Teaching One Kid at a Time

You can’t teach a classroom. I’ve found over the years that whether you like it or even recognize it, you teach each child individually, they respond individually, and some days this is a joy.

On other days, it can break your heart.

As I sat down with a child I’ll call Christian, I was struck by how on this day, he looked well groomed and energetic. This is not always the case. Often the boy has come to school looking disheveled, his clothing ragged, his hair uncombed. He sometimes appears to have gone far too long without proper food, and I’ve noticed his energy level and concentration has shot up when I’ve provided snacks and fruit juice. He seems happiest at school, which appears to be refuge for him from a difficult home life. I know his parents are both struggling to overcome drug addiction, some days more successfully than others.

This is one of the more successful days, and the boy seems happy to be of help in my preparing this paper. He is always happy to find an adult he can please, and he enjoys being the focus of positive attention. He has no idea that he’s being evaluated with an eye towards removing him from the private school he presently attends and at which I teach. We share a snack and he answers my questions with earnestness and a surprising amount of reflection.

As we read aloud, I notice Christian reads one word at a time, and often he substitutes one word for another, such as “they” for “there” or “his” for “it.” Clearly he has not learned to sound out words. He has trouble associating individual letters with the sounds they represent. He hesitates at longer words and his comprehension when he reads is poor.
Conversely, his comprehension is excellent when he listens to me read.

It is clear to me that among the reasons he is experiencing these difficulties is that he has never fully connected sounds to the symbols for them which we call letters. The letter “C” presents him with particular troubles, being used to represent two distinctive sounds in various words. It confuses and frustrates him. Nor does he understand letter combinations, such as “th” and the silence of “gh” in the word “right” for instance, further frustrates him.

His troubles also clearly stem from a lack of support at home. His parents have trouble caring for him in general, and aiding and augmenting his education is simply beyond their current abilities. Sporadic nourishment and nurturing have taken and continue to take their toll on the boy, physically, mentally and emotionally. His test scores and social interaction indicate that he is of average intelligence – indeed a bit on the higher end of average. In fact, he’s an engaging child, even charming. But he is learning that his parents place little value on his learning, and as they think it unimportant, he is conflicted when he realizes that the other adults he wishes to please – his teachers – see it as very important.

Our principal sees it as important. As we’re undergoing an accreditation review, he’s decided we can do without students who are pulling down our test scores. Several are being evaluated for the purpose of finding them academically unprepared to continue as our students.

Oddly, when the school year began they were academically prepared.

Except Christian.

To be honest, when I initially evaluated this child, I recommended against accepting him as a student. I felt he was too far behind, and he’d be better served with some remedial instruction from somewhere else. Anywhere else. Just don’t saddle me with this kid, I thought. He’ll take up too much of my time.

But now, there’s no way I’m letting this kid fail.

There are things that I can do for him. I can teach him what sound each letter represents. I can teach him about letter combinations and what sounds they represent. I can show him how to read more fluidly, how to sound out words, how to use a dictionary and how to gain some confidence. I believe I can teach him how very important reading is, and will be, in his future. I may even be able to show him what a joy reading can be, what worlds it can open to him and what wonderful places to which it can transport him within his mind – and perhaps someday in the real world.

There are things he’s going to have to learn on his own, however, and they are difficult things. Learning to cope with the myriad problems drug addicted parents pose is going to be a lifelong struggle.

I only hope that I can teach him that regardless of the problems he faces, he is valued, he is loved and he is capable of things he has yet to imagine.

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