33: Bonus Pay

33: Bonus Pay

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

Bonus Pay

Don’t live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.

~Wendy Wasserstein

Most of my students with special needs had neurological problems that affected their language processing and communication skills. Danny did not, but he was having such behavioral issues that my supervisor asked me to give him a chance in my classroom.

When I reviewed Danny’s records, I understood why he might act out. There was no way he could keep up with the sixth grade curriculum. He could barely read or write. He was still printing his name, refused to even try to write a sentence, and recognized only a few words. His first response when asked to try something was belligerence.

Once he understood that I would quietly persist, with the gentlest of encouragement and a firm belief that he could do the task, he stopped the belligerence. Instead, his shame and embarrassment surfaced. I decided to leave the textbooks behind and focus on real-world examples, like street signs and fast-food restaurant vocabulary. Danny was quietly pleased that he could finally understand menu-board words and not have to order by picture, by what someone else was having, or by using words from television commercials.

I remember the day I informed him he could read more than100 words. He did not believe it until he sat down and counted out the 4x6 homemade word cards himself. He allowed me to share this victory with his classmates, and their joy and pride in him chipped away at his defensive shell. That was the day he became a true member of our class.

It was evident he had a kind heart. Some of his classmates had balance difficulties, and he always seemed to be right there to catch them as they tipped. I noticed that he watched them carefully and could assist them so discreetly that an outside observer might not even notice the bobble. Danny knew what it was like to be singled out and teased, so he helped other kids avoid the same fate.

I assigned him to help our youngest students, always positioning him as an expert. He’d sit with students who were reading along with a book on tape. He was there to set up the recorder, matching the title on the tape and books to the assignment card I gave him. He never realized that as he helped the younger kids read along, he was reading, too. It gladdened my heart to see him slip into that center during free time and listen to one of the books himself.

The boy who wanted nothing to do with books suddenly liked a few. I arranged for him to practice one, The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, until he could read it perfectly and with great drama. Then I had him read it to a group of preschool students. When he returned to our classroom with a thank-you certificate in his hands, he had a swagger in his walk and a huge smile on his face. He radiated confidence. He asked me to laminate that certificate, and he kept it taped to his desktop.

I only had to show him once how to set up the learning center for math activities, and he took over the job. He loved having the markers sorted and in cups, the paper stacked, and the manipulatives set up before I could even ask. Danny was better with numbers; he could do basic addition and subtraction, but refused to even attempt multiplication. Nothing budged him until I told him it was a fast way of adding. “I already can add, but I’d like to be fast!” was his response, and we were off and running.

At the end of the first grading period, when I called his mother and identified myself as Danny’s teacher, her response was a surly “Now what?” I explained I wanted to share that he was doing well, and I was delighted he was in my class. There was a long pause, and with a catch in her voice, she said, “No one from school has ever called me to tell me something good.” With a catch in my voice, too, I told her she could expect more calls like this. The next day, Danny greeted me with a wide grin. “You called my mama, and she was happy!”

Danny continued to blossom, becoming in many ways my teacher’s aide. One day each week, my class and I went into the community. Once, while riding the Regional Transit Authority bus on a field trip, he reached over and took off my glasses. I am extremely nearsighted, and without my glasses the world is a blur. “These are dirty,” he said. He proceeded to spit on each lens and wipe them clean with his shirt. When he tenderly placed them back on my face, my vision remained blurred for a bit — maybe from residual spit, or maybe from my unshed tears.

On the last day of school, we had a party and awards ceremony for the students moving on to junior high. Danny had made so much progress in his one year with us, and I was looking forward to honoring and celebrating him. I was heartbroken when he didn’t get off the school bus that morning. We wouldn’t even get to say goodbye.

Then around 10:30, I heard all the kids gasp. There was Danny, smiling ear-to-ear, and with him was his mother carrying a sheet cake. They used public transportation to go to the grocery store and buy a cake, and then come to school. This would have involved transferring buses several times, a complicated and time-consuming journey. The class rose as one, enveloping Danny and his mother in a circle of joy and hugs. We all cried: me, Danny, Danny’s classmates, and Danny’s mother. And we all stuffed ourselves full of cake and laughter and thankfulness for one another.

Teaching may not pay me the big bucks, but where else do you get a bonus like that?

~Jude Walsh

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