My first special education teaching experience was in a parochial school that served as home for emotionally disturbed youngsters who were wards of the state. I had an older group of wild ones, but every class had an equal share of wildness. These kids had been through the worst of the worst, and they were the worse for it. Four of us were lay teachers and the rest were nun conscripts. I had the dubious distinction of teaching in a classroom that was directly next to the principal’s office. We were separated only by a wooden louvered door with sizable spaces between the slats. I could hear the principal’s footsteps as she paced in her office, I could see her shadow as she placed her ear to the door.
I suppose I would have listened in, too, because each day was extremely difficult. And not just for me. I don’t recall many meetings and none of use dared to show how we really felt. I saw tears quickly wiped away but heard calamity in every room. Our one ritual as teachers was eating lunch together, a meal prepared by a small group of energetic but ancient nuns, bent and gnarled in their long robes. Apparently they were going to live out their days in the convent associated with this school. They were the only adults in the school who did not seem to live in fear for their lives.
I taught day-by-day, survived day-by-day. Every day I struggled through a slightly different approach to managing my kids. As soon as school was over, and my own evening classes were finished (I was going to school full time and teaching with a provisional license), I headed home in tears to my husband. We shared a glass of wine and then I read. I read everything that had been written about behavior management. My husband brought me book after book on strategies. And every night he told me, “I think this will work. It’s getting better very day.”
I was not convinced. The miserable kids in my class teetered on the brink of violence. A door slammed down the hallway. A lay teacher could be heard screaming and running out of the building. The kids waited for my reaction and I said, “We are doing better every day.” They all stared at me, which was a shock. In reality, I probably had their attention because we were doing something DIFFERENT every day, not necessarily better. I would try a new strategy and if it didn’t show immediate promise, it was tweaked after my glass of wine and my sweet husband’s encouragement. I had never read so much research on behavior management in my life. It was all I thought about, because my kids weren’t learning; they were arguing and seething and daring me to stop them.
One morning, another lay teacher passed me in the hall, trailed by her husband with his guitar. He was her last hope for classroom control. I listened to him sing and tried not to laugh with hysteria. I knew it was not going to work: She was gone the next day. And so I went home and considered what small portion of my day had gone well and how I got there. I had a glass of wine and read more books. I talked to my sweet husband, who told me, “You’re getting there. It’s getting better every day.”
I was finally the last lay teacher left in the school. New conscripts had arrived, young and tense. I was getting to know my kids by this time, as anxious as I was. I was beginning to laugh with them. I was beginning to sound like I had some authority. I was interested in their tragic stories, their writing which gradually reflected who they were. They were doing school work. Somehow we became a community. We moved furniture and made the room our own, even if all the other rooms were defined by rows of desks. We broke every unspoken tradition of that school in our room, right under the listening ear of the principal. It was actually better every day. We made it to the end, with truces, and skits, and poetry, and desks scattered to the four winds.