Being an occasional teacher affords me many teaching opportunities, but some feel more special than others. For the last five teaching days, I’ve been with the same class, a developmental disabilities class.
My sister used to work with youth with disabilities when she was in Calgary, and I remember picking her up from work, nervously. It was something that, I gather, she did really well. Now, the tables have turned, a bit, and I am working more frequently with students with disabilities and she is nose deep in books.
Something special happened this afternoon that made me feel welcomed, and, well, special: I was presented with thank you notes “from” the students.
Now, I’ve long decided that I would take gifts from students with enthusiasm, and store them with the same enthusiasm. However, I also resolved that I would attach as little sentiment to them as possible. This gift, the handprint cards, tugged at my heartstrings.
These cards required some serious planning by my partner teachers. Of the six students, only rarely do they all show up to school on the same day. Getting a hand print from a single student takes at least two people. It’s not an activity that they can do only while I’m on prep or lunch, which totals about 90 minutes of the day. At that, I have to leave the room during that time. Add to all of this the fact that the students aren’t always cooperative, plus the time to let the cards dry and to write a note “from” each student in them.
Five days is long enough to get to “know” students. You start to figure out their patterns, interests, pet peeves, and triggers. Working with students with development disabilities is physically involved; you have to lift them in and out of their wheelchairs, you have to feed them, you have to do physical therapy with them, you have to watch them while they poop into their diapers and then call for a diaper change, you have to wash their faces of food, saliva, and tears, you have to sit next to them while they have a seizure, and you have to console them when they can’t tell you what’s going wrong. You have to be there for the students in a way that, I can only imagine, is like availing yourself to a newborn.
It’s been a long time (just over two years) since I last cried, but the tears well up in my eyes when I think of these students. There isn’t time to cry, though, because they need you more than anybody you’ve ever met in your “regular” life.
I wonder about just how much we value human life. I think about how to engage these students. I am endlessly curious about what might be going on in their heads. These kids don’t speak. They’re loud as all hell when they want to/have to be, but never a single word is uttered from their mouths.
There is no smile as bright as a child’s who can’t speak.
This is not what I envisioned when I enrolled in teachers college, but I’m incredibly thankful that I get the opportunity to do this work. Feeding chocolate cupcakes to students during afternoon snack while I read each of their thank you cards makes me….
I’ll end with this premonition: I was told that I’ll be a push-over father by my teaching partner because I asked emphatically to have a student’s ankle-foot orthosis (AFO) taken off to stop her wailing. I couldn’t take it, the wailing. I just couldn’t watch her cry so desperately for any longer.