I’ve been teaching for years and can honestly say I’m always learning. Every student has taught or reaffirmed some lesson to me. Fresh out of college, I thought I had the world by the tail because I was armed with a lot of techniques in my back pocket. Like most teachers, I became a teacher because I believed I had a lot to offer to children with disabilities. I’ve come to realize it is often the other way around.
Just a few days ago, the east coast weathered a terrible storm, Hurricane Sandy. It has taunted and tormented many lives. Years ago, I had a student in my classroom who was taunted and tormented by her own storm. She changed the way I looked at teaching and the way I look at life. Cloie came to me as a first grader who had been removed as a kindergartener from the custody of her mother to live with her father and step-mother. She would not listen to anyone and would destroy everything she could get her hands on. In her general education class, she tore up papers, tore down bulletin boards, threw chairs, and cleared the teacher’s desk of its contents more than once with a sweep of her arms. As long as no one asked her to do anything, she would sit at her desk and wait for the day to be over.
When she qualified to be placed in my program, the school psychologist and mental health psychiatrist told me that due to some horrifying circumstances they believed Cloie could no longer differentiate between pain and pleasure and love and hate. She had been the victim of extreme abuse from her mother. On several occasions, she had been placed in a tub of cold water and electrocuted. She had been put outside naked in the wintertime for prolonged periods. The list of abuse went on and on. Each time her mother would do these things, she would tell Cloie that she was being treated like this because she deserved it and because her mother loved her very much. Later, she would be showered with hugs and told that her mother loved her very much. Is it any wonder Cloie could no longer differentiate these emotions and feelings?
I just sat in my chair staring at the mental health people through tears, not having a clue what to do to help this child. I couldn’t imagine the techniques I had learned would be enough to save this little girl. They told me to do what I had already been doing: maintain a highly structured, disciplined, and positive classroom. We discussed that every time Cloie had something nice happen to her I would say (for example), “Just now, when Henry shared his crayons with you, he did it because he cares about you. People who care about you share their crayons.”
Cloie arrived in my classroom and on the first day kicked me over 20 times with her cowgirl boots. I went home that night with several bruises and bumps on my legs. But, we finally got her to write her name on her point sheet. It was the only work she did all day and I considered it progress. The next day I talked to her dad and received permission and told her if she chose to kick anyone she would lose her boots (something I could not legally do now, I’m sure) until she complied with directions, did her work for a specified amount of minutes, and didn’t kick anyone during that time. She had her boots removed five times that day and earned them back every time. Again, progress.
Just like Hurricane Sandy calmed down, the storm inside of Cloie eventually started to calm down, too. Come back next week to find out more about that storm and the clean-up effort taking place inside of Cloie.
Be kinder than necessary, be grateful, and have a peace-filled week,