On Friday evening, I had the honor of being a special guest at a former student's high school graduation. While that may seem mundane and an every day occurrence for many, this invitation meant more to me than words could adequately express. While this student was not loved or liked more than the others, he definitely had a hand in making me the teacher I am today. So often, as a teacher, I focus on the success of my students, and rightly so, but this student completely transformed what I knew about teaching, shifted my mindset, and set me on a path that could not be ignored.
It was no surprise that this young man would be placed in my classroom that year. At our little school, students were placed into classrooms based on learning styles. Some students found themselves placed in analytical classrooms where every detail was important, routines were well established, and there were clearly defined expectations for assignments, projects, and any other activities that took place throughout the year. Some students found themselves in a global classroom where the teacher painted big picture ideas first, allowed things to occur organically, and looked quite a bit different from that analytic room. And others may have found themselves placed in a flexible room that incorporated elements of both styles. That also meant that teachers were assigned classes based on their learning style or teaching style as well. I often fell on the analytical end of the spectrum, but was sometimes given a flexible classroom depending on need. This particular year, I believe I was the flexible teacher, but leaned toward analytical tendencies. He needed routines, no surprises, clearly defined outcomes and boundaries.
Before school began, I met with mom and she came into my classroom with a giant binder that provided a very clear picture of this young man as a student. We talked about strengths and weaknesses, areas of growth that were in progress, areas to push further, triggers that would result in shutting down, and strategies that had worked in the past. At the end of our meeting we both agreed that he needed to be pushed to try new things and to offer no excuses. I felt prepared and knowledgeable to enter the school year with success. But, little did I know that this 5th grader would teach me what it truly meant to be a teacher.
Up until this point, I had approached teaching with creativity, but honestly with a binder full of lessons that I knew had been successful, but didn't really reflect the learning styles or needs of my classroom of students. Differentiation was just starting to be the buzz word across schools and districts. Books were being read on the topic, discussions being had, but the year this child was present was when I truly saw the value of tailoring my instruction for individual students and where they were on the learning continuum.
Early in the year, we developed a mantra so to speak that we used when he needed to consider an alternative. That mantra was "I'm adaptable." It was hokey and a catchphrase, but we wanted to get the full 5th grade experience - from tasting new foods, learning new social skills, and trying new things.
He came to me with very clear expectations of where he would sit and that he couldn't use a cubby that was near anyone. So, we developed a plan. His desk would be by mine to begin with, but the goal was to move it closer to a table in hopes that he would work with a group before the end of the year. His chair had a yellow dot placed on it so it was easily identifiable to others. They weren't allowed to touch it. His books were kept in a cabinet instead of near others. When I needed him to talk to a group, I prepared him ahead of time and we role played the conversation and we chanted "I'm adaptable."
Each time I cooked for Social Studies, we checked the ingredients to make sure that they were within his dietary requirements and then tasted a spoonful - and he was allowed to spit it out if he wanted. At recess time, he was allowed a certain amount of time talking to the teachers and then was sent to socialize with others with predetermined topics.
He questioned me, challenged me, gave me feedback. It wasn't uncommon for him to ask for my resources or ask why we were spending so much time on a topic when there was only going to be one question on the PASS test. I became comfortable with saying, "I don't know." I began to ask for feedback not just from him, but from other students on lessons that I planned. I shifted from being the one to create the expectations and requirements of a project to a teacher that created them with student input. I began planning lessons with my students in mind, not me.
Fast forward 6 years and I find an email in my inbox asking if I would be his mentor on his senior project - not just any project, but a book that provided his perspective of life with autism. Of course, I said yes. We worked all year sharing drafts and feedback. Reading stories of how autism affected him in different settings. Discussing the challenges that were present, what successes and opportunities were there and what his path would be after graduation.
I received my signed copy this week and cried like a baby when I read it again in its final form. While he has had extreme success as a student, my success has been linked to his in so many ways. If I would not have had him as a student, I wouldn't have made a shift in my teaching.
As I sat in the audience of his graduation Friday night, I could not have been more proud of him and the journey he has traveled. As I stood to celebrate his accomplishments, I was so thankful for the opportunity I had as his teacher. He helped me to learn what was best for students, to be comfortable with letting my students be the teacher once in awhile, and to never settle for what has always been done, even if it has been successful.
Thank you, EC, for being MY success story.