In my thus far seventeen years as a Special Education teacher, I have learned much from my students, especially how to sense, grasp and use the suddenly appearing teachable moments. These moments range from stress relief humor to life-affecting situations. I learned that these moments must always be attended to, never ignored, because they can be the spark that determines how the rest of the day will go. Here I share six stories from my class room experiences. All of the names given here are not my students real names.
My special education class was beginning with everyone sitting in ”big group”. Jane, a fifth grader, swaggered in a bit late, wearing a derby hat and pronounced to all, “Detective Jane here, everyone. I’m here to find a missing pony.” She was excited, talking fast and a bit loud. I quietly said, “Have a seat, Detective.” She unfolded a paper showing her drawing of a missing pony and explained her mission. I nodded and repeated my direction, adding, “You’ll have time to find the pony after the assignment.” She sat down.
Forty-five minutes later, the lesson done, she began again about finding the pony. I suddenly had an idea. I handed her a ”late book” paper the school library gave me. I had no idea where the book was but I figured it must be in our room somewhere. ” Detective Jane,” I said. ” I am hiring you to find this book for me. I believe it is somewhere in this room. I cannot remember what it looks like but the title is written on this paper. You can look anywhere and everywhere in the room. Find it and you will earn a prize.” Jane beamed and read the title out loud. Then she began her hunt. Good, I thought, that will keep her happy and busy with something practical for her short free time before the next lesson. In five minutes she handed me the book. I was stunned. ” Where did you find it ?,” I asked. She pointed to a box near the window. I smiled, told her to take the book and paper to the library for me and then return and choose a prize. She chose a 5×7, 65 piece puzzle of fairies. She was very happy and grateful. I was suddenly aware of what had transpired. She had created an opportunity for herself and for me.
She had created an adventure in her mind that related to a real life situation for a real Detective. My opportunity was to allow her to feel significant, useful in a real way and successful to feel pride and to earn a prize. Someone might ask, what if she had not found the book ? By that time I hopefully would have realized what was happening and I would have set up a situation to be certain she succeeded. The real matter here is that everything happened naturally and I had enough foresight and insight to make this work for her pride and for my endearing her to another positive thing about going to school: the unexpected.
I had a part-time fourth grade student one year named Nate. Another teacher shared him with me for reading and math. I always began the day with ”big group” where we sat in a semi-circle to talk and sing songs, starting the day with relaxation and fun. On this specific day Nate was very upset about something from home. His face showed clear signs of acute stress and I was aware that he had bi-polar difficulties. After two songs which he sat through while the other six students sang, I talked awhile about when things sometimes bother us and try to ruin our days. Then we sang another song. I spoke again about how water boils when it gets too hot and overflows out of the pot if the fire is left on. During the next song, Nate took off his glasses, folded them in half at the nose piece and dropped them in the nearby trash can. I kept on playing while my mind raced about what to do next. For certain, I knew what NOT to do. No yelling, no talk about what his parents paid for them. No reference to his intelligence, carelessness or being ungrateful. None of that. Instead, when the song finished, I looked at Nate directly and said, “If you want to talk to me or either of the two aids, just let us know. We’re here to help figure out things and we want everyone to have a good day. We CAN help, if you want. We’ll do one more song.” During the last song one of the ladies scooted over to Nate and whispered. He nodded and got up with her to talk elsewhere. I retrieved and unfolded the glasses during lessons set up for two groups. When their talk finished I gave Nate his glasses back with only one comment. ” Those are really strong glasses, man. Wow. They are really cool.” And I patted his back and smiled at him. Nate smiled back at me. The day was now all set for peace and learning. I had allowed him his quiet anger time, and I softly cooled him down with music and 2 minute speeches, and he came around on his own because no one added fuel to the fire he was feeding on his own. Most kids want to be happy and have fun. Some kids need more time to let the inner storm circle in their minds to run out of steam. And my lady aid knew when to make her move. This is good teaching and great team teaching. We were also teaching the other students that we all can be patient and helpful to each other whenever one of us has bad feelings. Academics are considered to be reading , writing and math, etc. But in truth it is also emotional lessons that are needed just as much. Our decisions in life are based more on emotions than on facts.
I’ve had two students with the Autism label. But that doesn’t mean anything to me. Both girls were completely different. My first girl, Anne, would sit and watch other students during free time, or strum softly on my guitar. She was more into a world of her own, not fond of being hugged or touched at all, but liked to be with other people and a part of school life. But one day she surprised me.
She watched me occasionally lift and spin other students around in a cradle hold just before going home. She decided she wanted to know that experience, so she walked over to me and said, ” I want you to do that with me.” I was surprised and excited because this was brave for her to cross a barrier of her own. I asked if she was certain. She said yes. I lifted her, thankful that she was light because of how tall she was, and spun her around five times. She had the biggest smile and laughed. It was music to my ears. Her family was also grateful and happy to know Anne initiated that milestone event for their lives.
My second girl, Leslie, was very different. Leslie is affectionate, needing hugs now and then. She used to be sensitive to making mistakes, thinking of them as ‘stupid’ acts and easily cried at making even one. Now she accepts five mistakes before tearing up, even though she knows it is fine as we have talked about it many times to build her self-image and importance. It takes time for will power to control or overcome a certain wiring in our system once we become aware of it.
Leslie’s startling gift is that she has a touch of an engineering gene within her. When she got hold of the class K-Nex pieces she began creating amazing tractors and other mechanical designed vehicles with balance and moving parts. I took many photos of her creations over the past three years. We were allowed to place her largest creation in the school library for one week so other students could see and enjoy her gift. She received lots of compliments which surprised her and made her smile a lot more that week. I make certain that she has time every day or two for creating her visions. She loves to build. She knows she is good at it. She also loves that school gives her this chance to grow in her talent. My room gives her the freedom to work in a quiet and peaceful area. “Who” she is as a person is allowed to grow. “What” she has to offer the world in her life is allowed to expand in knowledge and skill.
Shane was a sensitive boy, younger emotionally than most boys his age. He was friendly and had a good sense of humor. He liked playing with the other students. One morning during the ”start of the day” big group Shane suddenly started crying softly. I asked him what was wrong. He said he was thinking about his sister who died. He had a toddler sister who drowned after accidentally falling into a pool. I told Shane to follow me into the hall and motioned for my aid to take over the group. My room is at the end of the hall near the double doors that lead outside. We walked to the doors. I said, “Shane. Look up at the sky.” He looked up. I said, ” Shane, your sister is there in Heaven. She is probably thinking about you right now. I think that is why you are thinking of her. Next time, when you think about her, remember that it is because she is thinking about you. She is, in a way, saying ‘hi, brother. I’m doing fine and I hope you are having a good day where you are.’ So, next time she enters your mind, smile. And, if you want to, you can come out her to the doors on your own to look up and talk to her quietly in your mind. Just let me know where you’re going and why, ok ? ” Shane smiled and said ok. We went back to the room and he was fine the rest of the day.
I realize I could have given him a hug in the room and said we all have someone who died that we love and then redirect him back to the group time. But I have learned the problems that approach would have made. The other kids would have time for their minds to start focusing on their dead relatives and from there we’d have a tear fest and group mayhem. Whenever one of my students has an issue of any sort I realize it is a personal thing, not tribal. I also know that once their minds are focused on something intense it cannot be talked away, smiled away or sugar cookied away. To me, it is important to help children have understanding, direction and self-control of anything that affects their hearts and minds.
It is a part of who they are as a person and they need to know how to make that part of their lives fit comfortably so they can still interact with life around them. Shane never did have another time of tears. He might have still had a ‘sister visit’ but I never knew. He might have understood and handled it himself.
My final story for this article is about Daniel. Daniel is a shared student. He has issues of anger and mild violence. He was with me for ninety minutes daily for math class. Daniel is very intelligent, very energetic to the point of hardly ever sitting still. That doesn’t bother me. One rule in my room is simply do your best to pay attention whether you sit, stand, kneel or wiggle. He does choose to be at the table. As far as his chair goes, well, he may sit in it, lay on it, wrap himself around it, sometimes making the chair fall sideways. He is always fine, gets up and plants himself again in the chair. I joke with him lightly about his ‘chair techniques’ but I never yell and I never insist that he sit ”normal”–a term that may have a majority opinion of definition yet still leaves room for personal interpretations.
One day Daniel noticed another student playing with Geo Blocks ( a product of varied shaped blocks and a set of card patterns to go with them) for his free time. When Daniel’s free time came and the other student left for music class Daniel started making the patterns according to the set of cards included in the box. Soon I gave him a proposition. “Daniel, if you will make up patterns of your own, I will take a picture of them to make them into extra cards for the box.” He loved the idea and started making very complicated patterns which I photographed twice:once with him in the picture ( he ALWAYS had some nutty pose) and once by itself for the card deal. I initiated this event because I knew Daniel has a busy mind, one that will work on it’s own projects if not busy with a teacher-directed project. I also know Daniel is weak at sports and often becomes frustrated in PE class. But he has an analytical mind that the Geo Blocks can satisfy for challenges. I gave purpose for him to want to do it. I offered to pay him for a certain number of creations. And, even though I had not set the number and told him the pay might be money or could be something from the room he would like to own, he started the project right away. He was significant, interacting, appreciated, successful and proud of himself. Making Daniel smile is hard to do but he smiled this time. With Daniel, ‘happy time’ is a strong focus for me to attend to for him. His mind leans toward depression extensively. My room is very peaceful, positive and safe for him to learn academics and to personally grow in.
Teachable moments happen everywhere and anytime. School is where they are more obvious because of the environment of asking questions and encouraging curiosity and imagination. Home can be just as inspiring an environment as school. Parents need only make certain they “listen” to what they hear their children say. Parents need also to positively interact with their children’s dreams and imagined scenarios of ‘today I am a (nurse, policeman, doctor, garbage man, teacher, truck driver, wrestler,…)’. Have books and games and discussions as a family and in one-on-one situations. These are where the real thoughts and dreams and hopes and imaginings are revealed, and where the teachable moments appear.