First Conference

Wednesday was my first time on the parent side of the conference table. All week, and especially that day, the parent-teacher conference — an event I’ve led as a teacher countless times with minimal anxiety — loomed like a hellish nightmare. I was horribly nervous.

Now, my son is a darling child. He’s fully loaded with creativity, curiosity, and intelligence. He’s bright and articulate. He’s kind and generally obedient. Helpfulness is metaphorically his middle name. In short, he’s a joy. And his teacher is gentle, empathetic, filled with enthusiasm, and knows just how to deal with Niko and his idiosyncrasies. I couldn’t have made a better teacher-student match if I’d drafted a list of desirable qualities and conducted a search with background checks and in-depth interviews.

But. But, I’ve seen Niko with other kids, on the playground as well as instructional settings. I’ve watched as he turns in circles on his bottom while other kids gather to hear the soccer coach’s instructions. I’ve seen him rummaging through the coach’s bag while the other kids chase enthusiastically after the soccer ball. Watched him bounce eagerly up to a startled child on a playground, expecting to be welcomed into a private game.

At home, I see him make baffling switches between calmness and manic silliness. He forgets instructions halfway across the room on his way to doing what he was told. His impulsiveness can be startling and disturbing.

And I’ve listened as his teacher praises him at pickup time. “He sat quietly all the way through meeting time!” she’ll exclaim with pride. Or, “Niko lined up calmly!” Or, “He sat and did an art activity – and FINISHED it!” “He did such a good job keeping his body calm!”

What I hear as she gives this good news is, This is not typical. Usually he’s running around like a crazy wild thing. Isn’t it wonderful that he managed to have a normal moment? Now, she’s never said anything to suggest that this might be the case. But, still. I worry.

At the beginning of the year, I shared some concerns — these, and others –with Niko’s teacher. She listened and promised to watch for signs of problems. I know this is why she makes such a point of giving me a good report. But, still — I worry.

At conference time, we sit at the table as she shows me examples of his work. She discusses his academic prowess. Describes how he loves meeting time. (He does?!) Tells how adept he is with letters and sounds. How he always knows the answer whenever there’s a question. How great he is at touch-counting, and how he loves using her pointer to count objects in the room. He excels at following pictured instructions — the only child in the class with this ability.

And there’s more. I learn that he likes to stand at the whiteboard scribbling and drawing while narrating what he’s doing to the children who gather to watch. He likes to assemble objects into person or animal shapes on the floor — although when the others flock to first watch in fascination, then to contribute to the shape, he quietly walks away. (I know which parent that comes from. Not me.) He helps other children and has learned to ask before hugging.

I’m a bit puzzled. This description of an engaging, cooperative (except for the shape thing), almost charismatic child isn’t really what I expected. I think back to a day closer to the beginning of school, when I saw him throw a ball directly at another child’s chest, almost knocking him down. Then he rushed to another child and pushed her tricycle. Flung his arms around a third child unexpectedly, triggering startled tears.

“Have you seen any more of that aggressive behavior?” I ask tentatively, reminding her of the ball incident.

“Aggressive? No, never!” She’s shocked. Then ponders. “There was another little boy here at that time.” Her lips tighten, and an unfamiliar expression flits across her face — could it be a frown? It looks out of place on her cheerful, calmly-smiling face, but it’s gone almost instantly. “He’s not with us any more,” she adds. “He did a lot of hitting and pushing. Niko saw that and tried it out that day. He was just learning how to interact, and when he saw that it wasn’t a useful method, he stopped.”

Actually, I’ve been seeing changes myself: welcoming calls from other children when he arrives, sweet good-bye hugs when he leaves. He’s been bringing completed work home, telling us what he learned each day. Generally speaking, he’s acting like a typical preschooler. Not like a child with concerning problems of focus and attention. I’ve chalked this up to his teacher being an excellent manager, helping to smooth his way in the classroom. But maybe — just possibly — it’s him? Could it be that, all on his own, he’s learning to interact with others and function in a classroom? I’m not downplaying his teacher’s influence — I’ve watched her explicitly teach him how to approach others, help him find words to use. And it seems that he is learning what she’s teaching.

Why have I been so worked up about this? Well, I was diagnosed with ADHD around the age of thirty. I’ve always thought that an earlier diagnosis would have made my life a bit easier. The strategies I’ve learned as an adult to deal with my difficulties would have saved so much trouble if I’d had them when I was younger. And I’ve taught children with ADHD — many with a far more extreme case than my own. Their passage through school is not easy. A diagnosis makes it easier, because even the most hardnosed teacher is expected to help a diagnosed child by explicitly teaching time management, focus, and impulse control strategies. If all else fails, there’s medication — the approach that saved me my job and, I’m pretty sure, my sanity.

Our son just turned four. It is, to speak plainly, ridiculous to attempt a diagnosis of ADHD with a child this age. I know this. I’ve taken the requisite classes in child development and have both observed and worked with this age group. I know that inattentiveness and impulsivity are par for the course. But my anxiety about myself, combined with my realization that his behaviors were at the high end of the scale for kids in his age group, made me think the worst. I didn’t trust our brilliant, unique child to learn and adapt on his own.

Here’s what I’m now reminding myself. Niko is himself. He is not me. Even if it turns out, someday, that he has ADHD, there’s no reason to think he’ll experience it like I do. And I should know, better than anybody, that ADHD does not have to be crippling. In many cases, people with ADHD are extremely successful once they learn to channel their energy and manage their impulses. It’s unfair to project my insecurities and fears onto Niko.

Now I have a simple goal. Let Niko be Niko. Let him learn for himself what his strengths and weaknesses are, and learn how to improve his weak areas and maximize his strengths.

For all my pre-event anxiety, I guess that terrifying parent-teacher conference was a excellent use of thirty minutes.

Why Teach?

Right now I’m a stay-at-home mom. But I’m also a teacher, or was before we moved from Alaska to Oregon and saved so much money on housing that we only slightly miss the absence of my paycheck, and I plan to be again sometime in the next few years. I guess it’s safe to say that I’ll always be a teacher. That’s just who I am. Just ask my 4-year-old. He still wonders where Mommy’s school is, a year and a half after moving away from our home in Anchorage.

 Here is a piece I wrote back in 2010, before Niko was born. It’s an honest look at how it feels to be in the classroom each day with what often feels like very little return – until That Moment. This is why I teach.

Not long ago, a young friend who thinks she wants to teach asked me what it’s really like to be in the classroom. I was honest — maybe too honest. I told her about the long hours of work (50 to 80 per week, in my case), taking only a few short, begrudged, guilt-laden breaks on weekends between bouts of grading and planning. I told her of the frustrations of feeling that the required curriculums and government-mandated tests and paperwork and bureaucracy all combine to make it less likely, rather than more likely, that students will achieve. I added that while I love the teaching part of the day, I spend easily half my time filing paperwork and performing meaningless tasks that have nothing to do with helping my students learn.

“Is it actually worth it?” she wondered. I had just finished my first week back after a wonderful summer, and I hadn’t met my students yet, so my response reflected my own doubt as I assured her that yes, indeed, it is. Really. Truly. Pinkie swear.

And it is. Sure. There are wonderful, delightful, fulfilling moments in every day. There are the spontaneous hugs for no apparent reason – even in fifth grade, where I spent two years, but especially in second grade. There are priceless comments, questions, and observations from these young minds for which I can take no credit, but still gain enjoyment from. That look of wonder — “You really think that about me?” when I pleaded with a boy to take the test for our gifted program: a boy who suffered from ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and genius. The look of amazed joy on his face when he qualified, as I knew he would, and the change in his attitude afterward. The dawning light on a little face when for the first time they glimpse the myriad shifting patterns in a simple addition/subtraction grid. A class of students which, when I gave them half an hour of free art time at the end of the day because I Needed Some Time (I’m not ashamed to admit it) to finish entering some data before the deadline clubbed me over the head, spent their own gift of time making me adorable, crumpled, painstakingly scrawled cards and gifts. Yes, it is worth it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but it is.

More recently, another friend who is in the first stages of UAA’s education program appealed to me for a little help finishing a paper with a specific page requirement. The topic, naturally, was “Why Do I Want to Be a Teacher?” I gave her some worthwhile advice: Try adjusting the margins and the font just a teeny, itty-bitty bit – just not enough to attract notice and inspire your professor to check the paper’s settings. That could buy you a little space. Try plugging in a couple of stories in the intro and referring to them in the conclusion. That’ll give you at least another half-page, maybe a whole page… And as I gave her this highly valuable advice (and I hope she remembers it, because it’s gotten me A’s on many a paper), I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. Of course, I couldn’t tell her why she wanted to be a teacher — only she could do that. But couldn’t I at least have shared with her some of my own triumphs and joys? Maybe given her a little glimpse of the inspiration that keeps me going? Because I do love teaching. And it is worth it. Really. Come on, it is.

By the way, I hope she keeps that essay. I hope she saves it on every computer she encounters, on flash drives, external hard drives, discs, the Cloud, and whatever method of saving data the future brings. I hope she prints it and frames it and hangs it where she has to see it every day. For two reasons. First, she will be submitting that same essay so many times she will feel like she is vomiting her words onto a screen repeatedly. I guarantee she will need that essay at least five times over the course of her college education and even more times throughout her career. Secondly, and more seriously, there are moments when you wonder: Why am I doing this? And the reminder that there was once a younger, more energetic, more eager you, whose ideals had not yet begun to tarnish, is invaluable. There will be days that she will absolutely need that reminder. Days at the end of an 80-hour work week when the weekend looms ahead of you menacingly, beckoning you to try to Do Everything I Didn’t Get Done This Week: go ahead, try it, I dare you…Mwahahaha. Moments when you read articles labeling teachers as lazy and greedy and you want to cry, knowing how much time and energy and love you give these children and how unlikely it is that these authors will ever have any comprehension of what you do. Meetings with parents who think you aren’t doing enough to keep their underachieving child challenged, who can’t understand that you can’t excuse a child from regular classroom work because it’s “too easy” when you have seen no actual evidence of his ease at completing the work, meetings that conclude with the assurance that you are indeed lazy and greedy. Yes, she should keep that essay. She’ll need it.

I’ve been thinking about these two friends and wishing I had expressed more sincerity in my promises that “it’s worth it.” Wondering if I’m getting burned out without realizing it. Longing for that old feeling of apprehensive self-assuredness I once had: “I’m going to change the face of teaching. I don’t know how, but I will. I’ll be different.”

And then, yesterday, I gave a spelling test to my second-graders. I reminded them of the importance of Being Silent During Tests. I assured them that if anyone was unable to remember this, I would help them by Taking Away Their Test. And then I gave the first word: fox. Papers rustled, pencils scratched, desks squeaked as the little fingers busily and proudly wrote the word. In the midst of this busy silence, a voice erupted: “Mrs. Malapanis! Mrs. Malapanis! I wrote the spelling word! I wrote fox!”

Heads turned, eyes looked accusingly at this child whose face was a beacon of hope, joy, and pride. Her smile glowed like a lighthouse’s flame. Faces turned back to me as they waited expectantly for me to Take Away Her Test. But all I could do was smile mistily back at her and say, “Oh, sweetie, I am so proud of you. Let me see.” And she had indeed written fox — a word that any second grader, most first graders, many kindergarteners, and I dare say a few preschoolers could have written. I hugged her as I once again assured her how happy I was at her accomplishment.  And I did not Take Her Test Away. Because this child had come to me six weeks previously unable to identify the letters in her own name. She had had no idea that groups of letters separated by spaces were words. She hadn’t known that we read and write words moving across the page from left to right. This little girl had barely been able to hold a book correctly. But today, she wrote fox. All on her own. She heard the word, recalled the letters that made the sounds, wrote them, and read the word she’d written. She had an epiphany. When you’re having an epiphany, the threat of Having Your Test Taken Away is as nothing. She wrote a word and she wanted the world to know.

And her teacher was having an epiphany at the same time.

Yes, it is worth it. Nothing will ever take away the joy of that moment.  It’s worth it. Thanks to that little girl, I finally remembered why I’m doing this.  She is the reason that I Want To Be a Teacher.