Letter: How Can I Not Be Thankful

This is the response to the letter I wrote, as part of a series I will be exchanging with one of my colleagues on a variety of issues. The full length of this letter can also be found on his blog.

Dear Donna Mac,

Happy Thanksgiving! I was so excited to receive your letter because all the questions you asked are ones I have asked myself and I’ve, for some time now, wanted to throw the answers into a blog post.

It is true, I am in a totally different place this year and last than I was in my first two years. The differences are pretty striking, indeed. For starters, I went from general ed to special ed. I went from upper grades to lower. I went from an annex to the main building. I went from a (comparatively speaking) larger room with no closets to relatively small rooms with ample closet space. I went from 28 students to 12. I went from being on my own in the room to having a para (and in the case of this year, two).

It is true, as well, the move to special ed is one that I had to make in order to have a full-time job. However, my view of special ed has evolved considerably since I was appointed to my position in the summer of 2010. Although frustrating at times, I relish my role as an advocate for my students. I enjoy being the voice that stands up for them when it seems like no one else’s will. I also enjoy helping students feel empowered to be their own advocates.

One thing that doesn’t change, regardless of general ed fifth grade or special ed lower grades, is that kids need to feel good about themselves. I feel like I am still improving in helping kids develop positive self-images, but I can say, for most of my students, they walk out of our room in June in a better place than when they walked in in September. This, I feel, is the greatest gift I can give and the best lesson I can teach – that, no matter the grades they get, they are extremely important and valuable to me and others.

Teaching special ed is difficult. I am constantly grappling with the need to have my students do grade level work when they lack the prerequisite skills. I find myself reteaching lessons the day after I teach them because I failed to properly anticipate appropriate points of entry for my students on my first try. Things take longer than they did in fifth grade, yet the expectations to complete units in a timely fashion remain the same. This often induces stress because I want to do only what is best for my students. It is a tough balancing act, and I am working on it a lot this year.

Something I really have enjoyed this year – and I didn’t even realize how much I missed it – is the way this year’s students’ personalities are shining through. In fifth grade, kibbutzing was a major part of my M.O., and the kids and I kept each other laughing throughout the day. This year, with third graders, as opposed to the first and second graders I had last year, I am enjoying this aspect of the Mr. Ray-student relationships once again. The kids are quick-witted and insightful. They always surprise me with their clever ideas and unique points of view. And they get my sense of humor (which, as you know, can be quite wry…and unfunny!)

As to whether I’m “chummy” and “sarcastic” – two words that I would not choose to identify myself as a teacher – I hope not. The students are not my chums, and there is a line between being friendly and being a friend. They know they can trust me, that I support them, that I believe in them, that they’re important to me. If that’s how you define “chummy,” then perhaps that’s what I am. As for sarcasm, I’ve grown and learned that sarcasm is lost on all children. I try to be much more straightforward now than I ever was.

Donna, in my first year of teaching, I had a class of students that most people told me were “low-functioning.” I never liked the way people dismissed them as incapable with an airy, “Oh, but they’re low-functioning.” They might as well have said, “Oh, but they’re incapable.” That class stunned a lot of people with their sensitive, powerful photography, which as you know, was featured in the building and received local media coverage. I took a lot of pride from those students’ accomplishments because pretty much everyone had written them off. Only thing is, that class was the bee’s knees and they knew it.

That chip on my shoulder from year one is only greater now that I teach special ed. So many have stigmatized and written off my students – with no valid reason for doing so other than knowing they have a label – and it is my great pleasure to put these children in positions where they can be celebrated (like when they blog or, in last year’s case, raise the most money for the school fundraiser for Japan earthquake relief). You know I’m a Mr. Rogers type: I truly believe every child needs to be celebrated for who he or she is, and that’s how I go about my business.

So, where will the road eventually lead me? It’s impossible to guess. I never thought it would lead me to where I am today. Yet, it has, and I’m a better teacher for it. Wherever I wind up, I am grateful for the opportunities and students that have been part of my life. I’ve learned from all of them and remember them all fondly.

On this Thanksgiving, I can honestly say I am thankful to be where I am today and where I was previously. Wherever I wind up after this, I’ll probably be thankful for that, too.

And I thank you for your letter and friendship. I wish you and your family – especially your little turkey – a wonderful Thanksgiving.

Matt

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