Teaching Experience Exposes School Issues for Mentally Ill Children (Part 1)

Yesterday, I arrived at school for my teaching assignment. Before the first bell, three staff members had already offered their assistance and described my class of sixteen 2nd-graders as “awful.”

On my first day of substitute teaching, I had been handed a room full of manic, unmedicated Bobs.

sub1It was hardly an easy day. My first half hour or so was spent just trying to get them all to acknowledge my presence in the classroom. After that, it was a continuous effort to keep them engaged, focused, and working.

But I was able to do it. There were even moments when the room was quiet and everyone’s eyes were focused on the work in front of them. Even the “problem” kids were making an effort to participate, and loving the praise they got from me for doing so.

I am not a psychiatrist or specialist in elementary education, and claim no ability to diagnose anyone–but in one day, I could point out at least three children in dire need of some form of intervention. One child in particular reminded me of Bob–very bright, attractive, witty and charming, with no ability to sit still. He would finish a worksheet in record time (with all correct answers), then start doing cartwheels in the back of the room.

Another boy was a wanderer–at any moment, he would lose focus, get up, and begin wandering the room.

The entire class seemed to be on edge the whole day, and without near constant reminders to stay focused, they would drift off almost immediately.

Once I had their attention, however, they really weren’t so difficult. I live with “problem” behavior; I’ve learned multiple ways to handle it. The bouncers usually took their seats with a gentle tap or nudge with their chair. The wanderer was easily led back to his seat. I sent a few to the “safe seat,” but didn’t have to remove anyone from class or call for staff assistance.

sub2No, it wasn’t the students who had me near tears by the day’s end. It was the adults supposedly there to teach them. All day, other teachers and staff would call out my students for one transgression or another. They barked at the kids like drill sergeants. They yelled. They demeaned. One teacher pointed to my “Bob” and whispered, “there’s our future thug.”

These kids are seven and eight years old.

Some of them come from non-English speaking families. Most of them are low-income. If their teachers have already written them off–what are their chances of living any kind of “normal” life?

None of them are bad kids. They are kids with serious issues not being addressed–issues holding them and their classmates back. Labeling and treating them like criminals hardly seems to be a solution.

Teaching Experience Exposes School Issues for Mentally Ill Children (Part 2)

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6 Responses to Teaching Experience Exposes School Issues for Mentally Ill Children (Part 1)

  1. Erin Griggs says:

    I agree that some teachers do not work well with students. I’ve seen it, been a teacher, — been there, done that, collapsed in a puddle of stupid exhaustion at the end of the day.

    But a gentle reminder: not ALL teachers do this. Many are excellent; some need more training, and can learn methods to re-direct behaviors and to work with special needs students. It’s hard.

    And yes, some teachers should get the heck out of the classroom. Like any profession, you’re going to get a mixed-bag of personalities and expertise.

    Good food-for-thought article, Angela.

  2. Angela McClanahan says:

    @Erin, plenty more food for thought on the subject to come. I agree some teachers go above and beyond the call of duty for their special needs students–if I were Catholic, I’d nominate all but one of Bob’s primary teachers for sainthood. We’ve been lucky. I think I have an idea as to why, which I plan to address in the follow-up to this post.

  3. No. Not all teachers call kids “awful” and “thugs” and bark orders. But I don’t know a single parent of a child with a mood disorder that doesn’t have a story like this.

    We canonize the good ones – I’ve nominated several of Tim’s for national awards – but teachers, please remember that parents of kids like “Bob” live in a constant state of trauma – anger, depression, frustration (that’s the parents!) – and a horrific experience with a bad teacher causes PTSD type, knee-jerk reflex actions when we encounter just a hint of the same in others.

  4. ellen says:

    Boy do I wish you were a sub in my school. Or better yet, a special education teacher. We need more like you…Signed, School Social Worker

  5. Angela McClanahan says:

    @ellen–oh, i don’t know about that. i’m a sub–i’m there for a short time and then i move on. i don’t think i could handle the frustration (of wanting to HELP these kids and being more or less stuck with my hands tied) for the long-term. sad, but true. (although i did end up back in my “bad kid” class today–there was a scheduling snafu and they asked at the last minute if i’d go back to that class–i did. and i would go back again tomorrow if i could.)

  6. Erin Griggs says:

    “…but teachers, please remember that parents of kids like “Bob” live in a constant state of trauma – anger, depression, frustration (that’s the parents!) – and a horrific experience with a bad teacher causes PTSD type, knee-jerk reflex actions when we encounter just a hint of the same in others.”

    Oh, completely this, Chrisa! And I’ve heard and seen things that reflect the experiences Angela is mentioning in her post.

    A good teacher knows a parent lives with their kid and their issues day in and day out, and sometimes, when a parent comes into the classroom to meet with a teacher, there’s a whole load of past experiences that causes the parent to have a defensive shield and maybe some preconceived notions.

    The most important thing both the parent and teacher can do is truly LISTEN to each other; the whole point is to help the child, to work as a team to provide as much individualized attention to the child’s needs as is possible. I’m sorry that this is not always the case.

    This is why I’m such a proponent for smaller class sizes. Even though I’m not in the classroom anymore, I’m still a huge education-reform advocate.

    Typically, as a HS teacher, I had an average class size of 20-24 students for 50 minutes periods. That’s less than 2 minutes a class I could spend with each student…IF I didn’t deliver a lecture or manage classroom behavior as a whole or explain assignments. And I have other teacher friends in public schools who have over 45 students in some classes, which is utterly ridiculous.

    How can teachers provide quality attention to individual students — which is the BEST way to learn — with overfilled classrooms?

    I worked 80+ hours a week as a teacher. I busted my buns, and I was a GOOD teacher. I cared. I required academic rigor. I tutored struggling students each day after the final bell. But it wrecked my health and I had to step away. Parents don’t get to step away. They have my complete empathy and respect.

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