She looks to be in her late 20s. Her hair is neat, her clothing reserved. She sits at a table in the lunchroom of a Pasco County elementary school, her face expressive, her hands gesturing constantly. I strain to listen to the conversation she is not attempting to hide.
"We've been through this before with this student, but I keep thinking there is something we missed. I know we can do better with this kid. He's able to do the work, he just needs..." Someone opens the door from the serving line and the sound from a hundred kids with trays of food intervenes.
The following week I sit in a lunchroom of a different school. I am at a table with four teachers; the conversation is vaguely familiar. They are experienced veterans who have devoted their lives to teaching kids. The topic is another student – a girl in the third grade has been acting out, disrupting the class – and the need to find a more challenging option to improve her interest in the work.
I am new at this. I am a substitute teacher trying to continue the education in each classroom I am assigned. My many years in business and health care prior to my retirement, my undergraduate degree in accounting and my master's degree in finance should have qualified me to teach the third grade, I thought. Instead, I struggle each day and find I need every skill I can muster to keep up with the students.
This will never be a job. This is a privilege, working alongside these extraordinary people and teaching each precious child. My mind goes back to my own elementary school. I remember my teachers well, how they looked, spoke and talked to me. I know they worked hard too, and served many children over many years. But it was a different time. Post-war America had little time for kids or people with special needs. Diagnostic testing was in its infancy. Today, schools, children and families are more complex.
Those two early conversations I was fortunate to hear are just a sample of the conversations that go on daily in every classroom and every lunchroom in the Pasco County School District. The interactions between teachers, administrators and specialists are non-stop. Some students get individual education plans and others a periodic work adjustment from one class to the next. The educators want to make the most of the children's potential and to help those who would have been left behind in the classrooms of yesterday. It is a startling experience to see the energy and effort teachers here put into their everyday work to help each child succeed.
I have been in a classroom with 12 children working hard to cope with autism. They look forward to a 10-minute break when they may pursue an activity of their own choosing. It has been a hard day for some. Outbursts are common, as they quarrel over the most trivial slights between them. The teacher remains calm, reminding each child of the class rules and the need to be kind to each other. The lessons of the day went well, for the most part. One boy inexplicably seems to have forgotten the last six months of work he has done in math.
He did well, initially, but now seems confused, and is resisting the necessary review that would bring him back to his previous level. It is a mystery. Another child is having his best day in weeks, providing hope and a measure of cheer for the teacher.
It is the end of the school year. But, this teacher, like so many others, faces a classroom where obstacles from the outside world frustrate the progress of her students. She does so with such bravery and passion, that only another teacher could understand her commitment and her alacrity.
For her students, there is always tomorrow, another day, another opportunity.
Vaughn Jones of Odessa is a member of the Florida Writer's Association.