“You teach the little ones, don’t you?” It’s Monday morning, and a newly hired general education teacher is checking her mailbox. She steps aside as I make my way to the door.
Nodding yes, I smile back. I am willing to bet she knows that my classroom is in the wing of our school known as The Program, but she has never visited. She’s not the only one. While many parents and colleagues have preconceptions about what goes on in my class—possibly they overhear student outbursts—few are compelled to stop by.
“You’re welcome to come check us out,” I offer.
I almost add, The kids won’t bite. But then I remember: Sometimes they do.
After she says she’ll see if she can find the time, I hurry off to my classroom and am struck again by how conventional it looks. If the general ed teacher stops in, she’ll see that the number of student desks is smaller, yes, but they’re arranged in groups, just like those in the mainstream classrooms down the hall. There is a meeting area, a classroom library, computers, and lots of writing and art supplies. In addition to the ABC chart and class-rules list, there’s also a series of “feelings” posters, depicting children in various moods and emotional states. Clearly, this is an early primary classroom.
What a visitor might not notice, at first glance, is that the area closest to my desk is cordoned off to create a “safety zone” designed to keep a child who’s not having a good day separated from the others. Posters outlining a complicated hall-pass system hang near the exit. Although I have only six students, I get plenty of help from a woman I’ll call Valerie, an intern from the local university. (In fact, I’ve changed the names of all my colleagues and students here, to protect their privacy.) And Dana, the school’s crisis counselor, is always at the ready across the hall. In ways big and small, in style and substance, our emotional disabilities class differs from those of my general ed colleagues.
This Monday morning demonstrates exactly how. Things are hopping, right from the start. Six-year-old Kerry marches up the hall and into the classroom singing a loud, manic song. Embedded in the seemingly unintelligible jumble of words and sounds is a crystal-clear message for those who know how to interpret it: Something in my young life is very wrong, and I don’t know what to do about it.
Dana peeks her head out of her room, shoots me a knowing look, and says, “She’s been like this every day of the past week.”
I nod in agreement and lower my voice. “We called Mom and she insists everything is fine at home. She says Kerry is getting her meds every day.”
Kerry later tells me a different story, claiming her mom was lying—that they’re out of medicine.
I expect to spend the better part of each day de-escalating out-of-control kids. That’s my job as a special educator. But Kerry’s worries about her chaotic home life, most likely coupled with a medication problem, indicate that this is going to be a particularly rough day. When this kind of angst takes hold of a child, it’s hard to find time to practice reading, writing, and math.
Even when one student is this distressed, however, I can’t put the other kids’ needs aside; they bring to class their own equally heartbreaking histories. Bo’s mom, for example, had me fooled for two years. It turns out that she—not her husband—was the abuser making Bo’s life hell. Kylie was once kidnapped by her estranged father, a man who may or may not be involved with a satanic cult. Nils’ behavior and learning problems often make school and home life miserable, despite the love and attention of his adoptive family. Jack’s severe ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder require the utmost patience. And Ricky just moved to the area from out of state. We don’t know much about his former life with his grandmother, but his father is desperately trying to help his son now.
So, early in the day, I’m back and forth between the kids in the classroom and Kerry, who’s “resting” in the conference room. By late morning, she’s asleep, draped across a beanbag chair and surrounded by books and stuffed animals. Dana comes up behind me and says, “Go on back to class. I’ll keep checking on her.”
We’re in the middle of a social studies lesson when I hear Kerry’s mournful cry. Valerie jumps in and ably takes over the lesson. Out in the hall, I see Dana holding Kerry’s hand as they walk toward Dana’s room. I join them, hoping I can get Kerry back to my class, but her cries turn to anger. She slaps the brown teddy bear in her hands hard against a desk. “I hate school! I hate my mom! I hate me!”
Then she bolts across the room and climbs under a desk, kicking it hard, over and over. She turns to glare at me. “I hate you, Mrs. R!”
Dana and I talk Kerry through her tantrum, validating her feelings while allowing for their safe expression. As soon as Kerry stops kicking and seems settled, I duck out to check on the others.
The classroom is empty. I look at the clock. It’s lunchtime. Valerie and the kids have gone to the cafeteria. Thank goodness for Valerie.
I rush back to Kerry, who’s crying softly and clutching her bear. She climbs out from under the desk, walks over to hug Dana, and then me. I hug her back, then direct her to a chair.
“Show us you’re calm, honey,” I say. “We’ll start the timer.”
Even if Kerry is able to handle a time-out, I know the classroom isn’t the place for her just now. I write Dana a note that reads: “I’ll get Bonnie.”
Bonnie, the school psychologist, will spend time with Kerry in her office. She’ll decide if we should phone Mom, or if a call to protective services is in order. Until then, it’s back to class, where I’m surprised and pleased to see that new general ed teacher standing at my doorway. I wave her in.
“Hey, you came. Good! It’s been quite a day already.”
She shakes her head. “I heard the screaming earlier. I don’t know how you do it.”
For a brief moment I picture myself in her shoes, standing in front of 25 typical elementary kids, all of them geared up and expectant. Along with them come 25 sets of needs, 25 hearts to be nurtured, 25 portfolios to maintain, and at least that many parents to satisfy. That, to me, is terrifying.
I smile appreciatively at Valerie and the kids who’ve come back from lunch.
“I can’t really explain it,” I reply. “This is where I belong.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2007 edition of Teacher as Give Me the ‘Difficult’ Kids