When I started teaching two decades ago, I tailored my teaching to the passions of my students. I only had 20 students back then, so my teaching plans were simple but effective because I made the effort to get to know each one of them.
Today, the classroom has changed significantly. There are more students crammed in, and every half-hour lesson must have three government outcomes. There is little time to get to know the students individually, let alone give them the time to learn from their passions. You must differentiate each lesson to meet the needs of every student; focussing on what they can’t do, not what they are interested in doing.
But this is my major concern: the behaviour of the students has gone from the occasional hiccup to outright disrespect and abuse.
I was teaching for a period of last year at a small school. At the beginning of the term, I had three students with known special needs and behavioural problems begin in my multi-age classroom, bringing numbers to almost 30 with no teacher aide or support.
Chairs were thrown, papers were pushed off tables, walls and doors were repeatedly kicked. The principal was trained in restraint and it became common for her to be called to my room to physically restrain these students who were threatening to bash another child with a rock or a branch. After his classmates had cowered in the corner of the classroom, using their laptops as shields from the rocks being thrown at them, the principal moved swiftly to get this eight-year-old boy into a special school three days a week and a special needs teacher was brought in to teach the two days he was there. An aide from a special school was brought in and eventually made full time.
One of these students used to call me a “fucking c*nt”. I asked this eight year old to apologise, and he came right up into my face and told me “I’m never apologising to you again, bitch” and walked away. He threatened us with the metal bars from the computer wagons, he threatened us with scissors, rocks, branches, anything that could be made into a weapon and often hit students and staff with these weapons. I was never physically injured by these students but most staff working at the school were.
The school dealt with these students by suspending them when they physically hurt another child or adult. This gave the remaining students a day of relative peace from time to time; however, it often meant that another one of these kids would rise up the pecking order and take their turn to be violent verbally and or physically. In the state system, my understanding is that it is very difficult to expel a student and they can be suspended dozens of times before any further consequences are met. For one of the boys, he wanted to be suspended because then he could spend more time with his mum so the principal would keep him at school instead.
Many of the students were traumatised and refused to come to school. Very few students progressed in their learning in term 4 last year. Their parents were equally concerned and I acknowledged those concerns and referred them to the principal. These three boys took up 90% of my teaching time and all of my energy. I did not get to know the passions of all my students. And I was neglecting my own children at home as I tried to keep my head above water as a professional.
I did everything I possibly could as an experienced teacher to manage my classroom. I used positive reinforcement, followed behaviour plans and asked for help when needed. But it wasn’t enough. I used to be proud of my classroom management skills but now I am just a shell of the teacher I once was.
A psychologist I saw recently told me I had PTSD. I now work casually as a relief teacher through an agency now but when the phone rings in the morning, letting me know a school needs me, I’m gripped by anxiety, wondering if I will be sent to a classroom with kids like those boys and whether I will be able to keep the students and myself safe. I feel that I will fail students I haven’t met yet, just like I failed the ones I did my best to keep safe and teach last year. But then I step into the classroom for the day and the professional me kicks in and I do a great job. I believe I am a great teacher, I won’t let a couple of kids destroy what I have achieved.
I strongly believe that every school needs at least one special needs teacher. No child has the right to stop others from learning. Inclusive education means just that – every child has the opportunity to learn and every teacher has the opportunity to teach.