When I started teaching three and a half years ago, nothing could have prepared me for the jargon I would face as an educator. The special education terminology was somewhat familiar, but then throw core standards, Michigan Grade Level Content Expectaitions (GLCE), Michigan Curriculum framework, standards-based report cards and now, standards based IEPs! It is enough to make an outsider’s head spin! As a special education teacher, it was pretty easy to take a cue from the general education teachers and make sure that my curriculum was simply aligned with what they were doing in their classrooms. The scope and sequence of courses was laid out and collaboration was made easy.
This year, I have taken on a new endeavor. Teaching in a self-contained classroom for general education students, grades 6-8 has been a bigger challenge than I ever imagined. So, after one marking period, where am I now? A few weeks ago, I started to feel really stressed out. Every time I visited our middle school building that my program is a satellite of, my anxiety grew. Teachers would ask me, “Are you on such and such unit yet? How are you meeting all of the GLCEs?” I would walk out of the building questioning my planning and teaching style.
My anxiety came to a head last week and I decided to revamp my schedule. I would break the students up according to grade level and divide my day into class periods (45-65 minutes each). I would spend approximately 20 minutes per hour with each grade level, teaching a different lesson.After implementing this schedule for two days, I had my official observation by my principal. He came over to my building for an hour and watched my 7th and 8th graders engage in a discussion about a short story that they read. My 6th grader was working on an individual web quest for science. The hour went beautifully; I split my time between the two groups and the principal nodded and smiled as students who barely made a sound last year debated questions and moral values that arose in the story, “Flowers for Algernon”.
After my principal left the building the students fell apart. They had been slowly unraveling since I implemented the new schedule and by the time I left at 1:30 for a conference, I felt like our little community was more like a mere holding room for the students before they went home. What happened to our little family?
A weekend away and some conversations with a few of my mentors revealed the truth: By splitting up my students, I lost the sense of teamwork that I worked so hard to establish. I got caught up in every single GLCE and forgot about the fact that I have been given the challenge of restoring my students’ faith in education. I don’t know why they gave up on school. Perhaps they failed one too many times when taking a risk. Perhaps someone told them that they should stop trying. Either way, I am to provide a second chance for them. My faith in myself was restored when my principal bragged to the assistant principal that he was amazed by a particular student’s participation in the group discussion. “Last year,” he exclaimed, “ ‘P’ would have never even read the story, let alone talk about it.”
I am almost angry about worrying about every single GLCE. Yes, I have to expose my students to the material, but should I really worry about hitting up the grade level material for each and every student? No. I need to take a step back and ask, “What is my relationship with my students and how does it affect their learning?” and “What does mastery look like? What does mastery look like for each individual student?” This is what the art of teaching is truly about. Without relationships, our students do not trust us. Without trust, there is no risk-taking. Without risk-taking, there is not learning. Take a risk. Set aside your teacher’s manuals and form a relationship with your students. Listen to them, care for them, read and write with them. Master the art of teaching and your students will be successful.