Teaching children has been a great profession for me. I’ve gained more than I’ve given. I have met some amazing people and have enjoyed every step of the way. I think it is extremely important to promote teachers and education for all children. Many people feel that they are experts because they’ve been through at least 12 years of public education. Accordingly, if they’ve had a great experience, then they feel very positive about public education and the school experiences available for our children. If they’ve had some struggles, then their perspective may be totally different. That’s where we, as teachers, become facilitators promoting education as the ultimate human experience. We must advocate that a child’s education is impacted daily by the relationships that are built between teachers and students.
I think that sensitivity, empathy, and compassion have been the overriding qualities that influenced my decision to become a special educator. I’ve always had a great sensitivity for children and families who face challenges. I’m kind of a fixer. I want to make experiences better for everyone. Also, as a parent of a child with special needs, I knew how important it was for programs and services to be developed that were child specific and not system specific. When the needs of a child were identified by a collective team of advocates, we were going to make sure that need was addressed in their school program. I think our belief in that philosophy that kids come first has motivated my commitment to the profession.
Many of us in the early and mid-seventies were trailblazers in the field of special education. Initially, school districts were like big industries, big machines. As a result, districts would lay out an array of services and parents would have to fit their children into those service options. Through the years, a major change regarding the rendering of services has occurred. The notion that districts need to service children, not that children and families need to mesh with the existing services has become the best practice standard. As we look at special education, specifically our team meetings and case conferences, group sessions are currently designed to create an array of services that are specific to that individual child. That has been a huge transition which impacts all children not just those identified via the special education process.
Regarding school systems as a whole, I think we have engineered education creating a cookie cutter approach to instruction. Many of our teachers become frustrated because they are really creative beings and they want to create wonderful, captivating opportunities for kids. Many of our teachers feel that they are merely going through the paces in an effort to meet externally driven mandates. I think the overarching quality that most educators have is a desire to support children as they formulate their sense of who they are and their place in the world. Also, teachers attempt to cultivate leadership skills as a means of defining a child’s sense of self so that they can confidently move forward and successfully face their respective challenges.
My personal philosophy, when working with children, is that you take them from where they are and you grow with them. You walk with them so that, as they develop, the relationship becomes a partnership. During this era of external standards and expectations, we often forget to walk alongside the child and help them reach those standards in their own way and at their own pace. The process becomes so engineered and, as a result, individual needs of kids become a secondary focus. They may be able to do math. They may be able to read on grade level. They may be able to complete all of the standardized tests. But, when it comes to our students making good choices, decisions and being good citizens; sometimes, as teachers, time does not permit that type of guidance and instruction. This creates my greatest dilemma. When time restricts these opportunities, I worry that the impact may be huge for our children.
It is the successes that refuels my drive. It’s great to see kids achieve and meet their goals. I really felt the greatest satisfaction was when my students were willing to take a risk. They trusted me enough to risk failure. When you reach that milestone or the point where kids feel comfortable in their own skin; as a teacher, you can erase that sense of not meeting the mark nor feeling success because they took the risk of trying. Success was achieved by their effort and willingness to try. That, to me, was the most satisfying, When kids trust you enough to take the risk of failing, increased confidence becomes the magic potion or the celebratory consequence. The payoff is huge for both my students and me as their teacher.
There are some people within our communities that create challenges for children that are not deserved. Kids bring some major challenges to the classroom that teachers cannot control. Family issues, crime, and trauma are a few of the challenges that often times supersede the daily instructional opportunities that are offered within the classroom. As a teacher, this is when you change your priorities, drop everything and address that issue.
One of the things that I learned as a secondary teacher was that high school kids need to have a private place to cry and be by themselves. Within a traditional High School, there are very few places that a student can go to let-off-steam, ponder decision-making and feel safe. As a result, I would set up a little corner and kids could come into my classroom and seek a private place to think, cry, and pound a stress pillow without judgement or confrontation. My students all knew that an emotional reaction to stress was okay and often justified. In this way my students could take control of their emotions without striking out at others or themselves. This opportunity provided an option to my students struggling the best they could with some major issues. If desired, my students always knew that they would be comforted and attainable solutions would always be collaboratively explored. As I worked with kids throughout the years, I’ve come to understand how important a “safe-spot” truly is.
I still think about the kids who have wrestled with trauma. I worry that I may have missed someone reaching out. I think every teacher has served those kids that got away. The students that slipped through the cracks. The student whose life outside of school was so difficult yet they hid behind the routine and safety of the school environment resulting in a missed opportunity to help or assist. The impact on most teachers is huge. I continue to worry and struggle with this notion. I worked primarily with kids that had serious emotional issues and children who were learning disabled. I also served students with mild disabilities. Many of my students had life experiences which made their emotionality justifiable. They have seen and experienced life events that interfered with learning and obstructed many of the reasonable expectations within a traditional classroom. The motivation to learn becomes compromised. These challenges came as no surprise as I struggled to “put-the-pieces-back-together.”
Those are the tough things – when you find out that a tragedy or a crisis happened, and you were unable to prevent it from happening or protect the child and shoulder the hardship.
One of my biggest annoyances is when adults set limitations for kids. It really grinds me!! Statements such as “You will never be able to…” or “You need to go to the special education class because you can’t perform in my class” create devastating hurt resulting in educational hardship and resistance to academic risk taking. Many times the child is not a special needs child. But, they begin thinking that something is wrong with them. This results in artificial barriers that limit and inhibit kids from soaring, from being all they can be. I really struggle with that.
Most kids never want to be different. They want to be like everybody else. The choices they make are often times impacted by others who have influenced them or their own judgment. But I have never served a child who willfully without cause was resistant to every aspect of education. I’ve had kids in my classroom who convinced teachers that they do not care and appear to resist any intervention or instruction. They pull that off like an academy award winning actor!! I have served students who have tried to intimidate teachers, students and others in the community. However, once you peel the layers of the onion away, their core is compliant and non-resistive. Once you reach the core of the problem, understanding can be achieved. The end result is trust and educational risk-taking without fear of failure.
As we struggle with the financial picture in the Muncie community schools, our community becomes vulnerable. Due to the multiple challenges facing a district like ours – decline in enrollment, increased poverty level of our families and children, transience of our families, and the financial crisis – we become an ideal location for vendors to locate in Muncie and try to sell educational alternatives to our families. The Gary schools for example, struggle with competing entities attempting to enroll children in their alternative programs. In Indiana the state dollars supporting education “follow-the-child.” No longer are children required to remain in their districted schools. Too often this becomes an economic opportunity for the privatization of public education. Muncie teachers need reassurance and respect to feel validated. What I would like to see is that, as an educational community, we all come together to promote the wonderful curricular opportunities that exist within our district. It’s not about power; it’s about our children and their families.
I think communication is vital. As communication improves, public trust and confidence will be rebuilt as a shared commitment resulting in advocacy between teachers, administrators, and the school board . The results would be staggering. We’ve got to get away from the power struggle and move forward so that we are creatively serving our children and families. Serving the community as a public school educator is about children and families. It’s not about authority, power and control. Kids must come first!!
Our teachers in Muncie are exceptional problem solvers. I think they utilize resources that others would never consider. I think they are experts at addressing the needs of the community, what our children need, and providing a balance between family and school. I think we have exceptional folks who are able to do all those things. Our teachers have demonstrated that over and over again. The creativity of our teaching staff is just phenomenal. They work tirelessly to promote creative opportunities for kids. Quite candidly, Muncie has employed exceptional teachers. Despite the concern generated by the numbers of resignations experienced over the summer, the programs and services for children are intact and thriving. I feel like the decisions made by teachers to leave the district are based upon financial stability of the district. Teachers want to know that there’s a sustainable future for public education in Muncie. Recently, questions about the future of the Muncie Community Schools have emerged.
Confidence in the future has been compromised. Because of teacher shortages throughout the State, secure employment opportunities exist for many of our personnel. Job availability and financial security have motivated transfers to other school corporations. I understand that. It makes me sad, but I understand that.
Serving children and families as a teacher is an incredible career. To become a teacher is a real privilege and an honor especially within the Muncie Community. Are there challenges? You bet there are. However, fulfillment occurs when witnessing the personal growth and development of those kids walking right alongside you. When this occurs in an environment where the interaction and the interplay is, “I’ve grown as much as they have,” the facilitation of their growth becomes an endless circle. This includes the gifts that you receive from parents, from kids, and colleagues. It is especially evident when you have fostered growth in a child and they have fostered growth in you. It’s an amazing profession. I feel honored to have worked in public education.
Megan Mullins is a sociologist and program evaluator residing with her family in Muncie, IN.
This story originally appeared in Facing Teaching, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.