My Special Ed teacher partner in working with some of the most challenging students we have called me this afternoon to tell me that one of our students demonstrated great determination today in his support class to try and improve his INB (Interactive Notebook) with the end of the marking period fast approaching.
I said, “I know! He was just in here to get the handouts he’s missing, and I showed him where all the past handouts are. He really demonstrated a lot of initiative, and I complimented him on it.”
With this student, I have taken the gentlest of approaches I’ve ever tried. He shows up to class, and I give him participation credit for showing up, but he hardly does anything once he’s there — at least, he does little that anybody can detect.
But I’ve always had the sense that he is listening under the surface.
Each day, as I take attendance and greet students I didn’t get a chance to greet at the door, I ask him how he’s doing and whether he would like to do some work today.
Most days, his answer is a stone-faced “No.”
I never nag him or noodge him. I refrain from doing this because I sense that he is already doing everything in his power just to show up each day.
And I honor that.
As a meditation teacher, I have learned that you never have any idea when somebody is going to have a breakthrough in their practice. And I’ve learned that it is not my place to sit in judgment of that. If they keep showing up, it’s because they are trying their very best to stay connected to the Work we are doing. They are trying to do the work. That doesn’t mean I coddle them or shield them from the natural and logical consequences of their own actions and choices. I don’t. But I have learned — from my own experience and from my experiences with them — that If they can experience radical acceptance in just one small corner of their lives, they are more likely to connect with something essential and drop down into the state of mind and emotional determination it takes for a person to do the real and actual Work.
Something I have noticed this year at my new school is that I do a very effective job of reaching these students most teachers find most unreachable. In his workshops, Dan Meyer asks teachers about these students, referring to them as “unteachables.” Then he points out that this very terminology is a fixed mindset approach and tries to snap teachers out of classifying them in this way.
I have never thought of these students as “unteachable.” I experience them as being completely and utterly unavailable to engage at a given moment in time.
For whatever reason — trauma, emotional problems, fear, or other issues — they are so strongly “defended” against perceived intrusions they are genuinely not available emotionally to engage in the active Work of learning. Their defense mechanisms get in the way of their engaging in an ordinary way with mathematics.
But that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.
Sometimes I wonder if it is not crucial for them to experience space in the math classroom to just be present without being judged. I wonder if sometimes they just need a wide space of acceptance to wander around lost in in order to relax into becoming available to learn.
All students are more likely to find their voice as learners in an atmosphere of radical acceptance. My teacher, Dr. Fred Orr, used to talk about the power of allowing. Allowing is a form of creating space for multiple abilities and multiple intelligences to manifest in whatever way they need to find their way into the world. But this requires that we value those multiple abilities in an authentic way. We cannot just pay lip service to them.
I may never know what is shifting for this student, but I feel that it is my duty as a teacher to create space for him to find his voice and his footing in the world.
It feels good to have this practice of radical acceptance bear fruit. It feels good to hear a colleague bear witness to the power of radical acceptance.
May all our students find their own inner source of radical self-acceptance so that they can become empowered citizens and persons of power.