a blank slate.
- Build mutual trust with your students.
- Treat each student as an individual.
- Find the student’s positives and allow them to shine.
My teaching method: Use whatever teaching method gets results, and if the method you are using isn’t working, change it. It was never easy; I became a father, social worker, psychologist then teacher to my students. The wheels in my head never stopped turning, the lesson and behavioral planning never stopped and my key to unlocking them was to build trust. If a student was struggling academically or behaviorally, I asked myself “what do I need to change?”
Torey Haydon, an educational psychologist and special education teacher, wrote books based on her experiences teaching special education students. She taught the students nobody else wanted to. In her journeys with these children, whom she reached out to, believed in and loved, she was always at odds with other teachers and the school administration. Her teaching and discipline strategies didn’t match the norms of what was expected by the average teacher or administrator. To reach these kids it took a special kind of teacher, one able to understand and make progress with them. She often commented that she struggled with knowing if what she was doing with these kids was the best thing for them. I was drawn to read all her books because I connected with her teaching methods and what she experienced with these kids. While I never dealt with students anywhere near as severe as she did, the special gift we shared that allowed us to make the necessary connections with troubled students simply isn’t recognized by school administrators. With both Torey and I it is all about building trust and believing in students who no one else would, then teaching them the way they learn. Just as Torey did, I also constantly struggled with whether I was doing the right thing for my students. Was I disillusioning them by showing them what it was like to have someone care about them? Was it cruel to allow them to feel successful only in the protected world of my classroom?
My passion is to teach, so I didn’t give it up of my own will. After the third leg surgery and three school years of teaching a good chunk of each year on crutches, I lost my job. Massive state funding cuts and teacher layoffs, due to a failing economy, gave an unsympathetic administration a legal way to lay the guy with the bad leg on crutches off.
Today’s climate for getting a job in education is grim. There are more teachers being laid off than hired in the United States and the colleges are pumping out thousands of new teachers each year. As I sat during two interviews it became crystal clear that my career was over. One position was teaching eight eighth grade boys that had been deemed unteachable since first grade. They were unmanageable after all the years of being treated like inmates in school. As I sat there all I could think was that these boys desperately needed me, but I would not be physically able to handle them with my leg. The visions of these boys snatching my crutches and running up and down the halls yelling “catch me if you can!” kept circling in my head. If I had been offered the job I would have taken the challenge, however the guy on crutches was not offered the position.
A few weeks later I found myself sitting for another interview. This position was a third grade special education position. I was certainly more than qualified and capable of teaching despite the crutches, yet the catch was two-fold. First it was only a one year position; second, it was teaching in a team-taught inclusion classroom, meaning I would be sharing the teaching responsibilities and classroom with another teacher. As I sat there answering question after question, the young female teacher I would be working with didn’t say a thing – beyond slipping by asking about my disability, then quickly retracting the question. She didn’t have to. It was written all over her face and in her body language. What the writing said was that ‘there is no way I am sharing my room with this crippled old man’. Needless to say I didn’t get offered that position either. It was then I went home and began the process I knew was coming: giving up my dream of continuing to teach.
I do now know the answer to whether I was doing the right thing for my students. One of the aspects I struggled with the most in coming to terms with never teaching again was the guilt. The guilt of knowing there were so many students out there that desperately need and deserved at least one year to feel successful and learn. My not teaching would cheat many of them out of that experience. Unfortunately, the world is not always fair and the choice of continuing to teach was not mine to make.
I have made peace with knowing that I didn’t only make a difference in one child’s life in my teaching career, I made a difference in many lives of the children I taught.
“It is because of great caring teachers like yourself that the school system is a better place. I feel that without your positive influence as a teacher, Jack would not have come as far and as well as he has this year. He had great problems last year with math and was very stressed by it. I have not seen that this year. In fact I have seen him progress in large leaps”. -From a parent of one of my students.
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