On Love and Meltdowns

I’m currently relearning how to do special education. I spent seven years in Virginia, supporting a mix of affluent and middle class families, in a relatively privileged and academically advanced district. Now I’m in a city that I love, but which does not have a good reputation, as far as education goes. I’m in a school that mostly supports low income families. Their idea of a kid who is academically doing well is one who I would have considered, in Virginia, to be a solid grade behind. On top of that, I’ve switched from classrooms that mainly support autistic or learning disabled students, who occasionally had behavioral or mood disorders complicating their situation, to a class where the primary issue for nearly everyone is behavioral/emotional.

It’s been a pretty sobering week, and on my third day in I nearly cried, but not because of anything particularly bad that happened. Bites, punches, kicks, spit and the odd thrown chair are all part of the drill for me. I can shrug them off, and get right to, “why did this happen and what can I do about it?”

Not much bad happened that day. Nobody was on the verge of getting hurt. But kids were being defiant, in a way that bothered me not because I particularly cared whether they listened or not, but because it was a type of defiance that only comes from a place of deep hurt. There’s a type of disobedience that you only see from kids who have given up on the whole idea of adults being trustworthy. Or who have given up on the expectation of patience and gentleness. Or have given up on themselves.

I’m not used to that. I’m used to a kid having a meltdown because they want to ask for gummy bears but the batteries are dead on their communication device.

Now, for the first time in years, I have no clue what I’m doing.

But here’s the cool thing. I’m not just in a “bad school.” I’m in what’s called a turnaround school. I’m in a school where the parents and educators recently rose up, said that enough was enough, and demanded the resources and accountability to get things fixed. I’m in a school where, behind as they are, over the past year their scores and achievements have dramatically increased. I’m in a school where the whole team is done with “this is hard” as an excuse.

The one thing I haven’t seen is a lack of love for the kids. I thought I worked with some great teachers in Northern Virginia (and I did!) but there were always some rotten apples who just didn’t care anymore. Or who only wanted to care about the “good” (read, “easy”) kids. Or who only cared about the white and Asian kids. In this school, I haven’t met a single person who wasn’t ready to work their ass off to help every damn kid in the building.

I wanted to cry on Wednesday, but I didn’t, because one of the behavior support staff said, “we’re just glad you’re trying. In the past we’ve worked with people who don’t even try.” And then we had a long, good conversation about what I was learning about these kids, and what I can do better. I tried her advice, and today went better.

Tomorrow might be better or might be worse. But it will be okay. It will be okay.

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