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The Insider’s Education

It won’t be long until it’s time to go back to school—for me. Having joined the ranks of teaching assistants last year, I will soon be packing my lunch on most weekdays along with those of my children. But the summer months have given me an opportunity to step back and digest some of what I’ve done and seen during my first year on the job.

I work as a substitute for two different districts, and I’ve been exposed to the gamut of dramas that public school workers face every day. I’ve had some pleasant surprises, and some jaw-dropping disappointments—sometimes both in a single day. Many of the teachers and assistants I’ve worked with are compassionate educators who renew my faith in our troubled profession.

So, perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far as a T.A. is the one I’ve had to learn as a parent. And that’s to never give up on a child in the face of a challenge.

Many of my assignments in the previous school year were in classrooms with children who had a variety of developmental, emotional or psychological problems. On one of my very first days, I worked one-on-one with a little boy the same age as my youngest son. He was reserved at first, and I was uncertain in my new role. I quickly realized that for his teacher, and the T.A. who usually works with him, a pattern of coasting had developed. His frequent outbursts were disruptive, and resources of time and patience were scarce. Much of the boy’s day was not spent on learning but on being managed into submission.

To me, his energy was engaging, and I learned to direct it in ways that played off his interests—which, admittedly, were drawing monsters and gnawing on his shirtsleeve. He seemed perplexed that I was interested in his unique, lonely world. His classmates, all dealing with their own issues, rarely spoke to him.
When the boy’s regular T.A. returned toward the end of the school day, my heart broke. She slipped into the classroom without a word, seemingly uninterested in what her student had done all day, and definitely not interested in mustering a greeting or smile. As I prepared to leave, she sighed, and went back to the usual business of “getting him through the day.”

From that day on, whenever I entered a classroom, that bored sigh and indifferent expression followed me. They were reminders of the person many in education can become when they are either burned out or simply in the wrong profession. It’s the person I never want to become and one I hope my own children never encounter in their schools.

Luckily, even in the most difficult classrooms, teachers and their assistants can find the spark that connects them with the reasons that brought them there in the first place. I once assisted in a classroom in which a young man flew into such a violent rage the classroom had to be cleared so he could be calmed and removed. His classmates seemed familiar with the procedure, rolling their eyes in frustration, justifiably annoyed that this boy had, once again, disrupted their day.

I had the lucky task of “keeping him company” in a separate room while his teacher decided how to prevent him from causing further chaos.

“Um, here, just go read him this,” she said, handing me the first book that was within her reach. With no formal training on how to handle violent students, I said nothing. When I entered the room, I wasn’t even sure if I’d be safe.
What I found was a complex young man. At 8 years old, his command of history would put that of most college undergraduates to shame. His reading skills were several grade levels ahead of his placement, and together we plowed through not only the hastily chosen book his teacher had given me but also most of the other books in the room.

For two hours he shared his knowledge and asked me questions. The rage that had so quickly turned his classroom upside down was nowhere to be seen. He did, however, express concern that once the teacher called his mother about the incident, he “would probably have a very bad night.” I could only advise him to focus on the fact that, each day, he had an opportunity to show his teacher and his mother that things could be different.
Our one-on-one exchange ended abruptly, as the classroom teacher returned to inform the boy of his schedule for the rest of the day—sitting in the principal’s office. As I grabbed my jacket to leave, I glimpsed a tiny grin, and a weak voice uttered, “Thank you, Mrs. D.”
So this fall, it will be his voice I hear in class. And with it, I’ll carry a reminder that every child needs someone to believe in him, to have an advocate in the classroom or at home. And every child deserves to have someone appreciate what makes him or her unique.                 ■

Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.


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