“Mommy, you know how Alex is always acting all wild and hyper at school and getting into trouble?” My 9-year-old daughter Mari put down her dinner fork and stared at me with wide, somber eyes.
“Well, yes, but honey, remember we don’t talk about others when–”
“I know, Mommy.” She sighed. “That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Okay then, what are you saying?”
“I wanted to say that Mrs. Cook has a magic effect on Alex. She doesn’t get frustrated with him like some of the other teachers. She’s nice to him and always asks him to help her with stuff. And I noticed something interesting — Alex does better in Mrs. Cook’s class than any other class. I think it’s because she’s so nice to him.”
And at that, I may have had to reach for my napkin to dab tears from my eyes.
You see, I am familiar with Alex’s struggle. I know his mother’s worry, her fear that her kid’s teachers are looking at her and expecting her to do better, that her child’s behavior is proof that she’s failed at motherhood. I know what it is to have a child who struggles at school. I also know the relief of having a teacher who works magic with my kid.
From the time he was in preschool, my son Lucas struggled to adapt to the routines of school life. As a two-year-old, he regularly came home with notes informing us that he “refused” to sit still during story time or kept other children awake during nap time with his noise. We spoke to him daily about the importance of listening to his teachers, and we kept a consistent schedule at home to try to keep him used to routine.
And yet still the notes came home.
Elementary school brought more of the same. Lucas got his first note home on the second day of kindergarten. I was discouraged and fed up, and honestly I felt like a failure as a mother. My child’s behavior was obviously very different from other kids’, so I must be doing something wrong. I would get frustrated with Lucas for all the disciplinary notes and disappointing teacher conferences, but deep down I was certain I’d failed him in some way.
We confirmed a few years later that Lucas has ADHD. I read a stack of books and eventually learned that no one had failed Lucas. He hadn’t failed us, either–he just has a different sort of brain. When he learns, he needs to move and make noise. He squirms and taps and wanders around and often veers off task.
He’s got loads of cool stuff happening in that busy, amazing brain of his, but most of the time, the cool stuff has little to do with the task he’s been assigned. He simply doesn’t fit in the usual box we try to squish all our kids into. He can be tough to parent. He can definitely be tough to teach.
So, when a teacher comes along who really “gets” my kid? It makes my tired mama heart sing. It makes me grateful beyond measure.
We have had many understanding, accommodating teachers come through my son’s life, but there are a couple of standouts who went far beyond what was expected of them to show Lucas he was accepted and loved exactly as he is.
Rather than attempt to herd him into some prescribed formula for what a student should look like, they followed his lead. Rather than see his inattentiveness as something that must be fixed, they saw it as a need to be independently creative — and they gave him outlets to do so.
Rather than force him to complete redundant written work that he already knew the answers to and couldn’t focus enough to complete anyway, they let him pore over science magazines in a reading nook in the back of the classroom, or sit with a sketchbook.
Rather than shush him for the hundredth time, they pointed out his good traits — that he has unique ideas, that he is an expert on black holes, that he is a talented artist — and they did all of this in front of his classmates. Pointing out Lucas’s talents in front of the class made it so the other kids accepted his disruptive quirks.
This is what my daughter was talking about when she brought up Alex at dinner. It’s obvious to me when a teacher has that special quality of being able to work with “difficult” kids, but it came as a bit of a surprise that my 9-year-old daughter noticed it.
I know exactly who Mrs. Cook is, too. Lucas used to talk about her all the time. She was one of his favorites. She always made him feel so smart, never made him feel like he was annoying or a burden the way other teachers sometimes did (usually without meaning to, but still. Ouch).
I smiled at Mari. “I guess Mrs. Cook just has that special quality where she sees kids who are dealing with learning differences –”
“No, Mom,” Lucas interrupted. “She’s like that with everyone. She makes everyone feel important. All the kids love her. She’s a great teacher, always makes class exciting, but she doesn’t let you get away with stuff either. And on the playground, she acts like one of the students. She’s the only teacher who gets out there and runs around and plays with the kids.”
Maybe that’s true. Maybe these special teachers just love all kids, and that’s the reason they’re so good with children who have learning differences. Because they see all children as equally worthy — worthy of an education that fits their unique learning style, worthy of attention, worthy of acceptance, worthy of love.
Even if that’s the case, these are the teachers who make a difference in the lives of my son and other kids like him. These are the teachers who let these kids know they are loved and valued in a world where 95% of the messaging they receive is that there is something wrong with them.
Thank you to Mrs. Cook and the other teachers in my son’s life who make these kids feel welcome and loved in your classroom.
And to all the Mrs. Cooks out there, we are forever indebted to you.