The student becomes the teacher. Literally.
My new school is a District 75 high school. District 75 can be described as the most restrictive schools in the NYC educational system with full inclusion classes. The first thing that thrilled me, was that the school was very close to my home, on the yellow train line, and on the way to my University for classes afterwards. The bad news, is that my day starts an hour earlier. Now I’m students teaching from 8AM to noon, and classes from 1PM until 6:30PM when I drag my way home.
I was assigned to a standard assessment Emotional disturbance class, and that jargon means that even though the students have a disability and are in a 12 to 1 to 1 class setting, they are responsible for the same standardized tests of normal high school kids. That might not seem like a big deal, until you throw in behavioral problems, parental neglect, and the emotional disturbances themselves like Bipolarity or even schizophrenia. And the fact that these kids are growing up poor in the city tosses in the ever-flavorful street-smart hustler aspect of their blooming identities.
Was I nervous walking into a class room of 14 and 15 year old students with behavior issues? Does a homeless man poop in an alley? Of course I was anxious! I mean, here I am: Miss-twenty-three-from-Upstate-NY-suburbs-white-girl. But, here’s the catcher: I feel lucky because I’d be a heck of a lot more uncomfortable around autistic students. Why? Because even though an autistic child won’t be in-your-face about things, and their behavior is pretty controllable, it’s difficult to impossible for reasoning with an autistic child. Behavior management for the autistic is based around positive reinforcement, better known as bribery.
Anyway, I was brought to my assigned teacher and classroom by the principal, who had only been working at the school for three days. Already we’re off to a great start! C’mon, the principal just started, so of course the students would be running the school. I was instantly put at ease by the cooperating teacher Ms. R who is the quintessential black matriarch. Though I am a touch uneasy with the term matriarch because she could be older than thirty. Large, beautiful and tough-looking, with a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude that the students responded to, I was instantly impressed by the repore that Ms. R had with her students. Every child was “baby,” and she kissed cheeks and squeezed shoulders without any fear, though she was just as quick with snapped fingers and a growled demand to “pay attention.” This woman is a queen, and I feel in safe hands.
Since it’s summer school the classes are small by design. Also since it is summer school attendance is very dismal. My first class was on Wednesday and two students showed up. And two students were in class on Thursday, except one arrived late and the other have to be dismissed early to make a probation hearing.
However, for the most part it’s going well. I am as surprised as you. Ms. R is fine with my constant questioning, she lets me read through past lesson plans and work sheets and is very helpful with enormous amounts of insight. The students (when they are there) are warming to me, and that’s definitely boosting my teacher confidence. It helps that I bribe them (both teacher and students) with donut holes.
What I found interesting is that on my second day when I brought the glazed orbs there was only one student in class, Ericka, and she refused to take the donut holes. After I shyly offered, and even when Ms. R asked. However, when Ms. R helped herself Ericka got mad. It was about territory, the student was angry that I was “stealing” her teacher by offering her treats. Mind you, I’m sure it wasn’t so sophisticated in Ericka’s brain, but it offered me a lot of insight into my situation. Eventually she relented and started stuffing her cheeks like an ebony chipmunk and a bond was born.
Many teachers and educational theories denounce food rewards for good behavior, pointing to the advanced rate of obesity in disabled students (thought all child obesity is on the rise.) Now, I see the point and the evidence, but I can’t help but remember the idiom “the way to a man’s heart is through is stomach,” and for a student, the comfort foods don’t merely reward, but create a bond and also comfort. I doubt Ericka would have been fond of me proffering her some yams or pinto beans. Positive reinforcers like stickers or small dollar-store knick knacks may work with swaying the actions of younger kids, but you have to keep in mind who you’re teaching. The minute you start treating your 9th grade inclusion class like a 4th grade class is the minute your students resent you, and thus anarchy is born.