doing my best

little boy around 3 years old wearing headphones, looking up and to the left

Once upon a time I went to college and in my undergraduate teaching program, I think there was a grand total of one class period of one education course that informed aspiring teachers how to support students with disabilities in their classroom. As of 2019-2020 the available data says that 14.4% of the student population receive special education services. In a classroom of 28 students, this means 4.2 students have significant enough disabilities to qualify for special education services.


 There was a video in this course that attempted to demonstrate what it felt like to experience the world through the lens of disability. The actors in the video sat in a circle impersonating a typical classroom community. The teacher in charge handed out thick binders with multiple dividers labeled with various letters and symbols that made very little sense. The teacher began to demand that the “students” flip to various parts of the binder with very little wait time. He moved from subject to subject rapidly.  As you looked closer, you could see that the binders were not the same. The printing was smaller in some of them and harder to read. This prevented students from helping each other find their place and so there was a LOT of fumbling around. The teacher became impatient with the students because they were not keeping up with his instructions. The students were visibly stressed and there was certainly no actual learning taking place. After a few moments, the teacher stopped the exercise abruptly. The purpose of the exercise was to give student teachers the experience of how it felt to struggle to learn. Fair enough.

So fast forward to my vacation last week. (I know it’s a leap, but stay with me here.) I met two of my three daughters on the other side of the mountains, on the “coast” as they like to call it. This trip was different though, because I drove over alone, without my husband, the human GPS. He drives somewhere one time and forever after knows how to get there. I sit in the passenger seat, completely useless except for providing snacks and changing the radio station. Let me be completely clear here: I am crap at directions. I get turned around very easily. I forget whether I am going north or south on any given highway. I willfully go my own way while the blue line on the GPS moves doggedly in a completely different direction. It is kind of alarming to witness. Consequently, I had no small amount of anxiety since our itinerary dictated many trips to places I had never been before, forcing me to rely on that blue line almost exclusively, albeit with adult children shouting guidance from the passenger seat. A good time was NOT had by all.

However, it did cause me to make an interesting comparison. What if my ease and comfort in the classroom is similar to the experience that my husband has when he is navigating on the road? What if my students who are struggling feel just as anxious and inept as I do when I am trying to decipher the directions being given in the dulcet tones of my chosen GPS voice?  (She is actually lovely with a British accent and we have named her Pippa. I feel slightly guilty for the multiple times I disregarded and yelled at her on my trip. Sorry, Pippa.) It is exactly like I am flipping through an intimidatingly large binder with miniscule writing and disorganized dividers.  I want desperately to compensate for my lack of aptitude with directions and to find a place to belong in this environment that seems dead set at making me feel like an idiot at every turn. Even the most (seemingly) obtuse student wants to belong. Every time I got lost or turned around on my trip, I channeled my inner special ed teacher, breathed deeply three times and said (sometimes aloud) “I am doing my best right now.” In much the same way it calms my students down to do this in that moment of frustration, it allows me to be gentle with my direction-challenged self and acknowledge that I am doing my best and it would be okay.

Now, I have that same nagging suspicion that you might think that this is an unfair or even offensive comparison. After all, students with disabilities are born that way, right? They truly cannot help the impact it makes upon their capacity to learn, right? I would have to gently disagree. Without getting into a huge, hairy debate about nature vs. nurture and the origin of disabilities, I know that many students walk in with less tools in their toolbox, both academically and socially. With some unidentified learning difference, they have sat in multiple classrooms berating themselves for not being able to do what everyone around them seems to find so simple. So they act out or they shut down. Failure is too costly. Better not to try at all. This felt a lot like when I suggested to my daughters that we just stay at the Airbnb and not have any more adventures. The chances of getting lost despite the efforts of Pippa and my children were still great, and the thought of avoiding all of that sounded pretty good. They assured me that our adventures would be worth the risk.  

Since I am  both an adult and an educational specialist, I knew that their advice was supported by research. It didn’t change that tight, anxious feeling in my gut though.

So as we approach “difficult” students, the ones who make us want to tear our hair out on a daily basis, perhaps we can reframe them in light of an area where WE feel “less than”. Put ourselves in their shoes (or in my case, the driver’s seat). Breathe in. 

Maybe even say out loud “They are doing their best right now.”

 Breathe out.

 I believe it can make all the difference, both in our approach as teachers, and in the compassion we need for our students and ourselves.

4 thoughts on “doing my best”

  1. I love how you drew a parallel to your GPS situation. I’m sure many students feel lost and out of place.
    In my short teaching career, I always tried to focus on the slow learners and making life easier for them, Tess.

  2. I love how you drew a parallel to your GPS situation. I’m sure many students feel lost and out of place.
    In my short teaching career, I always tried to focus on the slow learners and making life easier for them, Tess.

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