People ask me all the time why I became a teacher.
I don’t like staying in one place too long. I am not a morning person, and things like spreadsheets, color coding, rules, and inspirational charts give me a headache.
I am non-neurotypical, meaning my brain works a little differently than most.
I’ve never said this out loud before, but balancing parenting and teaching during this pandemic has made me think about things like access and visibility in a new way.
In school, I was that kid. On my first day of first grade, I was standing on tables and throwing things at the teacher, and before the end of the day I was sitting in the principal’s office. The secretary led me to a chair too big for a six year old. I had to climb up and I remember thinking how the floor was so far from my feet.
Nathan came to my classroom as a first grader. He was new to the Ella Baker School, the Manhattan school where I teach. One of the first days we worked together he got mad about what was in his lunch and threw it across the room. The yogurt opened up and splattered on my face. All of the children in the class waited for my response. Nathan waited, terrified, knowing he had gone too far. He tucked in his shirt and straightened up a bit as he waited for me to send him out of the classroom.
I remember waiting, too. I waited every day to be sent out of the room, and I waited for something else: for someone to understand how frustrated and lost I felt in school. How there were too many rules for me to follow and too many ways to mess up and get in trouble in a day.
I wiped the yogurt off my face, turned towards Nathan and said, “You know I really can’t stand strawberry yogurt. I really wish if you were going to hit me with yogurt you would at least choose my flavor.”
“What’s your flavor?” Nathan asked.
“I’ll tell you after you clean this up, and we find you something to eat.” He cleaned it up promptly, and didn’t leave my side for the next three years.
When Nathan was upset he crumpled up papers, wrote curse words across blackboards, and lashed out at the closest person to him. I quickly understood that although he had been ridiculed and penalized for his behavior, Nathan had never been given the strategies he needed to thrive in a classroom setting. He could not self regulate, control his impulses, remember relevant information or follow through on assignments and directions. He had also never been asked what motivated him? What books did he like to read? What was his favorite animal? What was something he wished his teachers knew about him?
The first time I asked Nathan these questions, he looked at me and said, “Why are you asking me all of this?” “Because I want to know you, Nathan. Is that okay?” I asked. “Sure. Yeah. Do you want to know what my second favorite animal is too?”
That was the day Nathan became the class hermit crab expert. He cleaned the tank diligently every week, made sure they were kept hydrated, and brought new shells from home his mom let him order off of Amazon. Caring for our class pets helped Nathan learn to complete and follow through with tasks. Our mindful meditation every day after lunch helped him learn to regulate his own emotions. The noise-canceling headphones and fidgets helped with his focus. The stopwatch and walks between activities gave him autonomy.
The answer is simple. I became a teacher to help children like me.
At 16, I was diagnosed with ADHD, an auditory processing disorder, and PTSD from a traumatic burn injury as a young child. For years, my teachers would tell me how much potential I had, and how my IQ did not match my performance, work accountability, and behavior. I was tested, questioned, punished, sent to the office and isolated from other students. In third grade, my teacher placed a huge green screen around me every day to separate me from the “well behaved” students.
It wasn’t until middle school that a teacher took the time to ask me questions that mattered: What did I love to do? What made me happy? What could he do to make me feel good in school? He gave me descriptive encouragement building on my strengths, interests, and individual learning style. This type of differentiated instruction is a part of my own teaching practice today. I have never met a student who does not have something they are willing to work hard for.
Mr. Jackson was my teacher again in high school. He was the first teacher to tell me I was a gifted writer with my own story to tell. He introduced me to Alice Walker, Dostoyevsky, Audre Lorde, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Octavia Butler, and too many other great writers to recount. He taught me that I could find my voice and work through my trauma by writing and that the labels did not define me.
My life changed the moment I became visible to just one teacher. It wasn’t a quick fix. It was still hard to navigate each school day, but once I was seen, really seen, I thrived.
My next great teacher was Mary Hebron, a professor in the “Art of Teaching” graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She introduced me to bell hooks, Eleanor Duckworth, Vivian Paley, Beverly Daniel Tatum, Jonathan Kozol, and many other great authors and progressive educators. In class Mary taught us about the process of learning by doing as the heart of education. Hebron said that educators should teach children to be critical thinkers. She taught us that we were not only teachers but educational reformers. We resist the standardization and mechanization of public education, she said, and empower every one of our students to find their voices.
Today Nathan, whose name I changed to protect his privacy, is in fourth grade and is excelling, even during a pandemic. There are so many people who came together to help find the “right recipe” of learning for this talented and charismatic student. I feel confident that I was one of them.
I’ve been a teacher for 20 years, and every day feels like a new beginning. I wish I had someone when I was in elementary school to tell me that I was going to be okay, that I had important things to say and that my voice mattered. I can’t change the past, but I can be that teacher for my students today.
Ilan Weissman is a nonbinary multimedia artist, educational reformer, teacher and TGNB (Transgender & Nonbinary) child advocate. For 20 years, Ilan has been a teacher at the Ella Baker School, a progressive school in Manhattan. She is a classically trained musician, a creative technologist, and is a semifinalist for the FLAG Award for Teaching Excellence.