Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Secret of the Best School Year Ever

Luck of the it what you will, but I can see in retrospect that there was some divine intervention in the combining of the students assigned to my class  my last year of teaching. I carry in my heart such tender feelings about those children that I worry that writing about our experiences will somehow lessen, or cheapen them.  I do not want that.  Nor do I want to try to glorify a situation that was challenging at times, and made us all dig a little deeper to make things work.

There are some things better left unspoken, but I want to attempt to put into words some of what we experienced last year.  I have never had a class full of children that rallied around each other to the degree that those kids did. What was different about these particular children? Why were they so unique? What was it that our class had last year that previous classes lacked? We had a secret weapon. We had an ace up our collective sleeve. We had something everyone else wishes they could have. We had THE BOYS.

As school was winding down to a close the previous year, I was approached by Seth's mom Becky. Everyone knows Seth; everyone knows Becky if you go to our school.  Seth began his kindergarten year as one of the children in our special needs program at our school. He was diagnosed with a "fractured form" of Down's Syndrome as a little boy. He has some of the characteristics of children with Down's, but he has some other traits that are not associated with that particular syndrome. Becky wants what every mother wants:  the best for her child.  She has been Seth's advocate ever since he was born.  No one can accuse her of not being a good mom.  

Becky asked if I would consider being the "inclusion teacher" the next year. Our special needs program works with the homeroom teachers to see to it that the children are included in the regular classroom as much as possible. Here was the catch:  because we only had one assistant for the three boys coming into fifth grade, if I agreed to take Seth, I agreed to take them all.

Becky warned me, "You will never meet a child with less academic skills than Seth. But you will never meet a child with a greater capacity for love. He is very social, and he needs to be with his peers."

It only took me a moment. First of all, I am a professional educator. I'm no super hero, and I couldn't promise anything spectacular, but I would never refuse to have a child in my class, nor would the other teachers with whom I taught. Second of all, I have had many special needs children in my class over the years, and it has always been a pretty positive experience. And last of all, I have a soft spot for these kids.  So...I agreed.

What have I done? I thought later. The fifth grade classes were going to be huge; all of us would have at least thirty children in our homerooms. There would only be ONE assistant to help with these three very different boys. What was I thinking? My last year of teaching should be EASY...not one full of so many challenges. It was done. I would never go back on my word. And so the new year began.

As it turned out, the boys became the catalyst for all things compassionate and loving in fifth grade. They helped us all get in touch with that softer side in each of us. Whenever the class noise level was rising, it would agitate Adam. All I would have to do is softly remind the class that we needed to respect those around us who don't care for noise, and they would settle down quickly.  The kids got to know each other well, and they were careful to respect each other's differences and strengths.

What made the difference this year? I can think of several things, but I think the biggest thing we did right was our Morning Meeting. That wonderful concept is something I used to do when I taught first grade, but after watching my colleague, Annie Hunt, have so much success with it with her fifth graders, I decided to try it. We held our meeting when we had everyone all together.

During our morning meeting, we took turns celebrating our little triumphs, and talking about things that needed improvement.  If kids needed support or help, this was the time of day they mentioned it. We tried to focus on things for which we were grateful. The kids learned quickly that they were always welcome to laugh WITH a classmate, but never AT a classmate.

One morning meeting in the middle of winter, the boys seemed more hyper than usual. Several were jockeying into position around Seth.  There was a palpable positive energy.  "Seth has something to say," one of the kids said. Seth tucked his head and started to grin.

"I got a medal," he all but whispered into the collar of his shirt.

"What?  You got a medal?  In what?"  
We wanted to know more! It turns out that Seth had won a gold medal at a tournament on the previous Saturday. He had wrestled two of my better athletes to take the gold. The "losers" were beaming.  They were so proud to be a part of Seth's happiness.  My throat tightened and my eyes stung. How could I not love these people?

The morning meeting gave all of us a chance to practice speaking in public, work on our grammar, and show compassion for each other. It really didn't take long for the children to feel safe enough to share their deepest fears and their most profound joys.

Adam has many gifts that are still being discovered. He has an astounding ability to recall dates and numbers, and can spell extremely difficult words with ease. There were days during our meeting that he would point to every child and tell them their birthdate.  Once he hears a date, he doesn't forget it. The children would applaud him in admiration.

He could also name every child in our class in alphabetical order, starting anywhere on the list. This came in handy when I couldn't remember who the leader was, which was pretty often.  All I would have to do is look at Adam, and he would tell me.

One day before school started, Adam greeted one of the assistants, wishing her husband a happy birthday.  

"Oh, Adam, it's not my husband's birthday. His birthday is --- oh, my goodness! It IS today! Thank you, Adam!"  and she quickly made a phone call to wish her husband a happy birthday.

Adam had several friends who would help him feel safe and secure at school. Sometimes when he seemed nervous or agitated during our meetings, Nash would sit closer to him and just rub his back. Brooklyn would talk to him, reassuring him with comforting words. I could always count on Talmage, Kenzie, and Ethan to help with the boys. Actually, there wasn't anyone who minded helping. Every child helped me in so many ways.  I don't know if they'll ever know how much each one of them meant to me. I never could have taught 35 students as well as I did without the cooperation and dedication of each of those wonderful children!

Everyone knows kids can be cruel.  Most of us learn not to expose ourselves in public to avoid scrutiny and derision. Over the course of our year together, the children felt safe enough to tell us things that made them cry. They shared feelings of loss and insecurity. They revealed things that were difficult for them to understand. They also shared their funny stories and laughter.

Calvin loves to play.  In his world, the line between reality and make-believe seems to get a little
blurred, so my biggest goal for him during our meeting was to tell us something that was true about him and his day. Nash would whisper into his ear things they had done together at recess. Friends would remind him of accomplishments he could share with us. There are two morning meetings I will never forget.

One is the day Calvin brought his dog. Once he gets a good idea, he doesn't want anyone to forget about it. He must've asked every day for weeks if he could bring his dog to school. Every time I would tell him he'd have to ask his mom. Finally, the day came, and Calvin was able to share his dog with his friends. He loved looking at this picture of the day his dog came for show and tell.

The other unforgettable moment is when Calvin showed us his mask. Ever since he had been in the third grade program, he had asked his third grade teacher if he could be Annie Bangs, a fictional character with long blonde hair and a very scary face.  Secretly, Annie Bangs terrified Calvin, but he really wanted to be able to wear the mask and be scary on the stage. After three years of asking if he could be Annie Bangs, his former teacher approached me about letting him take the stage as the star.

Mrs. V, Calvin's assistant, said as she helped him practice his part, his heart would race and his breathing would become shallow. He was doing something that terrified him and thrilled him at the same time. We could all learn a little bit about courage from Mr. Calvin.

The day that he showed our homeroom his Annie Bangs mask, the children responded with terror and laughter. Calvin loved it. At the end of the year, Calvin's mother wrote the most wonderful book for her son for his fifth grade publishing project.  We included all of the pictures I had taken of him as Annie Bangs, and the sweet notes of admiration his classmates had written to him the day they saw his performance. They praised him for being so scary and so brave. I don't think he will ever forget that experience either.

During the month of September last year, I sent Seth's mom a letter. I will share part of that here with you, with her permission:

"Simply put, Becky, thank you for the privilege of having the special needs children in my fifth grade class this year. It has been such a sweet experience to watch my students rally around the boys. They watch out for them, take up for them, and are very generous with praise whenever the boys are actively participating with our class. I have been moved to tears in watching my little heroes befriend these angelic children. I remind myself often that the way we treat these children is a test I want us all to pass with flying colors. And so far, my expectations have been exceeded in every way."

"So, thank you. I will confess that I had serious doubts about my stamina, energy, and patience entering into my 30th year of teaching. I am so glad I said YES when you asked if I would take them. I know enough about these children to know many blessings come to those who love them, and I can use all of the blessings I can get."

Other blog posts about school:

Story Idea Generator Game


  1. I love how these photos capture the boys in their true state. I love this post. I honestly don't know if anybody will know the true magic that took place last year (except those of us that were there). There were so many different experiences that we were all able to share! Thank you for saying Yes!

    1. Magical...that sums it up for me. Thanks for taking the time to post a response, Mrs. V.

    2. Denise, I hardly have words to respond. I have read this a few times and each time I have a new emotion; gratitude for you as a teacher and friend, for the other kids, for those three little boys, and especially that I get to be Seth's mom, amazed at their hidden talents, and happy--just happy that this is my world. Your class was a turning point for him and many of his friends--- and you made that possible. I love your perspective; I couldn't have written a better world for him if I had tried. Your blog has been passed around in our family and we will treasure it. Thank you thank you ... for so many things ;) By the way, that picture of Seth in his grey jacket is probably my favorite picture that has ever been taken of him. There is a lot of wisdom in those eyes! God bless my dear friend--- Love, Becky

    3. That all three of the boys' moms approved was my greatest concern. You have all been so supportive of my writing. I wanted more than anything to honor the memory of last year, especially to honor our boys. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the opportunity to be the teacher I always wanted to be. Last year, I was blessed with more love and patience than I ever knew I could receive. I love you for entrusting me with your Seth.

  2. I love your story, ma'am. Inspiring for dads like me. :) Blessings!

    1. Thank you, Raymund. I wish life's choicest blessings for your little girl, and for your family. May she always have supportive family, friends, and teachers.

  3. I shared this with my school team since it demonstrates a wonderful use of class meetings.

    1. Linda, thank you for sharing. Class meetings made this one of the best years ever, and the boys sealed the deal!


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