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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

In Loco Parentis

I spent the past couple of days taking a class on the topic of poverty. The main focus of the class was to provide teacher's insight on the characteristics of poverty and to give us information on local resources that can give support to people struggling with poverty.

The class made us think a lot about past experiences with our students, especially those that have lived or are living in poverty. At one point in the class, our instructor was about to cover a chapter on relationships. The opening activity was for us to think about one or two people that have truly made a difference in our lives--someone who has given us encouragement in one way or another. During this activity I thought for a few minutes and wrote down two people.

As my classmates shared out, our instructor wrote down the people who influenced them. Parent's, grandparent's, spouses, and former teachers consumed the list. I gazed back down at my list once again and realized that none of these people were on my list. (DISCLAIMOR: It is not that my parents and spouse haven't influenced and made me who I am, I just took a different approach to this activity!). I raised my hand (yes, even teachers still raise their hands!) and shared out my number one person that has influenced my life: A former student.

Sam* wasn't your typical first grade student. His aggression was impulsive, his attention was withdrawn, and his retention was nonexistent. He was wise beyond his years in his way of manipulation and the lies he told were given away by his eyes. As a first year teacher, I wasn't sure what to do with Sam. I spent hours trying to figure out ways to engage him because I quickly learned if I didn't engage him he would rip up papers, hide under the table, and bang his head on the table. I labored over ways to drill the letters and numbers into his memory bank, however every Friday I sent him home to the unknown for him to return on Monday with no recollection of what was taught the previous week. This cycle continued week after week.

One particular morning Sam came to school more out of sorts than usual. He impulsively strangled a classmate to the floor, yelled at his teacher and ran out of the classroom. By the time he came down to my room he was still noticeably upset. From the wild look in his eyes, I choose to set my lesson plans aside and got down on the floor with him and his favorite game. As we played we just talked. I learned his favorite color was pink. I learned his dad's girlfriend was going to have another baby. I learned he slept in a bunk bed in a room with his older brother. By the time he left my room he seemed a little more at ease. This was a break through day for us. I had finally started to form a relationship with Sam.

The relationship between Sam and I continued over the next 2 years. In those years I learned so much more about Sam's life than I ever thought I would. He didn't have much for clothes. He didn't have a lot of food. He was hungry at school and always ate his lunch. There was a day he was tired and haggard. He shared with me that he didn't get much sleep the night before because his dad has customer's coming in and out of the basement all night. Another day he leaked information of the previous night and how his dad came home drunk and threw up all over the house and then made him clean it up. My heart went out to this child. Many days I sat in my room and let the tears roll down my cheeks as I called DHS to report these home situations. I signed him up for Shoe's that Fit in hopes he would get a winter coat, pants that fit, or even shoes. I hugged him. I encouraged him. I told him he could do anything he wanted to do.

One day, my request for new shoes for him, was fulfilled. My counselor delivered me a box of shoes in his size. I went down to get him first thing in the morning and told him I had something for him in my room. He opened the box and the gleam in his eyes could have melt a heart a mile away. He looked at me and simply said, "These are for me?" I nodded. He immediately immersed me in a hug and said, "Oh my gosh, thank you so much!" I returned the hug and together we laced up the shoes and tried them on. The smile on his face was ear to ear the entire time. He walked around my room trying them out and came back to my desk and stuffed his old shoes; misshaped, ratted laces and holes where his big toes were poking out, into the box and into the bag. It was apparent that he felt this was one of the best gifts he had ever received. My whole heart was broken and full at the same time. I never thought a little boy would think shoes were the best thing ever. Wow.

Last year I staffed Sam out of special education services. It was an emotional meeting for me. Prior to the meeting I confessed to my administrator that selfishly I didn't want to staff him out because that meant I wouldn't be able to spend as much time with him. I was given a pat on the back and was told to remember that this is a celebration. It was a bittersweet celebration. My little Sam, who wore a pink belt and thought he had become an uncle when I had a baby, was moving on without me. Letting go sure is hard.

I think about Sam a lot. I am proud of him for his accomplishments. I am positive that he taught me more than I taught him. He made me realize that forming a relationship is so very important. He trusted me. I trusted him. We were a team. Thoughts of him keep me going on days I feel like I'm not meant to be a teacher. Sam will forever hold a place in my heart.

A quote I recently read by Dr. James Comer states, "No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship"

*Name changed

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