“‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’
he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there
is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” (Bilbo Baggins, from The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R.
When I was in college, I had a professor who really liked to
plan and organize—had his schedule down to the minute. I asked him one time, “What
about spontaneity? Where’s the space for that?” His response was, “Spontaneity
doesn’t accomplish anything.” And I get it that in special education one of the
greatest tools in our toolbox is planning and predictability (Carter,
Swedeen, Trainor, 2009). We regiment their daily schedule with picture
schedules, routine, and sameness. It helps them to minimize the overwhelming “OhmyGodsomethingisdifferentwhatdoIdonow” kind of disasters.
Frodo, used to the sedentary life of a Hobbit settled around
routines of parties, eating, and long rests, had to learn spontaneity. He had
to learn to think on his feet (good Hobbit feet!) and be ready for the
unexpected day—whatever that day might bring or be or become.
I suppose this holds true for every teacher, not just the special
education teacher. Yet something tells me special education teachers are
different kinds of Hobbits, more like Bilbo and Frodo than others. Every day is
a long walk filled with adventures we cannot plan for, disasters we cannot
predict, and joys we cannot anticipate. There is no telling where we will be
swept off to after we walk out of the front door of our house and in the front door
of the school. Every day is an unexpected party.
That’s what I love about my job. And with all due respect to
my professor and his tightly managed, perfectly manicured schedule, I love the
fact that I never know exactly what is going to happen with my students. Oh,
sure, I have those lesson plans that I have to turn in to the principal each
week, behavior management plans, and picture schedules. But I could never
predict that one of my students — one who cannot yet read and barely knows the
sounds of the 26 letters of the almighty English alphabet — would look at me
in the middle of our reading lesson and tell me the 15 steps he has learned to
load, cock, and fire his BB gun.
Neither could I imagine another of my students, one whose
dad sleeps during the day because he works at night, saying to the class, “When
my dad sleeps he is dead to the world.” Really?! A perfect metaphor, a
brilliant colloquialism, and used in a masterly way, but, again, from a student
in the fourth grade whose reading skills are below the first-grade level.
I could not predict with any certainty that one of my students
would go into tantrum mode after he went to the lunchroom, saw the chicken and
rice dish being served and announced to anyone listening “that looks like slop!”
It was all downhill from there.
Then there was Friday. I simply did not see the meltdown coming.
I should have. The signs were there, and I am paid to pay attention—to
anticipate, to notice, to be classroom aware, and to do five or six things at
once—alas, I did not. I failed and the meltdown ensued. It was all over
cardboard blocks, the play area, and some toy cars.
The end result was the emergency removal of the student from
the school. I spent the rest of the day feeling absolutely horrible because as
I reflected on the situation I realized what I could have done differently, should
have done differently, and how, maybe, I could have influenced how that all
It reinforced what I already know: The special education teacher needs to be able
to multi-task while multi-tasking. We have to expect the unexpected. We have to
be spontaneous, ready to think quickly. We have to be prepared to scrap a day’s
worth of beautifully written lesson plans in order to struggle together with a
student who is having a tough time.
I love that I never know exactly what’s going to happen with
my students, now I just need to plan better for it. I need to plan for
unexpected. That probably sounds strange, but if I cannot predict what will
happen, then I need to be aware all the time of things in the classroom that
may be catalysts of things I cannot predict.
My professor said that spontaneity doesn’t accomplish
anything. I disagree. It does accomplish something because it leaves
the door open for learning and growth that may not occur within a rigorously
planned schedule. Sometimes it is not the student who needs to learn, but the
Last Friday I walked out of my front door with a plan and
was subsequently swept off my feet, just like Bilbo warned Frodo. In the
process I learned something valuable about teaching from my students who are
differently-abled. We did not plan for a meltdown to occur, but in a sense, it’s
okay that it did. I’m glad my students are capable of spontaneity.
Walking out the front door keeps us humble.