Working in education is hard, hard, hard work. As much as I have always pushed back when people say it, it does take something strong within each person to work in education and, in my experience, with students with special needs. In that work, we can literally go months doing the same activity over and over and over again, hoping that today will be the day that a student responds.
I find it remarkable to watch an educator work with a student who may have been considered uncontrollable and over time, see that child become comfortable and calm, able to participate in classroom activities. By building in predictability to their day. By building predictability into how they are treated. By having someone caring so deeply about student success that they never, ever give up on that child.
Twelve years ago, something happened that shaped and defined how I did my work going forward.
I did my practicum in a medically fragile room, with a teacher who is one of the most gifted educators and profoundly compassionate people I have ever met. In the class was a student who did not speak or give any ‘traditional’ indication that she was aware of her environment. And yet, she occasionally displayed obvious discomfort, though the source was unclear. I kept looking for ways in which to connect with her and ease her pain. I asked the teacher for guidance. She told me to not try so hard; the student could sense my anxiety and it would add to her own. Just relax and get to know the student through observation and trial and error. Over the next weeks, I tried to follow that advice. And then, it happened. I had taken off the student’s shoe, trying to see if her discomfort was due to a wrinkle in her sock, too tight shoes or her orthotic being misaligned. As I put back on her sock, I noticed her feet were ice-cold, so I rubbed them. And almost right away, she stopped crying. She became very still. The difference in her was obvious. After that, whenever she became upset, I tried rubbing her feet first. Mostly, it worked. (That’s another thing about this work – sometimes things work, sometimes, well, not so much.) When it did not work, I tried other things, gentle things, things that let her know that I wanted her to feel better. To feel cared about.
Education means listening to your student, with your ears and your eyes – but most importantly, you do have to listen with your heart. And be prepared to have it broken.
To be in education, you have to be able to be vulnerable yourself. You have to be a fierce defender. You have to believe that what you do is important. It is about the students and helping them be successful. Helping them understand that you are in it for the long haul. That they matter to you.
I have been really fortunate. I have worked with people, incredibly gifted educators, who provided an example of how to do the job of education, about how to care, about how to get up when you have (literally and figuratively) been knocked down. I am always overwhelmed at the depth and breadth of the skills and the caring and compassion that exists in schools. I am moved by how hard people work, even when they are hurt or tired or dealing with other challenges in their lives. To those people, students matter. Every single day.
For every rewarding experience, there has been hundreds and hundreds of hours of hard work to get there. I am grateful to those people who put in the time and the effort. Every. Single. Day.