My travels have been temporarily stunted, for no logical reason. I just want to be at home for a while and watch the world go by, instead of the world watching me go by. And because I’m not travelling, there isn’t much to write about, except the trip to the mailbox each day, but I won’t bore you with that.
Instead, I’ll write about a quote I just read in ‘Quotes’ (compiled by Mark Zocchi 2008), on how to be successful, and how these words changed my working life.
The words of Sister Mary Lauretta epitomise the cornerstone of my work.
When I reflect on my long teaching career, I can almost pinpoint the moment that this became apparent to me. I was teaching in a large regional town in Queensland and I had read somewhere that if you find something to love about each student, the job will be easier. This became my mantra.
Find Something To Love About Every Student
Most days it came easy –
“Tara, I love the way your smile lights up the room when you come in.”
“William, I love the way you help other students when they are not feeling well.”
– and then there were the other days…
”Kenny, I love the way you breathe – in – out – in – out.” Okay, I had enough sense not to verbalise this one, but I certainly thought it.
We all have our off days, and when one of my students had an off day, we all had an off day. But I still tried to find something to love in the child that had just destroyed my office, upended furniture in the classroom, or tore up the book I spent all weekend making.
The important thing to remember? I was an adult – they were children. Children have a long, hard road of learning to get through, and my job as the teacher was to help them negotiate the obstacles, not become the obstacle.
The students I taught were special
The one thing they had in common was that each student had a disability; William and Tara didn’t always understand what was being said to them, or how to respond; Tara relied on a wheelchair for mobility; William’s frustration was the catalyst for anger. And Kenny? Well, Kenny was just angry – most of the time.
Matching Students to Teachers
At the end of each school year a list was created that identified which students would go into which class the following year. And most teachers held their breath until the list was in their hands. I was no exception. We had all taught the kids that learned, no matter what you did. And we’d all had the student who really struggled. Not just academically, but socially as well. They were the kids with a lot going on at home; the kind of stuff that would spill over into the classroom, if you weren’t quick enough to catch it before they made it into the room. These kids really were hard work. But they were worth every second and every ounce of effort.
The Easy Kids Will Learn – No Matter What You Do
There was one year when I was called to the Principal’s office for a chat. I knew what the chat would be about because the end of the school year was only a few sleeps away, and the lists were just starting to filter through. I hadn’t been given my list – yet.
When I entered the office, the Deputy Principal greeted me, then turned to Peter and asked if he wanted the door closed. My eyes widened and my heart almost stopped beating. I’d never had a closed-door session before, well, not for getting the list. The only words I could feebly utter as I struggled to keep breathing were “Who is on my list?”. I braced myself, sensing that the names of my current little angels were not going to be on the new list.
It seems the committee (teachers and administrators) whose purpose in life was to match the right students with the right teachers, had had a tough time that year. After allocating all the ‘easy’ students, they found they had a lengthy list of not-so-easy, teacher-less students, and even more amazingly, one teacher – left over from the list-making process. The only solution was to put the two together.
I’m not sure how much of that decision could be blamed on luck (or lack of), and how much might have been strategic execution, but that’s how I ended up with a class of students who needed much more love than any student I had ever taught. In other words, I got the kids that were in the ‘hard-basket’. Two of the boys had been labelled as ‘students who should never be in the same class’. I got them both. One wanted to kill the other, and the other one wanted to kill himself. Before the new school year started, the Principal had arranged for me to attend a training session. There I was, sitting in a counsellor’s office, taking ‘Suicide-Prevention 101’, while every other teacher was holidaying. It didn’t seem fair at the time, but I guessed it was necessary.
My reaction to recieving ‘The List’ was to thank Peter, declaring that I intended to use the opportunity to grow and learn (and I meant it). Anyone can teach the easy kids, but I was about to test my mettle by attempting to teach the not-so -easy.
In the first week of the new school year, there was a fight. The two boys that the committee deemed unsuitable for co-existing under the same roof, were having fisticuffs on the classroom floor. Suicide-Prevention 101 hadn’t prepared me for this.
One thing that had sustained me during my relatively short career at that stage, was to go with my instincts. It seemed that I could rely on a little voice to whisper a seemingly illogical solution – that usually worked. So at recess, I sat the two boys opposite each other. They had to look at each other and find out three things about the other that they didn’t already know. That sounded easy, but the body language of each was obviously a signal that the fight was not finished. I added a qualifying condition that made the difference.
“You can’t laugh – in fact – you can’t even smile.” Of course, when you tell kids not to smile – they smile. I was quick to intervene with “uh uh – no smiling”.
The ice was broken!
The questioning resulted in a shared interest in a popular cartoon character. The two boys went off to the playground and were inseparable from that moment on. In fact, I spent the rest of the year chasing them up when they consistently failed to come back to class. Stories about Pokémon, or whichever character it was back then, kept them talking long after the bell had signalled the end of the break.
And the homicidal and suicidal thoughts? Gone! Only once in the next three years did Kenny feel that he might ‘do himself a fatal injury’. I won’t reveal my unorthodox response to that incident but believe me, the technique was not part of Suicide-Prevention 101. Kenny seemingly never had the need to mention self-harm again.
And that’s how I came to have some of those students for three years, and William for five years (he didn’t want to leave). At the end of our first year together I wrote a compelling letter to the Principal, backed up by research, arguing the benefits of having the same students the following year. When he read the letter (it took me ages to write it), Peter laughed. “Are you kidding?” he scoffed. “Nobody else has offered to take them!”. Which I remembered, all too well, was how I got them in the first place.
That class of ‘not-so-easy’ students taught me much more than I could ever teach them. Kenny’s new-found compassion knew no bounds His anger had given way to more socially acceptable behaviours. William found better ways to deal with his frustration. And I learned how to find something to love in each one of them.
We looked out for each other; we cared; we laughed; we cried.
It was a fantastic year…
And the success lies squarely on the shoulders of Sister Mary Lauretta’s quote “To be successful, the first thing to do is fall in love with your work”. If you can find something to love about every job you do, trust me – you will succeed. Success must be contagious because the more successful I felt, the more successful my students became.
Although, a quote by Claude McDonald might have been just as insightful –
“If hard work is the key to success, most people would rather pick the lock”.
Trust me, there were times when picking the lock would have been a lot easier because some days were really hard!
But that is another story, for another day.