“Listen,” I say softly, “there are a lot of things that you can’t control right now, but there are also a lot that you CAN control. I need you to focus on what *you* can control.”
I’d swear I can hear this child nod. We pause, silent for a moment, letting this idea settle.
“Let’s make a list,” I say. “I’ll start. You can control when you take breaks. Are you taking breaks?”
“Um. Yeah, I guess.”
“So let’s start with that.”
We talk for over half an hour. I cradle the receiver to my ear and help one child take back a sense of agency, a sense that they are capable of learning even in a system that seems designed to take advantage of every weakness inherent in their learning disability. I hang up, exhausted but content. I know that the problems aren’t actually fixed – both parents and teachers are spiralling as they try to figure out how to help – but I also know that I’ve helped give this kid a little shelter from the storm. Hopefully this will be enough to allow him to find his footing, remember his strengths, and forge ahead.
This is the Special Education work I want to do. This is the work I’ve been missing at the beginning of this pandemic-infused school year. Lately, I’ve found myself remembering the words of my Spec Ed mentor from years ago: The kids always come first. The system will tell you that the paperwork comes first, but it’s wrong. Miss every deadline you need to in order to support the kids.
The last few weeks have exhausted me. I thought I was embodying my mentor’s words, but I’ve realized that, in fact, given the restrictions on seeing students and the system’s insatiable need for accountability, I have actually been putting paperwork first. Most of my phone calls have been about IEPs, not about helping. Oh, I thought I was asking about the kids, but I was actually working through a list, making sure I had checked all the boxes. I’m embarrassed to realize it, but the kids were coming second, the myriad phone calls really in service of a form.
What’s important to me are relationships and people. What’s important is listening, believing and creating space for growth. If I am going to thrive in this moment, I am going to have to find my joy – because my joy is what allows me to reach out, is what allows me to support, to help, to encourage.
I lean away from the phone and find solace in my lonely office, away from the colleagues and students. What can I control?I ask myself. Am *I* taking breaks? I stand up, stretch, don my mask, and head across the hallway to make myself a tea.
I can control how I interact with students: I will use the phone to connect with students who might not otherwise ask for help. (In fact, I am astonished by the kids who are reaching out now compared to the kids who came to the Spec Ed room before.) I will make time for long conversations when they are necessary. I will proactively reach out to students who I hear may be struggling. I will put students first.
I can control how I interact with teachers: I will use our new, complicated school day to offer a different kind of support for teachers. I can share Google classrooms with them and offer ideas for UDL when teachers ask me about this. I will offer breaks so they can breathe during these long days. I will find ways to teach that are not dependent upon having a class.
I love being a teacher. Teaching is written into my very being. I know what brings me joy. Now, even in the midst of this most unusual time, I can decide to pursue the joy available in this moment and remember that the deadlines are about systems and I am about people.
Later in the day, I learned that my student’s parent had called the principal. The storm winds continued to blow, but the parent also reported that my conversation with their son had been really helpful: “I don’t know what she said, but it’s the first time I’ve seen him smile in days.”
Ah, there’s the joy.