05 Oct A Transformational Teaching Moment, By Zoe – Manhattan, New York
Today is #WorldTeachersDay. In celebration, we are honoring the many talented and dedicated educators in our transformational community around the world.
This year teaching school with the threat of Covid-19 virus, things are even more challenging and complex. To celebrate the teachers amongst us, we offer a chapter from our most recent book, Being Here Too, Short Stories of Modern Day Enlightenment. This particular essay was written by Zoe, a middle school teacher in Manhattan. In her piece she brilliantly illustrates A Transformational Teaching Moment. When Zoe wrote her chapter, who knew that learning out how to “think outside the box,” so to speak, would become such an important skill set.
Our hats (metaphorically speaking) are off to Zoe and all the teachers, parents and school administrators who are reimagining education so that both remote and in person learning can be effective, fun, rewarding and safe for everyone – teachers included.
– Ariel & Shya
“I feel so retarded!” Jenny said as she entered my classroom one lunch hour.
It hurt to hear that. Jenny is one of my special needs students and clearly she had heard this derogatory term somewhere. Now she was applying it to herself.
Jenny is a bubbly girl with adorable dimples and the kind of laugh that makes everyone else laugh, too. When she was a young child, Jenny was diagnosed with a learning disability and she’d become infamous for evading schoolwork by any means necessary. As her Special Education teacher, I’d spent a lot of the year chasing her down, trying to coax, cajole and force her to finish work she hadn’t done. So it came as a surprise when she sought me out during her lunch period.
“I need help with the math homework,” she said.
I walked with her to a table and chair, encouraged Jenny to sit and I took the chair next to her. “Take out the work that you’re having trouble with and we’ll do it together,” I said.
I started talking Jenny through the steps of the problem. At first, she was doing fine and required only a few small prompts when she didn’t immediately see the answer. Then after a few questions and successful answers we came to a roadblock.
“Ok,” I said, “when we subtract seven from five, that gives us….”
I paused, waiting for her to say “negative two.” Her face drew a blank. I asked her a few other questions involving negative numbers, hoping to jog her memory, but nothing seemed to work. Then it dawned on me that she’d never learned how to add and subtract using negative numbers.
I thought to myself, Why didn’t I realize this sooner? I should’ve been more persistent, more attentive. Why didn’t she work with me sooner? We could have dealt with this at the beginning of the year.
I took a breath. Jenny didn’t need my judgments or self-recriminations. The “why” didn’t matter. The past didn’t matter. This was our moment to learn about negative numbers, right now.
I realized that if I held on to those judgmental thoughts, I could be right about what a bad teacher I was, or about what a bad student she was, or even how the school system, her family, and society at large had failed her. Instead, I noticed the thoughts, I didn’t give them any weight, and I moved on with the work at hand. I took out some colorful pens and scrap paper, and I drew a number line. I had Jenny put her pen on the five and move it seven spaces to the left until it landed on the negative two.
“Is this making sense?” I asked.
“No,” Jenny replied honestly, looking deflated.
I could tell she didn’t like feeling stupid. She was judging herself harshly, which was reinforcing her earlier premise that she was “retarded.” I tried another tactic. I drew a building. The ground floor was zero, the above ground floors were positive numbers, and the below ground floors were negative numbers. I moved my pen seven floors down on my drawing and showed her how that left us at the “sub basement.” Negative two. We talked through a few more problems using the elevator analogy.
“What happens if I start on the third floor and then go down four floors?” I asked.
She used the drawing to find the basement, the negative first floor. But it still didn’t compute. I could see she was starting to get it but the information hadn’t clicked yet.
She looked at me and her face was open and honest. I felt like she had stripped away all her defenses and bared her soul to me. I listened with my eyes, my ears, and my heart to hear what she was thinking: This is really hard for me, and when I don’t understand something I get embarrassed and judge myself.
Suddenly, I had a creative flash. I looked at Jenny and smiled. She smiled back. At some point during our conversation, a student teacher had joined us and was listening as I went through the different styles of explanations. Jenny turned to her and said, “Listen to this. I can tell this is going to be good.”
“Ok Jenny,” I began. “I have only five dollars in my bank account. I’m not very good at saving money.”
Jenny started cracking up.
“Now I need to buy a…” I paused. “A Metro Card!” Jenny said.
“Yes exactly. I need to buy a Metro Card for the subway, but it costs ten dollars. I use my credit card, the bank takes out the five dollars that I have, and then takes five more. Now I have negative five dollars in my bank account. And that, Jenny, is how I got an overdraft fee.”
She and I were both laughing as we solved other examples using the bank account story – each of us coming up with more and more ridiculous items to purchase.
Fifteen minutes after sitting down with me, Jenny had learned a skill that had baffled her for most of the school year. Now she could complete the rest of her homework with ease. I was so proud of her for sticking with it, for not giving up after the first try, and for allowing me to see what she was struggling with.
When I was with Jenny that day, I didn’t judge or blame her or myself. Learning became a collaborative, fun activity. I saw how my ability to listen and be present was contagious. The student teacher was so inspired by watching us together that she volunteered to stay after school to help Jenny finish the rest of her homework.
Since then, I’ve noticed that when I’m relaxed, I’m easy to be around. Students come to me when they need help and learning happens quickly and painlessly in an environment free of judgment. In the past, when I tried to force this young girl to do her math assignments, I exhausted myself and she avoided me. That day with Jenny during her lunch hour, I found a new way that was fun for us both.
It really was a transformational teaching moment and I’ve never been the same. On that day, I learned as much from Jenny as she did from me.
This is an excerpt from Being Here…Too, Short Stories of Modern Day Enlightenment, available in paperback, eBook and audiobook on Amazon and wherever books are sold.