Taming the Butternut Squash

Why does the lofty sunflower grow so large that the stem can no longer hold the exquisite flower? Why does the intricate sky shows a myriad of different stars every clear night? Why did the butternut squash grow so large this past summer that it tried to obliterate the succulent peppers and tomatoes in its vicinity? Why do teachers never give up on the child who refuses to pick up a pencil and do any work, or who crawls under a desk when it’s time to read? The world of a teacher is full of “whys.” You just solved one puzzle, and the next one emerges. It’s a challenge to meet the needs of the children who come to school every day with a stomach ache. Something is not working for them. One needs to build community for these students, so they can express their fears, anxieties, and joys. It is a lonely world for the child who is bullied on a daily basis, but never wants to let anyone know.

Working in special education, I have been involved in the lives of many of these “aching” children. One is petrified of tests, so we decided to have hot chocolate on the days there are “reviews” (our more gentle replacement word for “test”). This seemed to help create a positive atmosphere around the review. Then one day the little girl entered the classroom, saw her teacher’s mug with something hot in it, and cried, “Oh no, are we having a review?” One child is afraid to talk, while another will contribute orally, but freezes up as soon as a sheet of paper appears in front of him. “I don’t do writing!” a student confessed to me during class, fear in his eyes. We tried chalkboard writing, but the texture of the chalk was a problem. We are still searching for a workable solution. Still other students will not stop talking, so we make rules like, “You may share for four minutes at the beginning of the period, and then it’s my turn to have the floor.” This gives just enough time for the child to describe the woes they experienced during recess, so that they now can think clearly. What then, after all of these different student-by-student accommodations? How do you merrily go ahead with teaching your lesson?

Attending a special education conference recently, I spoke to a colleague about the challenge of getting our students to “produce.” She responded, “Sometimes the lesson changes totally from what I planned to teach. Students come in with a problem, and that has to be solved first, which leads us down an entirely different path.” I felt affirmed when I heard this. Sometimes we get so caught up in the quantitative: How do we monitor the program? What do we do about assessment and evaluation? But I think much better questions are: What impact does our Christian school have on the development of students? How do we bring shalom and peace into the learning environment? How do we bring self-confidence and hope to the struggling student, socially, academically, or emotionally?

The standard marks of achievement, such as a high school diploma or a college or university degree, are not necessarily appropriate for the students I work with. We need to enfold and embrace these learners in our classrooms, in our special education rooms, in our homes, and in our communities. With modified classroom programs, support in reading, math, and writing, and many extra vials of understanding, these students will succeed! I’ve seen it, and that’s the joy of teaching!

Sitting in a coffee shop recently, I was feeling slightly melancholy about my daughter’s departure for graduate school and the dissipation of the last lingering warmth of the summer. Looking up, I saw a gentleman ordering supper. He looked slightly familiar. Upon closer scrutiny, I recognized him as the father of a former student, one who struggled and yet had much untapped potential. I approached the man and asked about his son.

“My son’s great,” the man replied. “He’s finishing high school and was in Sea Cadets this summer and loved it.” He looked at me, and said, “All your hard work paid off.” It took a minute for this to sink in, when I saw his son, Sam, walking slowly toward me. He was obviously feeling shy, but wanted to talk. And talk he did! He shared many details of the last two years of his life, the choices he made, both good and bad, and his goals for the future! He was determined to stick with it.

Listening to him, I was reminded of how I struggled, years ago, to understand his learning style, and how the pieces of his puzzle fit together. Working with him closely for success meant many interviews with parents, many questions at workshops, and much patience and love. Now, years later, it was a joy to see this young man, confident and passionate about where he was going. What a confirmation it was to hear from the parent that, “Yes, Christian education had an impact on my child.” We need to love and understand each child for his or her individuality; our challenge as teachers is to work toward helping that child arrange her pieces in such a way that reflects the true essence of her person. Fortunately, working with these puzzle pieces is a communal effort, with each teacher, parent, and adult in that child’s life entering in to the process with their particular God-given puzzle-solving skills.

One of my current students still hides under the desk to complete his work when he feels the job is outside his comfort zone. Another is trying hard every day to remember her books, pencil case, and calculator. If she remembers two of the three of these, she receives praise. Another is slowly getting used to testing, and finding out there is success. Another writes in her own version of phonetic English, “I em sore wate I dune. It is my follt wuti did ever tim I gent in trubul it is beekus I eme not lisaing.” This reminds me that our children understand themselves in ways we don’t always give them credit for. Impulsive behaviour exists for a reason; we just have to identify what causes the behaviour and how to channel it.

In garden-speak, sure, the unruly squash dominated half of my garden this fall and caused stress to the other vegetables, but I choose instead to focus on the seven bushels of squash I harvested in October. Like a plant, we have to trust that each child’s life will bear fruit in God’s time. Our job as teachers is simply to create the space for that child to flourish as God has planned.