When I introduced myself to my Dear Daughter (DD)’s kindergarten teacher, I told her that DD already knew most of the long list of skills on the kindergarten curriculum. Naively I commented that I didn’t think it would be a problem, because what DD needed to work on were social skills. The poor woman regarded me earnestly, but with eyes wide. “We don’t have time to work on social skills in kindergarten,” she declared. That was my first clue that we were in for a bumpy ride.
Bound for Excellence
I had never before questioned the idea that my more-than-bright daughter would excel in the classroom. I had excelled. Her father had excelled. She was whip-smart and eager to learn—of course she would excel! Besides, I had a very deep investment in the public school system. Education was essentially our family business. Grandpa was an assistant superintendent; Grandma was a vice principal. My mom had taught “at risk” kids before her career in college administration. Dad taught art. Cousins, aunts, uncles, and relatives of all kinds structured their lives around the idea that no matter what the problem, the best way to be part of the solution is to be part of education. When it was time for me to start working, it was a natural progression to find myself serving as an elementary classroom teacher.
And yet, two months into the school year my daughter was in educational freefall. DD was bored and acting out. The class was overfilled (38 kids!), and the nearly-burned-out teacher had neither the time nor the patience to handle a square-peg. There were letters, suspensions, Tier 3, and IEP meetings. But, it became clear quickly that the team had no good ideas. Their only suggested modifications were increasingly harsh punishments for disruptive behavior. We called the district office. The assistant superintendent was very kind when he told us it was unlikely we could get our daughter into any of the other district schools. You see, the principals had to approve the transfer, and they were unlikely to do so since our daughter had been labeled a “troublemaker.” Two months into kindergarten and my own child was untouchable! This was not how it was supposed to be.
An Eclectic Journey
We spent the next years on a winding, eclectic educational journey that took us in and out of public schools, home-school programs, charter schools, and hybrid programs. Our lowest point came when DD was in a 5th grade public school classroom. We had moved to a new area and I was teaching technology at another elementary school in the district. Her principal called my lab in the middle of a lesson and told me I had to come pick DD up immediately because she was having a full meltdown in the vice principal’s office. It was one of those moments that stands still in time. I was mortified, furious, frustrated, worried, and more completely filled with self-doubt than I had ever been in my life. Now DD’s situation wasn’t just disrupting her own education. It wasn’t even just impacting the kids in her classroom. Now, my students were suffering, as well.
The system I trusted was utterly failing my daughter. To say this led to some soul searching would be an understatement. But, after re-evaluating everything I knew, or thought I knew, I find I am still an idealist. I still believe that public education is essential to solving most of society’s issues. Now, though, I recognize on an incredibly personal level that a system established to serve the masses must constantly strive to meet the needs of individuals. Those “best practices” we learn in teacher’s training are a matter of numbers. “This technique has been found to work well with 50%, or 70%, or 80% of the students in a test group.” It is never 100%. And it is important as educators constantly to be aware of this fact. We strive to make our classrooms richly educational on as many levels as we, as human beings, can achieve. But, there will always be those kids for whom this still isn’t quite the right fit. If we don’t want those kids falling through the cracks, it is incumbent on us to adapt to them. They may not be able to adapt completely to us.
A Turn Around
Perhaps predictably, that meltdown incident led to getting things turned around. The school contacted the district psychologist who insisted on a full battery of tests. With testing to confirm it, there was no longer any question of the need for modifications. DD, it seems, is “exceptionally gifted with Asperger’s tendencies.” Her IQ alone means that if she wound up in your classroom, you would probably never have even met anyone like her before. But, on some level, isn’t that true of every kid? DD just happens to be different in ways that are measurable on a particular kind of test.
DD is 17 now, as quirky as ever, and thriving. Her educational journey has been just as out-of-the-box as she is. It has been a roller coaster ride, and definitely not the educational plan I had in mind when she was born! But, it is what has worked for her.
If I have one takeaway message, it is that the public educational system, in all its bulk and splendor, gives us the structure to provide for the educational needs of society. But, when it comes to providing the limberness necessary to serve the educational needs of each quirky individual student, that has to come from us, as individual educators.
Calling all teacher/parents! We’d love to hear from you the ways in which being a parent have impacted how you teach. Has parenting informed your role as a teacher?
Stephanie Paris, BA in Psychology with an emphasis in Social and Emotional Development, has been in education for over 20 years. During that time, she has indulged her passion for education in an eclectic variety of ways, including an elementary classroom teacher, an elementary school computer and technology specialist, a home-schooling mother, an educational activist, and an author of numerous resources for Shell Education and Teacher Created Materials. Gender notwithstanding, Ms. Paris agrees heartily with Mark Twain that “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”