When he “raises” his voice, it is inaudible. His voice couldn’t even be classified as a whisper–we can usually understand a whisper if we move close enough to the speaker. Yet he has a pleasant demeanor, as do most of the mentally disabled students in my digital storytelling course. His eyes light up when he greets me at the door with a fist bump. He then shuffles to retrieve his notebook and folder, and I’ll inevitably go 70 minutes without hearing him utter a single word. Could you speak louder? Is it uncomfortable for you to raise your voice?
There was a breakthrough today. I’m not sure how it happened, or why, but it’s the little victories that make teaching so satisfying. In an interview activity designed to incorporate communication skills and, eventually, basic video editing, he spoke loud and clear. “That’s what I’m talkin’ bout!” I told him after watching the video clip of his interview. I put my hand out for a high-five and received an emphatic slap, clearly a show of pride and accomplishment. My hand stung a bit, but I won’t be forgetting this moment any time soon. “His speech therapist will be blown away,” one of my teacher aides told me with a beaming smile and a glint in her eye. I wonder if he’ll build on the momentum of today. Several of the regular education students told him how great his voice sounded at the end of class.
Those of us who teach at struggling or “failing” schools cherish these moments. Too often, we hear about how bad most public schools are. And it’s easy to dwell on the difficult or negative, especially when many students bring cargo planes full of emotional baggage to class. During the past week, I’ve had a student withdraw to enroll at a home for homeless or abused children. Attendance has been atrocious in my second period English II class. We deal with countless disturbances from phone calls, bureaucratic e-mails, and silly and not-so-benign disruptions, such as bomb threats and tornado drills.
We’ve do our best teaching all students who walk through the door, and, to be honest, if I tried to address all the stories or abuse, neglect, and general despair I’ve heard from the student body, I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. I care about my job, and the best way I can stay sane is to control what I can. I hope I can continue to create the conditions for more moments like his breakthrough today in a classroom full of excitement, caring, and discovery.
Should teachers and school leaders talk about inspiration more? Should it be our jobs to prod, unearth, and uncover what makes a student tick?