Right now I have 17 students, ages 3 to 5. If they don’t open a new position at a different school for preschool, I’ll have 24 in the next couple of months. It’s exhausting. I’ve been at this public school since 2009 and each school year, it’s a different teaching situation. I’ve either had a partner teacher, or I’ve taught on my own, or with a teacher who doesn’t have a special education background. This year my help is a P.E. teacher.
There’s a range of disabilities in my classroom. Some children are diagnosed as autistic, but a lot of times they aren’t diagnosed until the age 5 of or 6. A lot times they come in with speech delays, or speech problems. A lot of that is because their families at home might not speak to them as much.
You really have to know your students. You have to know their families, you have to know their backgrounds, you have to have a profound love for them to know what they need throughout the day. For every lesson, you have to think, can this student sit next to this student? What is he going to get out of it? Sometimes I have students who can’t even talk or, if they smile, then it’s a good day. Planning out how you’re going to get a reaction out of a student, how you’re going to get them to say something, if they’re able to talk, trying to get the most out of them.
It’s such a short time you have them. We have extended school days out on the Leeward coast so I have them from 7:30 until 2:20. I try to structure the day so they’re doing things they have to do but it’s fun. At this age, we’re trying to get them to learn how to sit nicely, listen and follow directions and we’re even working on potty training. And we have kids that hit and kick and punch and cry. On an ideal day, we’d have less of that.
I communicate every day with parents in a communication book. I tell them how their child did during the day. I try to contact parents at least once a week about what’s happening with their child. There’s always something going on.
I feel like the school administration supports me, but they have no idea what goes on in my class. It’s rare that they’ll sit in. I just had a teacher evaluation; we have a new system of evaluating this year. I had to turn in a lesson plan and when the evaluators saw it, they were just kind of blown away. “You think about this every day?”
“Yes!’ I said. “That’s why I look so crazy when I walk around! There’s so much stuff I do.”
I do support the teacher evaluations. I honestly felt it was helpful and it’s also going to weed out some of the teachers that don’t care as much—like the one I work with. But it’ll give a testament to who we are as teachers, what kind of effort we’re putting into teaching, and that’s helpful. It’d be nice if pay was based on the evaluation scale, instead of years put in. The people who say they don’t want it are probably not putting forth the effort they should.
Teachers have a hard job. Sometimes they do lose their enthusiasm for teaching. A lot of it is political. I never signed on for all the political stuff when I came on to teach. I wanted to make an impact in students’ lives, I wanted to help and make a lasting impression; I didn’t sign on to stand in picket lines and hold signs and go against government. That’s just not me.
Some days I feel like I’m not making a difference at all. And then one day, there will be one small thing that a student does and it changes my whole year. For some kids, it’s going from not speaking to saying a word. Or I’ll have parents who say, “I could not understand my kid’s speech, and the other day he said to me, ‘You’re my mama.’” And then I’m just a sob bucket. It’s moments like those that make me want to keep teaching.
—As told to Tiffany Hill