10/21/2016 | Dr. Joni Samples
It’s a bit different out there in the real classroom with children watching and waiting than it is in a classroom taking a test on what those children should be learning.
No one tells you there is a child in the classroom whose house burned down the night before and he was at fault, or that sitting next to him is a child that was just diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. Down the row is a child who’s parent just went to jail for dealing drugs. Next to him is a child who’s getting average grades but looks like he’s underperforming, and you just found out his sister is in a gifted program and his brother who is a few years older than this boy is doing graduate level physics. And you’re the teacher. You don’t even know the stories of the rest of the class yet, but you’re teaching third grade and trying to make sure they expand their reading skills and can do all the multiplication tables by the end of the year. College didn’t quite prepare you for all of this. Would that it could, yet the real world is different than that world of textbooks and tests.
So what do you do? And this is a question I had to ask myself because every one of these children I mentioned are children I had in class—and more, lots more, just like your classroom.
This is why I’ve been working for a number of years at this world of education in a different manner. I still have a vision of every child learning to his or her capacity, and I still believe that capacity is far beyond what any of us know, yet somewhere between the prep and the actuality something went missing for me. It’s like a couple of jigsaw puzzle pieces that I needed to complete the puzzle weren’t available in the classes I took, and I couldn’t quite find in the classroom and curriculum.
One of those pieces showed up for me in the parent and family work. Perhaps that work wouldn’t have been quite so involved if I hadn’t taken such an interest in a child’s welfare, but I don’t know many teachers that don’t get involved in a very in-depth way. To do that you have to understand what is going on in the child’s life beyond that six hours a day they are in school. I couldn’t help my little guy with childhood schizophrenia without understanding that his sister had cancer and his brother had a brain tumor, and mom wanted and needed this child to be normal. She desperately needed him to be normal and how much this had affected him. Or I couldn’t help my underperforming kiddo without recognizing how much he wanted to be like the other kids and his brilliant sister and brother. He knew they didn’t fit in with the other kids, and he didn’t want to miss out on fitting in, yet he was also denying his own gifts in the process. How to help him? I have to interact with the family as well as the child.
That’s a class we often don’t have in college. We don’t get the class that talks about how to work with the family, the moms and dads or step parents or grandparents. We miss out on the class that talks about how to help mom when dad walks out or is put in prison for drug possession. How does a teacher survive today without knowing how to interact with the most important “other people” in a child’s life, the ones who have such a huge impact on that child?
Which brings me to the second piece of the puzzle that was missing for me, and one I’m just opening up and is beginning to surface finally for all of us—that piece is the brain and how it develops. And even more importantly, what happens in childhood that propels that brain forward into learning and success or traumatizes that brain into a lifetime of problems? Is there something we can do to help the propulsion? For me I thought it was education and I believe that’s part of the puzzle, but these last two are the missing pieces and this last one is huge.
Let’s say my kiddo comes to school, and he was responsible for knocking over the candle that burned the house down. That’s a traumatizing event and there’s no question about that. How we handle that trauma is going to tell us and him how he’s going to handle that when he’s an adult. His brain will consciously and unconsciously remember this event his entire life. He can be triggered by every conversation about fires, candles, or anything remotely associated with the event. How we treat him when this event occurs will tell him what that trigger will look like. It’s the story we help him create around this event which will propel his brain into becoming a firefighter or someone living in a padded room. As teachers and parents we want him to be all he can be in spite of and because of a traumatic event. For me, working with what we say and how we interact with him will tell his brain how to process this and other events to come. This has become the other piece of the puzzle.
As much as I appreciate our teacher preparation I want more. I believe in the basics I can get in teacher prep programs, and when I get in the real world of teaching, schools, kids, parents and learning, I want more. I want what will help me and my students not just survive, but thrive. My two pieces of the puzzle and what I want more of are engaging with the families and now learning everything I can about how the brain processes. What are your pieces? What’s next on your learning agenda? I’m willing to share with you what I learn. What’s on your agenda and can you share that with others so all of us can be at our peak capacity?