When I worked as a busboy at a Vietnamese restaurant, I would abhor a slow evening. A restaurant doesn’t need to have a constant line of costumers to remain successful, but it needs enough to establish a rhythm, both for its clientele and its staff.
Tables cleared, I would be ahead of my work and give in to the temptation to watch diners from the safety of the bamboo service window. Each time it happened, the Vietnamese owner reached out to deliver a quick tap to my arm. “Hands out of pockets, get busy!” she’d say. By the end of the night, I’d have learned to help the dishwasher and to sweep the front entryway between turning tables.
Fast-forward some 15 years later. After earning degrees in English and Special Education, the mantra “hands out of pockets, get busy” still rumbles through my mind. I’ve come to appreciate that we all have a particular rhythm of learning. I’ve come to push myself to become more aware of the subtle cues students give.
Students have a way of letting us know when they’re uncomfortable and comfortable — even confident. Sometimes it’s a drifting stare into the corner of the room. Sometimes it’s a coy facial expression. “I’m just taking my time because I know I can finish this,” a student in my classroom says. Another student moves closer to Jan, the teacher assistant who helps her through each day with humor, encouragement, and hints. It’s a physical clue, but I interpret it as one that says “I can do this with a little help.”
Within the first 28 days of this school year, I’ve become more aware of whom I can push and when, which students need a dose of confidence instilled, and which students will need challenges to balance out the safety and comfort they’ve found at school. I’ve come to be a firm believer that the greatest predictor of the success or failure of any lesson is a teacher’s ability to present and prepare students to feel that they are capable of completing it. I’ve noticed that the willingness to make the attempt is often the hurdle that precedes the practice and sets a student on the course to proficiently exercising a skill.
Like the Vietnamese restaurant owner from my first job, it’s my role to push students into the next challenge when they’re comfortable and to support and nurture the ones who don’t feel comfortable or confident. I’ve learned to appreciate the little spaces where the students are on track or perhaps near that mythological phrase in special education (dare I write it?): working independently. On the rare occasion I do catch my breath and my eyes turn to the window, a voice leaps into my head: “hands out of pockets, get busy!” And then it’s back to the rhythm of the room and the pace of the students.
As a special educator, I’ve chosen a career field where there’s never a shortage of challenges. Those of us who teach know that there are no greater opportunities for student and personal fulfillment than where the challenges are greatest. There’s always work to do when there’s no limit to the improvements to be made, both in my students and in myself.