Monday, December 1, 2008

Learning Lessons

I testified in my first suspension hearing at the school board. Across from me was JV, in the same bling covered hoodie that he had worn every day since I met him, his dark brown eyes averting mine, looking as innocent as they always did. My heart was aching for him – wishing that rather than teaching him a lesson like this I had been able to teach him a lesson in the classroom.

The swore us all in, myself, him, his mother and step father and the special education counselor who was accompanying me. They recorded it all, and asked me about the incident, how I had felt, how had said what. It wasn’t that scary once I was in there – but in the 4 hours I spent waiting for our case to be called I had sat shaking with the power that I suddenly had over someone’s life, feeling unqualified and inadequate. I read JV’s IEP (individualized education plan, which all students in special education have and which really all children deserve to have) and my eyes filled with tears as I read about his academic struggles and abilities. Nowhere in his IEP was there mention of behavioral problems – which in itself set his apart from the IEP of the other two boys who were being suspended. But what pained me the most was the paragraphs about his reading abilities and goals.

He has sat In my class every day and refused to do work. He acts up often, but can be calmed down. He needs a lot of attention. I often sit in the back of the room with him and try to engage him while the other teacher (his class is always taught by 2 teachers to ensure a 12:1 ratio) works with the other students. Generally when I do this, my goal is to distract he and his friend, RC, from their usual goal of disrupting the class in every ridiculous way possible. Im generally 30% successful if both are there – but when JV is there alone I can keep him occupied for the whole period. He is willing to organize papers, or staple packets for me. But when I ask him to write or read, he shuts off, becomes defiant and disruptive, and any relationship we had established through the period is lost. Other students will drop anything to write on the board or the overhead. JV will enthusiastically follow me to the front when I tell him I have a job for him, and then run away when he realizes that it involves literacy.

I had come to believe that he was illiterate. I couldn’t make him write – and I spoke with other teachers who had the same experience. Other students at least write when they are doing graffiti on my desks. He doesn’t even do that. Reading his IEP, I felt for the first time that I had truly failed a student. There was an academic goal that by the end of the year he be able to read on a 3rd grade level, and read 20 books on that level. He was described as creative and someone who enjoyed writing creatively. Who was that child? The boy who sat in my class was not the one who I was reading about, and I could only blame myself for losing him.

When I testified, he shook his head at everything I said, as though denying it. He was between his parents, and I had to figure that this was for their benefit. All I wanted was to end the whole mess, and start from the beginning with him. I realized that once he established himself as a behavior problem in my class, I treated him as such, rather than treating him as a student with challenging needs, as I did the others in his class.

In the end I guess it’s as much me learning a lesson as it is him. And at the end of the suspension, hopefully I’ll get another chance to do right by him, so that in his next IEP, his next teacher will read about his potential rather than his restrictions and limitations. I just wish I had gotten to read it earlier.

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