As my son was walking through your door for open house the week before he enters your kindergarten class, I had this sudden feeling of panic. Things just got real. After teaching for five years and then serving as a professor in higher education for over ten years in a variety of teacher training programs, I realized that I was finally going to experience the flip side of the coin. My son was about to enter your classroom in the public schools that I had spent half of my career trying to shape. Did I propagate the right ideas? Did I support the proper strategies and methods? Did I inspire my student teachers to do more? To which karma could I expect?
I scrambled to think of all of the courses that I had taught- from assessment, to classroom behavior, to special education law, to curriculum and methods, and countless more. Which snippet from one of my illustrious syllabi did I hope my students would hopefully embrace? Which aspects of your courses resonated with you? Which paradigms do you align to? Response to Intervention? Universal Design for Learning? Which theorists’ books line your book shelves? Vygotsky? Dewey? Piaget? Kohn?
Only then did I realize that after hours and hours lecturing, hundreds and hundreds of classroom assignments, and thousands of students half asleep while passing through my classrooms, there were only a few things that I had hoped my students would remember. None of which were stated in text books, on my classroom assignments, or on my exams. They were only in my heart. So, in case they were too busy listening to the facts that may show up on an exam or missed what I was trying to say through academic jargon, here’s what I hope they remembered as he walks through your door:
Inspire Curiosity and Creativity
There is so much to learn in our schools today. When I entered kindergarten, we began to learn the ABC’s to prepare us to begin reading in first grade. Today, I was told that the ABC’s, numbers 1-20, and writing his name were expected as part of readiness for kindergarten. What if he can’t do those things? What if he struggles to learn them this year? What if he won’t be ready until second grade? Will he be given a scarlet label to carry with him for life? Are these the most important things he will learn this year? I hope not.
I hope that you will inspire curiosity for learning and creativity in solving problems and overcoming his challenges. I hope you will promote readiness for school through his engagement in learning. I hope you open his eyes to the wonder of the world and the endless possibilities of where his path may lead. I hope you help to create a sense of optimism for the world, where he won’t be defined by what he can’t do, but rather by what he might do.
Find His Strengths and Celebrate Them
With endless testing, assessments, checklists, readiness evaluations, and curriculum objectives, we have become a society that is defined by what our children can’t do, rather than by what they can do. Granted, I hope you identify the areas where he is struggling so that you can work with him. However, I hope you will pay equal attention to what he can do.
Having worked with diverse learners my whole career, I am guilty of oftentimes focusing too much on deficits. Obviously, deficits are always easier to identify than strengths and in our industrial system of commodities of growth, targeting deficits usually results in more gains than those skill areas that are average or above. But it wasn’t until recently, that I realized that it’s in the celebration of strengths that matter the most for our paths and for solving the proverbial riddle of what next. I hope that you will celebrate his strengths twice as often as you address his deficits. I hope you will help him define his path by illuminating his strengths, rather than by saddling him with his weaknesses.
Guide Him on His Path
I hate to break it to you, but tracking is alive and well in American public schools. In the land of asterisked equal opportunity, we have quietly renamed the openly stated tracks of our past. From special education, to gifted education, to remedial, and AP courses- we still largely blaze our children’s paths through our own biases and personal expectations. But much less important is what we think they will do, compared to what they want to do.
Work with him on his first steps down his own path to allow him to recognize his own dynamic determination and the horizon that he is heading for. Help him feed off of his passions and desires to only see obstacles in his path, with no dead ends, and only occasional detours. Help him form his identity for who he wants to be and not what society expects him to be. Entertain all of his ideas as possibilities and let him discover the joys of forging his own way, as difficult as it may be.
Don’t Be a Teacher, Be a Guide
So much of teacher education has become strategies for teaching, where we get giddy about outcomes and positive evaluations. Teachers work endless hours to perfect their pedagogy and teaching styles to become an oracle of knowledge. We get too caught up in believing that if we teach it correctly, they will learn or they can’t. But we have lost sight of the most fundamental aspect of teaching- learning.
I hope you believe that every one of your students can learn anything, if done the right way. I hope you will spend countless hours thinking less about your teaching and more about my son’s learning. I hope you will see every blank expression and burst of frustration as an opportunity to discover how he will come to understand even the most difficult skills and concepts. I hope you will teach him and inspire him to learn so that every teacher in the future can continue to guide his learning, regardless of their teaching.
Teaching is about building relationships, but never once did I offer a lecture on the importance of love. Never once did I lead a class discussion about how unconditional love is at the core of being a great teacher. Maybe because our focus has been so keenly drawn to outcomes and evidence-based practices that we’ve lost sight that none of those are possible without the foundation of love.
Something interesting that I realized after spending most of the summer with my children was that next year, you will see him more than I will. My opportunities to give him my love will be during chaotic mornings, rushed evenings, and busy weekends, with the occasional week-long vacation peppered in throughout the year. Whereas, you will see him for over six hours every day. You have our permission to love him. To use your love for him to get through the most difficult days and exasperating moments. To love him when he is feeling sad and to love him when he succeeds. Find and use your love for him as you usher him on the dawning of his path, knowing that it may be the only thing you do this year that will truly matter.
So, as he begins to pick out his clothes for his first day and prepare his backpack. As we get one last haircut, trim of his nails, and foreshadow for kindergarten. As we begin to pass off the boy we love, admire, and see endless possibilities for. I hope that you will put aside all of the technical aspects of your work for a moment, and be ready for the perfectly imperfect human who will be entering your door on Tuesday. We hope that you will love him as much as we do.
Perry LaRoque is the founder of Mansfield Hall, a residential college support program for students with autism and other related learning differences in Burlington, VT, Madison, WI, and Eugene, OR. He served as a special education teacher and a special education professor at several colleges.