The Behaviour Files: My First Year Teaching

This is the first in a series I’m calling The Behaviour Files, in which I explore ideas, strategies, and experiences educating students identified with behaviour exceptionalities.

You know that annoying first year teacher who is sure that he’s going to change the world and is certain it’s going to be easy? That was me after I signed my first permanent contract with an Ontario school board.

Little did I know at the time that I was in for a massive humbling. My first real full time position was in a self-contained Behaviour/MID (Mild Intellectual Disability)/Autism class of middle school boys. I literally got a full body rash from stress that year.

I came into the year having built my confidence (read swagger) up as a supply and long term occasional teacher. The behaviour gig wasn’t my first choice, but I wasn’t overly distraught over the prospect either. I was simply relieved to have attained a stable flow of income for our then single-income family, and confident in applying the great things I had learned in pre-service training overseas.

That was my first problem; I actually did not receive any training in theory or practice for the needs I was about to encounter.

Although I truly believe my teacher education at the University of Otago and University of Auckland in New Zealand was second to none, giving me a strong foundation in equity, constructivism, and praxis, I wasn’t prepared for the harsh realities of teaching students with such extreme special needs. I didn’t have a skill set for helping children with such dire social problems, and I had no idea how to respond to people kicking, punching, and cursing one another in my classroom. I lost my pedagogical innocence that year.

It’s funny that so many new teachers in Ontario can relate to my experience. You would think that special education is the one area in our field where experience should be valued to a great degree; strangely, green seems to persist as a dominant colour. I think the dominant discourse is a significant culprit in this respect. There is a tone in special education that being there is not desirable. It starts in pre-service training (perhaps even before that) where many young teachers start spreading the ‘you don’t wanna be in special ed.’ word, and reverberates through many of our school corridors and staff rooms. Perception and mindset becomes reality. Strangely, this bias mirrors the experience of many special needs students themselves.

It reminds me of the experience of my wife Janet who is an exceptional Hospitality teacher in Toronto. I often think about how badly my own grade 7 students would love to enter her school kitchen to learn how to bake, decorate cakes, and design their own recipes. However, because of the way our system has been designed, Janet’s course is posited as a destination for struggling, ‘hands on’ learners. Teens enter her class with a history of demotion and deficit glances. Therefore, you would be surprised how much motivating Janet has to do for a group of students that have a very low regard for their own ability to learn. “Here’s this great, exciting, even trendy thing called cooking and baking! But, oh, by the way, it’s for people that aren’t that smart.” How would you feel? Anyway, back to my own troubles.

I made so many mistakes in that first year. Part of the reason for this was because I was so limited in my knowledge. I knew very little about brain research or frontal lobe damage, fetal alcohol syndrome, or autism spectrum disorder. I knew nothing about behaviour modification, particularly because it was demonized in much of the learning I had done. I basically went on the admirable but mistaken assumption that all kids could learn if I just planned some good units and lessons on paper, differentiated instruction, and promoted voice. “Dangerous Minds’ Michelle Pfeiffer ain’t got nothin’ on me,” I figured. Once I realized my picture perfect ideas were being applied in an incorrect way, I experienced something more akin to a shut down than burn out. I remember sitting at my classroom desk one day feeling like a failure, empty.

I now feel like I have something to give back. A decade into parenting three kids, and teaching hundreds of elementary students. I’ve also taught in two different districts, and five different schools. We’ve got a few students with behaviour exceptionalities at my current school and, although only a quarter of my assignment includes special education resource teaching, I want to be a useful for these children, their families, and my colleagues/their teachers.

Stay tuned to my blog as I read and reflect upon literature and research which I’m hoping will help me grow as a teacher of students with behaviour exceptionalities.

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  1. says

    Experiences such as the one you had in your first year is far more valuable than the last 10. It is indeed sobering to say the least. I also believe this is where teachers college fails. So much of its context focuses on the average learner and not so much on students on the margins. As the cliché goes, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.”

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