“How do you teach a child to read?” he asked. I recall telling him I’d start by finding out the child’s interest and by developing a rapport with him or her.
“How do you know a student’s made progress?” he said. “After all, sometimes it can be pretty hard to tell.” I wasn’t sure how to answer this, so I fell back to what I’d read about grade-level assessments, parent input, and comparing the pace of progress to that of a student’s peers. I rambled, then stammered. By the time I’d stopped speaking, I felt as though I was figuratively, in addition to literally, in the principal’s office . . . in trouble.
The administrator took a long moment to reflect on my answer. Finally, he said, “I taught special education for 15 years and I found that there were times I didn’t know, or couldn’t find out. But that didn’t keep me from trying.”
Throughout the last week, I’ve been inundated by paperwork, parent phone calls, and delivery-of-service questions with respect to my caseload of students and their schedules for next year. These are the times when I wonder how it’s possible to teach a student the breadth and depth of curriculum I’ve imagined for them—the one I truly believe they deserve.
As I develop and administer final exams, I’m confronted again with the fact that many of my students haven’t memorized their addresses or phone numbers—or can’t put into practice many of the skills from our geography or grammar lessons (skills some had demonstrated not long ago). The reality of their situation and mine strikes me with self-doubt. Almost immediately, I second-guess some of my approaches and begin to imagine better results.
I’ve found that in times like these it’s important to remember that, as one teacher in the life of a student, I’m playing my role for all it’s worth and to the best of my ability. Maybe I’m overlooking marks of progress that don’t show up on the final exam, things like social maturity, work readiness, sensitivity to others, and cooking and safety skills. These are lessons that often go unnoticed; their presence in a curriculum is seamless in that they come through real experiences with others, rather than through traditional educational modes.
It’s also striking to me to note the level of perseverance and bravery that students, parents, and anyone who supports students with disabilities must develop. As an advocate of students with disabilities, I’ve grown accustomed to taking that “leap of faith” that compels me to believe the lessons I deliver will be meaningful to students.
I take that leap day after day. Recently, I’ve felt a long way away from that chair in the principal’s office, where I sat and struggled with the question of meaningful student progress. I’d like that progress to show up on the key assessments that measure academic outcomes. But those assessments are incapable of projecting the bigger picture.
It’s that perspective that I’m bent on keeping. Sometimes life isn’t so much about the meaning. It’s about the struggle. That’s what keeps us sentient and helps us grow.