There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance. (Socrates)
When a teacher faces a new class at the beginning of the school year, he (she) sees 25 bodies belonging to girls and boys. Some are thin, some fat, others are tall, or short, but the main information, the one the teacher really needs, is hidden from sight. A good instructor will make sure he finds out what’s going on before the first month is over. Learning each name is essential, of course, to set up a good relationship with the youngsters; but more important is getting to know as much as possible about their life experiences at this stage of their existence.
A good example is a boy we’ll call John: He seemed normal until the day he got really mad at the teacher, screaming at her in front of the whole class. Her first reaction was to send the student to the principal, where he would be punished accordingly. But Ms. Jones was an experienced teacher; she knew something was wrong with John, so she called the mother and asked for a conference. It turned out that John suffered from a light form of autism and did not know how to confront opposition from another person. The school had not detected the disability as yet as John was extremely intelligent and aced all his tests.
A pensive student
Some disabilities are not as easy to detect; case in point, Aaron, a real case whose name has been changed, often fell asleep in one of my classes and failed to pay attention to instructions when awake. I took him outside and had a man-to-man talk (he is 18). He told me a heart-wrenching story: drunk, abusive father and a harassed mother who tried hard to educate him and his three siblings. He had to take a job flipping burgers after school and often got home after midnight. He was exhausted and hungry as his mother had almost nothing in the refrigerator in the morning. The little money he made barely paid for rent and utilities. I connected him with a community outreach program that has been helping him and the family with food, clothing, and daycare ever since.
It’s easy for a bad teacher to simply give his lesson and forget about his students’ needs. That is not education, it’s instruction; anybody can do that. A great educator will spend free time to talk to parents, counselors, and other teachers to learn as much as possible about each and every student. Lessons must be tailored to individual needs; for example, some students are too shy to ask questions in class. A mediocre teacher will fail to detect the reason behind their apparent passivity and will reward only those who participate.
I consider every student as a special needs child; we all have some type of academic disability; it’s just a matter of finding out what it is in each case. A close relationship between parents and teachers will help detect why Johnny is not doing well in English. For example, a few of my students came to this country recently and have not yet mastered our language. Others were born here but the family only spoke Spanish and only watched Spanish TV channels. When the home environment is not propitious to learning, I cannot expect my students to do their homework. They may have quarreling parents, or 3 or 4 very young siblings they have to care for because mother is working. Whatever the reason, I have to adapt my teaching to every student’s personal needs.
Educating is a never-ending process, just as learning is a life-long adventure.