One Day at a Time
What better mantra right now than this one to keep us focused on the present versus projecting into the future that which we cannot control?
My first teaching position right out of college was supposed to be to teach students with Specific Learning Disabilities at the same school in which I had completed my student teaching, a low income school in the heart of San Antonio. What happened a few days into the school year was something nobody could have predicted---there were not enough students with SLD for two teachers, and I was low man on the totem pole. So, my principal gave me two options: a nearby school had a vacancy for an SLD teacher OR I could remain at my current school and teach students with Severe Emotional Handicapping Conditions. Not wanting to leave the comfort of my "known" school, I didn't really think about anything besides the 2nd option but asked if I could go by and see the classroom. My principal hesitantly said, "Yes" and told me where it was. As I got to the top of the steps, I heard before I saw a woman crying at her desk (no children around---apparently, they were at P.E.). She was crying out, "I can't do this! I can't do this!" --- not much of a Chamber of Commerce ad for taking over her classroom. The principal told me she couldn't handle the students and had suffered a nervous breakdown. When would I start? The next day.
I met with the assistant that afternoon and figured we'd get along just fine, and I went home trying to figure out what to wear that would look both "confident" and "friendly". I ended up wearing a sweater dress with black high-heeled shoes (that would be the first and last day I ever wore high-heeled shoes in that class). One of the two girls in the class, Joy, who had a severe conduct disorder, entered the room, looked at me and said, "Ooooh!!! Look at you in those high-heels". The other girl, Reminda, was quiet and shy until she wasn't and then all Hades would break loose. She had a mother who was schizophrenic and would dance in a sheet in the courtyard of their apartment building. At that time, I had about 10 boys (ranging from 3rd - 5th grade) in various stages of anger, trauma, and tremendous hurt. After that first day, Eric had shoved me (hard) when I tried to escort him to the time-out section of the room. Michael and Richard had gotten into a fist fight, which I thought about breaking up but it happened after Eric's shoving episode, so I let them figure it out. There was no resource officer. The principal was frankly more scared of my students than I was, and the assistant did whatever I told her to do (nothing more and nothing less). I went home and cried and cried (and cried some more) until I figured out that the next day, I had to do SOMEthing different. I went in the next morning, put up a chart on which student could earn points for work and behavior, posted it on the wall, and explained to them all what this meant. The day went significantly better, until Hillburn lost some points and told me to F**** off.
Again, I went home, crying until I came up with another idea. We'd keep the chart but they could only lose points if there was a severe infraction (to include hitting someone else or worse). Otherwise, they could simply earn points. It was on that day that I realized that extrinsic points could likely ultimately lead to intrinsic motivation, if they were just given a fair shot. I asked them what they would like to earn once they got to 100 points, 500 points, and even 1000 points. 100 points ended up awarding them with playing a game with the Special Ed. guidance counselor for 30 minutes (one of the funniest things Mario ever said to our counselor was when she warned him to not get so angry when they were playing a game or she would have to send him back to class. He narrowed his eyes at her and said, "Don't you think we have games in OUR classroom, Miss?"). 500 points earned them the privilege of going to lunch with me on the weekend along with a trip to the bookstore, where they could pick out their very own book that I would purchase for them (this became the very best thing I think I ever did in my teaching career---talk about building relationships and social skills at the same time!!). 1000 points would allow them to be "included" in a regular education classroom for one subject at a time.
After a few days of going home crying each day, I realized that I was crying less and solving problems more. When I got permission and money from my principal to buy 15 copies of "The Indian in the Cupboard" (I think he was just so grateful I wasn't sending my kids to his office but rather handling their behaviors in my classroom), I came in the next day with brand new books (on which I allowed each student to write his/her name) and a poor teacher's version of a cupboard. Inside the cupboard for each day we read the book, I would put three or four items. The students would then write their predictions of what would happen in that next chapter based on the items I put in the cupboard. Talk about motivating students to read! All I know is I was simply taking it one day at a time, dealing with the next thing that popped up like in Whack-a-Mole. I began loving those students so much, I can still tell you 30 years later details about each and every one of them and their homelives.
Dave and I did go to real church this Sunday. It was the last service until this virus has played itself out. Our dear priest, Debra, read and talked quite a bit about not being afraid, which (who knew) appears in the bible approximately 365 times. I think that means we are really supposed to heed that advice, and it seems pretty sound to me.
Living one day at a time sounds like pretty sound advice to me, as well. I hope you are able to do so. It sure beats the alternative, and it definitely got me through my first year of teaching.
Prayers and well wishes to all!!
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