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The Benefits of Extra Effort

[Mr. Foteah is the pseudonym of a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah, where this post first appeared.]

Nearly 10 months ago, I embarked on my fourth year of teaching. I started in September in my elementary school special education classroom feeling, for the first time, that I had something to prove. To that end, I found myself working longer, harder, and smarter than I have at any point in my career. I reaped the benefits in many areas. I learned a lot. These are some of my most valuable takeaways heading into the summer.

One size can’t/won’t/needn’t ever fit all. There was a decided shift in my philosophy this year that I’m not sure I anticipated. On some level, I had previously believed, “If it works for one, it should work for all.” This evolved to, “If it works for one, what about everyone else?”

I made a much more concerted effort to differentiate process, product and most importantly, expectations. Because of this, students were, much more frequently than in my previous classes, able to work at their own paces, on their own levels, without fear of embarrassment and with the satisfaction of being able to do well.

Everyone shines at something. Some of my least social kids were the best dancers and singers. Some of my most struggling readers were the most patient teachers. Some of my least organized students had steel traps for memories. With all this, an important point came clearly into contrast: We should value our students for their strengths instead of demeaning them for their weaknesses.

Bring it back old school. Creativity is not the most valued trait in schools nowadays, which really stinks for the students, who are forced into boxes when all they yearn to do is be themselves. I was thrilled to get the green-light for some project-based learning at the end of this year and plan to forge ahead with it next year. But, oh, the challenge of designing opportunities for creative expression in a barren morass of mandates and testing. We’ll make it happen.

What are high expectations, anyway? I am very much on the record in my belief that expectations can be both high and realistic (isn’t that novel?), as opposed to the view that everyone can and should grow up to be a doctor or scientist (but never a teacher, for some reason).

It was never reasonable to expect a B reader in September to be a P reader in June. The fact that such a student is going to end the year on a G is no insignificant accomplishment. That another student went from D to L should be celebrated. That one of my most troubled students improved five levels is not a super shame, but a super story. I always knew the kids could improve, and them knowing that I knew it helped them strive and thrive.

Is there anyone out there? I assume so. I moved away from my old mentality about parents this year. No longer did I assume parents were disinterested just because they didn’t seek me out. Instead, I assumed they wanted to be involved but needed me to meet them in the middle.

I no longer allowed myself to justify a note sent in English simply because, “Well, I sent a note, didn’t I?” Virtually every note this year — for the whole class and for individuals — went home in English and Spanish. I sent home a newsletter seven out of 10 months. I sent nice notes. I sent certificates. I sent reminders. I sent thank-yous. I sent anecdotes.

My hope is that parents appreciated the effort and felt more a part of the goings-on in school.

Like my students, I started in September with certain goals in mind for the end of the school year. As it turned out, some of those goals couldn’t be addressed simply because the winds of change had different designs for me. That’s OK. I like where the wind took me.

 

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