There’s no bungee jumping, sky diving or downhill skiing with trees peppered along the path. But there are students. A lot of students. And every student has their own story and need. I teach students from one extreme to another, all over numerous continuums including academic history, language, mental health, physical health, and social skills.
I am an extreme teacher. Every teacher is.
As an elementary classroom teacher for 9 years, I was responsible for scaffolding and supporting growth of all kinds for 24 to 35 students (Yes, I had 35 second graders in my class once – as a 2nd year teacher!). Now as an ELL teacher and interventionist I see 30 or 40 students each day that often have even greater challenges.
Let me tell you the short story of five of my students that were in my second-grade class just two years ago.
Aadan was a Somalian refugee that had been in the country three years. He lived in a two bedroom apartment with six siblings and his parents. He had been in five schools during his short school career. He came to school with pants that were too short, un-laundered clothing, and no socks. He was hungry and stole food from the classroom and his peers every second he could. He qualified for ELL services but his English was strong enough to get by socially. He was at least two grade levels behind in all academic areas, instigated disagreements with his peers, and would flat out lie when confronted about his behavior.
Julia was a bright student and the only child in her household. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a stay-at-home mom. She took piano lessons, Japanese language classes, and art classes. She participated in church youth groups and soccer practice. She was reading at the 7th grade level and able to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. She was quiet and compliant, often flying under the radar. When she finished grade level tasks, which was often before the rest of the class started, she drew contently in her notebook (that is, if I were to let her!).
Peter had a reputation before I even met him of being, as my colleagues called him, “a handful.” I came to learn that meant he would demand a lot of teacher time. This was because Peter, while undiagnosed was suspected by his family of having autism. He exhibited behaviors of students typically on the spectrum including crying and yelling meltdowns, insulting his peers, a hyper focus on content interesting to him, and pacing the room completely unaware of the rest of the class. He was academically above grade level in all content areas except writing. However, Peter had both the imagination and content knowledge to produce any kind of writing. He just hated focusing on it. His parents worked hard to support his needs and were more supportive of me than I could have ever imagined. They diligently supported a relationship between themselves, me, and Peter to help him grow in all areas.
Sienna had an IQ of 68. She was sweet and quiet, wanting to blend in with her peers. Qualifying for an IEP in pre-school gave her academic, social, occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech services each week. However, in class, she wanted to fit in. She was adamant that she did not want extra help but would cry when things were too hard for her. She was not a reader and could not do simple addition. She was shy and often refused to respond when called on in front of the whole class. When she did engage with me, which was frequent in small settings, she stuck to topics typical of much younger children, making it difficult for her peers to relate to her.
Jose moved to the United States from Mexico the August before school started. He spoke literally no English on the first day of school. He was the “most newcomer” student I had experienced teaching in all of my career. There were several Spanish-speaking ELL students in the classroom that were partnered with Jose to help me, his English-speaking teacher, support him. However, it quickly became evident that Jose was learning English more quickly than any other ELL student I had worked with. He was literate in Spanish and had grade level math skills, when given the opportunity to showcase them without the use of academic language. By the end of the year he was above grade levels in all areas and his English had grown tremendously.
Aadan, Julia, Peter, Sienna and Jose were not my only five students that year. In fact, there were 21 other 2nd graders in the classroom. Each of those 21 students had their own stories too. And as you can imagine, each of them had different, but equally important, needs. However, my instruction was to be driven by the Common Core State Standards. I taught content guided by those standards all year. I was successful in my work, showing measurable academic growth in every single one of my students. There was, more importantly to me, great growth in every single student that is less easily measured. Growth in maturity, fine and gross motor skills, English acquisition, mindfulness, relationship building, and kindness were huge celebrations for the whole class.
I wholeheartedly believe that success would not have happened without three things:
Extensive work towards building positive relationships with each student and their families
Deliberate and goal-driven collaboration with my colleagues and content experts
Extreme teaching – differentiating every single standard I taught to the needs of each student
Extreme teaching for me meant that I needed to set up a system where Aadan knew he could discretely get snacks he needed anytime of the day. It meant that I needed to create math work that asked Julia to show conceptual understanding of math skills through application. I needed to engage her in project-based learning so that she could grow at her level instead of drawing all day. I needed to create a daily check-in system for Peter wherein we set goals for each day based on clear examples of struggles from the prior day. I needed to talk about kitty cats with Sienna every single day until she trusted me to help her and provide her with scaffolds that would simplify work for her. I needed to allow Jose to speak in Spanish to his bilingual peers so that he could explain his academic thoughts while helping his friends gain stronger understanding as well. That’s just the surface. These five kids, and each of their peers, needed more differentiation than that!
I’m proud to be an extreme teacher!
Join the Washington State Teacher Leaders and Puget Sound Educational Service District this Sunday, February 12th at 7 PM for our #WATeachLead Twitter chat!
Rob Marsh will lead Corelaborate teachers and teachers across the country in discussing the most effective ways to teach to all ends of every spectrum.
I grew up here in Western Washington, wanting to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. As the oldest child in my family, I had plenty of opportunities to "practice" teaching my younger siblings. I enjoyed this. They may not have. :) When I'm not working, I enjoy outdoor activities with my husband and our two Australian Shepherds (whom are far too spoiled for their own good!). I also love spending time with my family, being an auntie (to the cutest kids ever to grace this planet!), hosting dinner parties for friends, crafting, taking photographs and shopping.