Many schools engage in the practice of “passing on” students to the next teacher. Generally this involves a child’s current teacher providing next year’s teacher with insights about a child’s strengths, challenges, friendships, triggers, and so on. When this process does not occur formally, teachers informally discuss students. This sharing of information can be important and can lend great insight, and yet in my experience there is also a notable tension to hold here. How do we as educators avoid forming a single story of a student? How do we continue to welcome and see a student beyond limiting labels and impressions?
Early in my teaching career, an administrator called me into her office, handed me a book about sensory processing disorder and said “it’s not your fault if he doesn’t make it through his sixth grade year.”
The boy she was talking about was Jake. Jake had been at this small independent school since kindergarten. Each major transition had proven a challenge and the administration anticipated the transition to the upper school (6th grade) to be the most challenging. Late in the summer my principal called a meeting to warn me about Jake’s sensitivity to light and noise, his general defiance, and the difficulty previous teachers had experienced with him. In telling me about Jake she mentioned Jake’s tendency to cocoon himself into his orange hoody, to argue with his teachers, to shriek when the classroom became too noisy.
A new teacher, and a full time graduate student, I was energetic, full of hope and eager to meet the needs of all of my students and fulfill my role as an educator. I diligently read the book she gave me and prepared for my first meeting with Jake. I created behavior charts, wrote out possible protocols and even began to consider initial assignments for Jake.
When I first met Jake he was wearing an orange hoody, the hood sewn permanently to his jacket so he could not pull it over his head. He shifted nervously on his feet, avoided eye contact and spoke in short, staccato sentences. I was struck immediately by Jake’s passion and curiosity. He spoke excitedly about the mushrooms he had discovered in a dank corner of the library and asked me countless questions about my interests, experiences and preferences.
Much of what the administration told me was true. Jake was bothered when the classroom became too boisterous and often put his head on the desk when the light was too bright. He pushed back, often questioning requests, and rarely completed his homework assignments. However, in the administration’s efforts to prepare me for this so called difficult student, they failed to share with me his brilliance.
Jake had an impressive memory, a penchant for historical facts, a deep interest in classical music, and a growing fascination with videography. Jake had a dry sense of humor. His commentary on life and historical events was often witty and keenly accurate. When I practiced truly seeing Jake, I could see that he was shrewd, smart, curious and passionate. In just a few weeks I learned that Jake did not need behavior charts or even protocols to support him through his day. He needed to be engaged, feel worthy and be seen in his fullest potential. It was in these moments that Jake dazzled our community with his insights, talents and interests.
With continued practice I learned to let Jake be; I put aside my limiting impressions and attempted to see and appreciate the mysterious person before me. Truly seeing beyond the limiting labels of “difficult” and “disordered” proved challenging at times. There were days when his defiance manifested in ways that made the classroom unsafe for the other students, or when his tendency to push back, question and defy my requests made it difficult for me to teach and hindered our progress as a learning community. With each difficult day or trying experience, I had to consciously be present to my emotions whilst also remaining open to more possibilities for how Jake might show up.
Relying on the field of care, both immediate in our school psychologist and more distant in the educators who inspired me, provided a secure and grounded base from which I could be present to my own emptions and from which I could stably extend care to Jake. When I could see beyond the single story of Jake as difficult and defiant, I could enjoy teaching him, learning from him and growing alongside him.
My practice of seeing Jake as a fuller human being gave his classmates permission to do the same. As a classroom community we became stronger, more connected and more empathic. We practiced not only seeing Jake in his potential, but seeing each other as more than the labels and past experiences we had become to some.
I am certainly grateful for the history and knowledge presented to me early on by my principal, but I am also most grateful for the learning opportunity Jake afforded me, and for the lived and sustained practice of trying to see someone in all of their possibility and potential.