Today I was getting ready to do a lesson with one of my students when our office manager informed me that one of my coworkers had gone home sick. Would I mind combining two students’ instruction — one, a nine-year-old doing language arts and one, an eleven-year-old who had a math assessment to finish? Both of these students have specific learning needs and both typically receive one-on-one instruction. I answered I would be happy to combine them while thinking to myself, “well, this could get interesting”.
It is for good reason that most of our students receive one-on-one instruction. They have all struggled in school and have the scars to show for it — low self-esteem, a tendency toward frustration, and the constant and desperate need for encouragement. How was I going to juggle their needs? No way to find out but to step into it.
I was almost immediately surprised. “Hey you two,” I said, “Why don’t we find a space with a large table so that we have plenty of room?” “Yeah!” they said almost in unison. While a change in routine or venue can sometimes signal distraction or disruption, they surprised me by rallying and seeing this as an opportunity. They helped me gather all their supplies — laptops, files, paper, etc — and we relocated so swiftly that I barely had time to register the change.
Still, I was cautious. I wondered if we would get anything done at all. Both of these students tend to need a lot of direction and re-direction; I pictured an hour plunked between them, dividing my time between getting each of them back on task and squeezing in little spurts of instruction. Again, I was surprised.
The eleven-year-old almost immediately located the online assessment that he had to complete and announced that he could do most of it on his own. The nine-year-old found herself a “special pen” to work with and then, looking at her ‘classmate’, decided to find him one, too. “What a good idea!” I said. Her classmate received the pen, said “Thank you!” and got right to work.
While I guided the nine-year-old through her lesson, the eleven-year-old worked diligently on adding and subtracting fractions. He politely asked me once if he had reduced the fraction as far as it could go. After I checked his answer and said, “yes, good job,” I turned back to the other student. She looked at him and added her own “good job!” When the older student heard me tell the younger student, “You got it,” he chimed in with “Way to go!”
Guys, I did not script this. They were genuinely delighted for one another. He watched her jump up and down when she heard two target words in a song that I played. She waited patiently when he and I worked through a more difficult problem together. They even teamed up to good-naturedly poke fun at my singing ability! I praised them and rewarded them for their cooperative spirits and strong work ethics, but I truly believe that the opportunity to work side-by-side was a reward in itself.
The three of us were elbow to elbow smiling at one another at a table buried under two laptops, paper, pens, scissors, and scraps. I said, “Hey, guys, I think we should do this more often. What do you think?”
“Yes!” they agreed, in unison.
If you are not a teacher, you might not know that school doesn’t always go like this. Classmates aren’t always encouraging toward one another. They certainly don’t always celebrate the small accomplishments of students with learning differences. In fact, it is often the opposite. Students who struggle often have the added discouragement of being teased by their peers and even, I’m sorry to say, their teachers.
Today was a sweet surprise. Perhaps these two who have struggled so much have learned the value of being kind. I learned a little myself.
“a child will lead them”