Teaching the Teacher

Student with teacher after graduation

Parker reminded me of the power teachers have to make or break a student. Positive teacher-student relationships matter. I am grateful Parker taught me this lesson.

There are some students who teach us more than we ever teach them.  For me, one of those students was Parker.  I remember vividly the first time I heard that Parker was going to be in my class.  Parker was one of those students that all the teachers in the school knew of, even if they didn’t know him.  So, even before that school year started, I was feeling a sense of dread about having “that” student in my class.  Well, that was ten years ago, and since then, Parker taught me a few lessons.

Lesson #1: The Importance of Family Partnerships

When I began my teaching career, I had no idea how essential it was to create a partnership with my students’ families.  I thought school-to-family communication should consist primarily of report cards, IEP meetings, and newsletters.  Boy, was I wrong.  Let’s just say, Parker kept me on my toes, and my teacher tricks ran out pretty quickly that year.  He just always seemed to be one step ahead of me.  It did not take long for me to realize I needed help to know how to best keep Parker engaged and on task.  I swallowed my pride and reached out to Parker’s mom for help.

Parker’s mom had a reputation as a fierce advocate for her son, and so I was reluctant to call and admit I needed help.  I think it is important to note that when I called Parker’s mom, I didn’t call and list everything Parker did “wrong” and needed to be “punished” for.  Instead, I truly sought her ideas about what I could do to make sure Parker was engaged in the curriculum.  Even though I worried she would see my questions as a sign of my failure, I found the opposite to be true.  We quickly started bonding over the shared joys and challenges that Parker brought into our lives.   It didn’t take long to realize we both wanted the same thing, and she knew far better than I did how to make it happen.

I certainly learned more from Parker’s mom about how to support her son than I ever did from my coursework or textbooks.  I should add that she was not the only one to lend a hand.  Parker’s dad, sister, and grandparents all played a role in supporting me as his teacher.  From all of them, I learned the value of partnering with families.  I know that Parker’s family, as well as many others I have known over the years, helped make me a better teacher.

Lesson #2: General and Special Educators: Better Together

When Parker started in my classroom—like most of the students on my caseload—he was assigned to me for the majority of his school day.  For the most part, the only time my students were included in the general education classroom was during Music, Physical Education, or Art classes, and even that was not always the case.  I remember thinking, when I started as a special education teacher, that this exclusion was wrong, but I struggled to get my students more included.  It wasn’t because my colleagues didn’t want what was best for my students.  Instead, it was that many of my colleagues thought that my students were better off with me all day in a segregated setting—the way it had always been done.  Parker was one of the first students that made me want to fight that mentality, but I knew I could not do it alone.  Thank goodness for Ms. Sevedge.

Ms. Sevedge was (and still is) an excellent general educator.  I often think a common misconception is that special educators have some special skills or techniques that general education teachers never learned.  I would argue that good teaching looks the same for students with disabilities as it does for students without disabilities.  And I knew that Ms. Sevedge used the type of good teaching strategies Parker would need: clearly defined expectations, differentiated instruction, and collaborative instruction among peers.  When I approached Ms. Sevedge about transitioning Parker into her classroom, she welcomed the opportunity.  Together we collaborated with Parker and his parents about how to best support his success in the general education classroom.  Ms. Sevedge and I worked closely together to ensure Parker had the appropriate accommodations.  Gradually, Parker went from spending over 80% of his day in a self-contained classroom, to spending 100% of his time in Ms. Sevedge’s classroom with supports provided when needed.  It was exciting to watch him thrive in that environment—making new friends and being challenged more academically.  In many ways, Parker and Ms. Sevedge shaped the trajectory of my career, because they taught me a better way than the way it had always been done.

Lesson #3: The Power of Peers

One little girl in Ms. Sevedge’s class had long hair that she wore in braids.  When Parker met her, he had a hard time keeping his hands off of those braids.It was just too tempting to twirl them!  Needless to say, his interest did not go over well with her.  Parker learned it was not appropriate to touch someone else’s hair without permission.

As Parker and the girl with the braids got to know each other better, they became good friends.  During class, when Parker started to rock and hum because he was feeling overwhelmed, I watched her very nonchalantly lean over and hand him a braid to twirl, instantly calming him as they both silently continued their work.  Her gesture was so subtle, but she taught me that sometimes the best support doesn’t come from a paraprofessional or a special educator; it comes from a peer.

Parker benefited from being fully included in the general education classroom, but he wasn’t the only one.  Ms. Sevedge recently reminded me that her whole classroom community was enhanced by Parker’s keen sense of humor and exuberant, in-depth knowledge on topics that interested him.  When Parker joined the classroom, some of his peers had a hard time accepting him.  He made funny noises and flapped his hands in a way that they didn’t quite understand, because students like Parker had always been kept in self-contained classrooms down the hall.  Over time though, the students discovered that Parker was really funny and fun to be around. Once they got the opportunity to know him, they found out he wasn’t so different after all.  That year, genuine friendships were formed, and all of the students in Ms. Sevedge’s class learned a lesson about the value of diversity.

Lesson #4: Teacher-Student Relationships Matter

One of my favorite TEDTalks is by Rita Pierson, who exclaimed, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”  She spoke eloquently about the responsibility teachers have to build positive relationships with their students, but she was not the first person to teach me this lesson.   As a new teacher, it was easy to get caught up in a sea of standards, initiatives, and assessments.  Then, Parker came along and demanded more.

I discovered that for Parker to learn the standards, I was going to have to make them engaging.  This meant I was going to have to learn more about Parker’s interests.  After many deep conversations about the complexities of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a few things happened.  One, Parker started writing more because he was writing about the things he knew and loved.  Two, I learned a lot about topics I previously knew very little about.  Finally, and more importantly, Parker and I developed a life long friendship.  I truly believe the conversations we had beyond the curriculum made school more fun for both of us, and in turn led to Parker’s academic and social growth.

Long after Parker left elementary school, every once in a while I received a random email from him to chat about a book he just read or a movie he just saw.  Then, a few years ago he invited me to his high school’s theater production, in which he had a role.  I beamed with pride as he recited his lines and interacted with his cast mates.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Parker’s life would have followed a different trajectory if he had never been included in Ms. Sevedge’s third grade class.  I wondered if he would have been given the opportunity to display his gift for acting if he had continued to be segregated in self-contained classrooms and denied the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular activities with his peers.  Later that night, his mother emailed me to say that when she asked him what the best part of the night was, he said, “When, Ms. Palmer said she was proud of me.”  His statement reminded me of the power teachers have to make or break a student.  Positive teacher-student relationships matter. I am grateful Parker taught me this lesson.

Last month, I had the honor of watching Parker graduate from high school.  When I arrived to the ceremony, I had a hard time spotting Parker among the sea of caps and gowns filling the large auditorium.  From my viewpoint, they all looked the same.  They all belonged.  As I glanced through the program, I noticed the names of the graduates were accompanied with icons representing their accomplishments and memberships in organizations.  Next to Parker’s name was an icon representing his contributions to the theater department.  I was reminded of how each of the students in the graduating class had different strengths, but all of them had something they contributed to their school community.  When looking out at all of the caps and gowns, they all looked the same, but their different contributions are what defined them.  At that moment, it seemed unfathomable that some students continue to be excluded from the opportunity to truly belong and contribute their uniqueness and strengths to the good of their whole school community.   As I watched Parker walk across the stage to accept his diploma, I swelled with pride yet again as the student continued to teach his teacher.

– Allyson Satter