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Label JARS, not people...My story continued...

So what’s a girl to do? You’ve got a group of 27 first graders who all need every ounce of support and guidance you’ve got. You’ve also got a student who is blind, a

few with ADHD (diagnosed), a couple with ADD (undiagnosed, well, diagnosed by you), some past trauma that you know of in a few students that you’ve heard from previous teachers, perhaps a kiddo that might be emotionally disturbed, and one with ASD. Then you’ve got some big behaviors. A couple that refuse to do any work, one that steals things from other kids, blurting, running out of the room, I mean, the list could go on and on. But we were great. I had all my fun little sayings, and our expectations, and I knew how and when to push the whole fair and equitable piece and when to let things go to keep the peace. I even was able to make a huge connection with my student who was blind. I’m telling you, we were THRIVING. And then a few months into the school year, a new student joined us. This kiddo was from another country, and I was told didn’t speak much English. The reality, this child didn’t speak their home language, and they most definitely didn’t speak any English, they didn’t speak at all. There were screams, and hums, and what sounded like something being said on repeat, but there definitely wasn’t anything that I could comprehend coming out of this child. And there was pinching, and screaming, and screeching, and eloping. So now what? Where do you go from there?

I’m telling you all this because THIS is teaching. This is our reality. This happens oh so often, and our teachers have not been TAUGHT what to do. It’s scary for them. Most teachers go into teaching thinking that all their little ducks are going to sit politely and quietly in a row. That they’re going to listen to us for hours upon hours during the day, and they’re going to love sitting at their desks reading and writing for lengths of time. They’re all going to raise their hands to speak, and when we put them in groups to work together, the project is flawless and perfect and everyone got along the whole time. Is this reality? I think not.

The reality is that kids don’t want to sit down and listen to their teacher for long periods of time. They don’t always raise their hands to speak. They don’t always get along with their peers. I mean, if you’re in first grade, they usually argue over who gets to hold the piece of paper, or tap a button on the iPad. And when you send them off to work independently, you’ve got kids who just keep sitting. There’s no work being produced. They just sit there. That’s the reality.

Again, so now what? Where do you go from there?

I remember after that year, I thought, “Good Luck 2nd grade teachers! You’re gonna need it!” But it wasn’t luck that they needed. They needed help. They needed strategies. They needed guidance. They needed coaching. They needed someone to support them every single day. And did they get it? No. They got all of us trying to help them. Trying to offer up suggestions. Trying to use the PBIS and Check In Check Out stuff that teachers and administrators have always done. And did that work? No. Instead I now was seeing my previous students, my kiddos with Autism, ADHD, ADD, Dyslexia, anxiety, and trauma fall apart. They were running down the halls screaming. They were chewing on their shirts because of the severe anxiety. They were yelling at their teachers. And guess what, their teachers were yelling back at them. It was a storm. It was chaos. And no one knew what to do.

But I knew in my heart I needed to do SOMETHING. I couldn’t go back to that school year and help my previous students. But maybe there was a way to impact their futures.

I decided to go to our Speech and Language Pathologist at my school site. I thought that maybe if she was seeing my kids with Autism, maybe I could take whatever she was doing in her small groups, and somehow bring it into my classroom to support ALL my students. Spoiler alert, THIS was it. This was the magic. And at the time I didn’t know just how magical it would turn out to be, but I’m telling you, it was a DREAM.

So she showed me some books, and I went home that night with an armful of pure gold.

I opened up Social Thinking’s We Thinkers Curriculum Volume 1 and I couldn’t put the stuff down. I had all my flair pens out, and my hand could not, would not, write fast enough. I had drawings of ideas of posters and anchor charts I could make, I was thinking about the tone of my voice or ways to incorporate these things instead of other things I was saying or doing, and I knew that it was going to work. I could feel it. And I wanted to do it all.

Instead of expecting my students to know how to work with their peers, I was going to teach them the expected behaviors. Instead of lecturing my students after doing something inappropriate, we were going to have classroom conversations about the social-emotional chain reaction. And instead of forcing my students to “Ask 3 Before Me” when they didn’t know what to do or where to go, I would tell them to “Think with their Eyes.”

My brain was going a million miles a minute. I was so excited about this new way of talking to my students. It was a way that they could understand. It was their language. It was simple, easy to digest, and oh so beautiful. I could reinforce everything with picture books, and bring it into everything that we did, ALL DAY LONG.

Then I looked at The Zones of Regulation. Instead of expecting my students to regulate their emotions on their own, I was now going to talk about feelings. And it didn’t stop there. I was also going to talk about the strategies that they could use to support themselves when they were experiencing all of these emotions. We were going to check in to see how we were feeling throughout the day, and we were going to choose strategies to support ourselves. We’d create a toolbox together, and use visuals to remind ourselves of our strategies and tools throughout the day.

I’m telling you, the excitement I had when I first started bringing these things into my classroom was incredible. And then when it started working??? I could barely contain myself.

I went into that Speech Room hundreds of times to tell our SLP all of the incredible things that were happening, all of the changes that were occurring in my students, and all the changes that were happing in ME.

I was calm. My students were taking care of each other. There was less arguing, less frustration, more support, and can you believe it….even more happiness. I mean, I thought we had a little family and community in my classroom BEFORE, but I’m telling you this was a whole different level of connectedness.

My kids were finally being TAUGHT the skills they needed. I met was meeting them where they were at in all academic areas, but I was also giving them the strategies and tools they needed to support themselves socially and emotionally as well. And it was magic.

So what’s a girl to do? Keep it to yourself? Let this group of students go on to the next grade, and then try to teach their teachers these strategies? OR do you try to teach them BEFORE these kids go on to those teachers?

I knew I needed to get the word out. So I went to my principal. I asked if I could share some strategies with my colleagues at our next staff meeting. And want to know what the response was? It was no. It was this is not the time to share.

Not the time to share? I mean, it was the end of the school year. And everyone is always super busy. But I mean, behaviors are still happening all down the hallways. Teachers are still going home drained, depleted, and frustrated each day. And lunch time in the staff lounge? THAT was even exhausting to be around.

But I didn’t stop. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. I knew that I needed to reach my peers. I had to help them BEFORE they got their new group of kids the following year. So I did what anyone on a mission would totally do, I emailed our Director of Education. I emailed our Director of Special Education. I emailed anyone working at the District Office that had come in my classroom before and I thought would give me the time of day. And I did what any normal teacher would do, I, of course, cc’d my principal on all the emails. Totally fine and normal, right? Yikes.

Now I can’t say that this decision didn’t bite me in the butt a little bit. It for sure did. And I’m pretty sure I was scolded a bit by my principal, BUT did I get what I wanted? YES. I had one of our Teachers on Special Assignment who worked at the District Office come in and observe me talking about feelings and tools with my class, AND I was given 30 minutes to talk about some easy phrases and systems that my colleagues could use in their classrooms at our final staff meeting for the year.

But I was ready for more. I knew it could be bigger. It could be more. And taking it across all classrooms, supporting my colleagues, and reframing the way we worked with and taught our students was next.

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Kim Gameroz is a change agent for schools and districts who seek to revolutionize classrooms by taking on a systematic approach to teaching social and emotional skills.

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