I pedaled up to the main entrance of Rocketship Southside Community Prep and hurriedly stashed my bike. I was arriving late. That morning there was a 20-mile-per-hour headwind. Cold gusts howled down Milwaukee’s wide streets turning the entire city into a large harmonica. I crept across the city. And as I rolled along Lake Michigan’s shoreline, I prepared myself for the flurry of activity that would befall me upon entering the building.
And make no mistake: It would be a lot.
And make no mistake: I was overwhelmed.
For I am a first year Special Education (ISE) teacher.
Upon entering the school, I was informed by my colleagues that our first grade cohorts would be leaving for a field trip to the Urban Ecology Center—a local nonprofit dedicated to giving urban youth first-hand experiences with conservation and the natural world.
“Great!” I thought. “While my first graders are gone, I’ll have time to catch up on my IEP paperwork, on my lesson plans, on my parent contacts, on my behavior intervention plans, on my schedule, on my….”
The list seemed endless.
I was looking forward to a morning of laser-focused paper-pushing.
I NEEDED this morning to feel prepared, to feel competent, to try to “get ahead.”
Then I was told by my SPED supervisor that I would have to go on the trip to help a student of mine named Peter.
My plans were dashed.
“There is no way I can go.” I thought. “I’ve got 8 other kids to teach and work with. Sacrificing their academics and learning so that one could learn about a butterfly’s life cycle was not worth it.”
That was my rationale.
Our wonderful para-professional (of course) agreed to go.
I remember the first time I worked with Peter. He was reluctant to come into my office. Tears welled up in his eyes as his mother assured him that I was going to be a great teacher (this, of course, was total conjecture. It was my first day. She had no idea if I was going to be a ‘great’ teacher—I sure didn’t feel like it).
Reluctantly, Peter sat at my desk and whimpered. He wouldn’t talk. I prompted him by asking numerous questions. Nothing worked. At the end of our first 30-minute small group, I had yet to hear his voice, let alone know what his favorite color was, or what memory he cherished most from summer.
Slowly, however, Peter and I developed a functional working relationship. It was pretty straightforward: I would come into his class two times a day. I’d bring in my teaching tools: a numbers chart, a white board, a few dry erase markers, and some flashcards. We’d drill the names of numbers, the sounds of letters. I’d ask him to rote count to 100 and back, guiding and modeling for him whenever he was unsure of himself. I’d call on him to answer my questions and encourage him to speak loudly, confidently.
A lot of our time spent together was sedentary. It was comfortable for him physically, for Peter was born with a neurological condition that has weakened his limbs, negatively affecting his balance and motor skills.
Quickly, I noticed that he would become distraught often refusing to answer questions and beginning to cry if he felt too challenged or pushed.
Excuse the imagery, but at times Peter reminded me of my 1977 Yamaha Moped from my youth. It was a unique one-of-a-kind bike with a mounted 2-cycle engine. It had potential for power. Unfortunately, it was a temperamental machine. Nearly every time I kick-started the bike, I would have to lightly push in the choke to allow more gas to seep into the piston chambers, coaxing the bike to idle. Often, I’d flood the engine and it would stall out, forcing me to wait another 30 minutes.
And much like that bike, I had to take the time to learn about Peter—to figure out the areas where I could target teach and support him--to discover, if you will, the correct amount of gasoline to release into the combustion chamber of Peter’s own academic and social potential.
Teaching as an ISE teacher, I realized, is a delicate balancing act. One where I must be attuned to the voice of my students (often non-verbal), indicating where I am succeeding, at times pleading for assistance, and, most importantly, asking me to believe.
Peter began to cry when he learned that a field trip was planned for the late morning. The change in his routine shocked his ability to cope. If indeed Peter was going on the trip, he made it clear that I would have to go with him. He began to point at me and worked furiously to grasp onto my hand.
I was now conflicted. I was telling myself that I had to choose between my desires to accomplish my paperwork and teach my 8 other students, or to travel with Peter to the Urban Ecology Center.
Realizing that Peter, through his grasping of my hand, had taken a major step in advocating for his own needs, I knew I had to go with him.
Throughout the morning, I had been engaging in a false choice. This was not about Peter vs. my other students. It was about Peter internalizing our lessons on empowerment. At Rocketship we often talk to our students about the importance of agency in the classroom, and I honestly couldn’t think of a better example of this lesson being lived out than in Peter informing me that he needed me to go on the trip.
So I went.
Our para-professional stayed at school.
As the class broke up into two groups, the students were wild with anticipation. Within the hour, we had acted out the life-cycle of a monarch butterfly, wiggling on our bellies as caterpillars and curling into cocoons. We analyzed the life-cycle of mammals, observing the physical changes that manifest when mammals mature into adulthood. And we got to touch the hard, scaly shell of the resident North American Box Turtle. Naturally, a planned hike along the banks of Menomonee River was the perfect way to end the trip.
Peter held onto my hand tightly as we descended a grassy knoll, walking under an old rail-road bridge and across a gravel bike path. Aware that Peter needed both vision and balance supports, I walked next to him. When we cut through a patch of stiff, yellow cone flowers, I held his hand as he navigated through the thick roots and stems. When the rest of the class hopped from rock-to-rock as we followed the forest path that runs along the river, Peter grabbed the back of my shirt to maintain his balance as he picked his way through the stones. When the class ran ahead, so did he. When five students from his class scuttled up a steep, muddy embankment to inspect the burrow of a groundhog, Peter didn’t hesitate to follow.
I saw him gaining confidence by the minute. His innate curiosity began to burn bright. Peter was no longer being “held back” by either his shy demeanor or some physical “disability.”
At some point in our trip, it began to rain. Our group sought shelter under a high-way trestle, where we sang songs. When the rain subsided, our group made our way west along the railroad tracks, peeling off into a cove of spindly willow branches that tangled together to create a natural room (or clearing) just big enough for fifteen 6-year-olds to fit. The hike leader had each of the students climb inside, where they mimicked the call of a few migrating birds.
Peter and I came in about 3 minutes behind everyone else—I had to carry him down the steep trail and helped him navigate through the curtains of spiraled willow leaves.
And as his classmates ahead of him began to file out through the narrow exit-way onto the path, I saw Peter glance up and look around at the canopy of green in which he was embraced. He was smiling widely.
And in the end, it was I who thanked Peter for the trip.