Teaching tip: Be generous in your assessment of others (and yourself)

It is not hard to recall those first weeks of school! The classroom Bryan entered was a fun place – if perhaps a little chaotic, directed by a teacher who was definitely still learning the ropes. His classmates were a young, Caucasian, third-grader with significant physical and cognitive impairments but a keen awareness of his world, a beautiful blonde and green-eyed kindergartener with a propensity for biting her teachers and peers, and a tiny Hispanic second grader with crooked teeth, Down Syndrome and an astonishing ability to wrap me around her little finger.

Bryan’s foster sister, Nicola, brought her own excitement to the room. Older and taller, with beautiful caramel skin and wild hair that spoke to her mixed-race heritage, she was an instant leader to my other students. She moved in quick, lumbering steps, and was equal parts endearment and stubbornness!

Both Bryan and Nicola were survivors of unimaginable abuse and neglect – the details of which I avoided reading for at least a year, hoping to shield myself from their past and focus instead on their futures. Both children’s biological mothers lived in a nearby city, both mothers had multiple run-ins with the law, and both children had been subjected to the impersonal efficiencies of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). They had been separated from their siblings and bounced around in a system which makes no effort to communicate with children with severe intellectual disabilities (or even to attempt to understand the impacts of a disability separately from the impacts of abuse and neglect).
None of the children in my classroom could communicate verbally or toilet independently. I was minimally prepared, naive, and eager to give 110% every day to serve these students. I remember staying at school until late at night after Bryan and Nicola’s first day, making sure that they had picture schedules, cubbies, and all the brightly-colored, laminated paraphernalia that accompanied membership in our class.

My team of paraprofessionals was warm and welcoming, and they collectively recalled decades of experiences at John Green. As a newly trained teacher I was programmed to see only the best in my students and their families and to tune out rumors of "nightmare parents" (I strive to continue to maintain generous expectations but am certainly more calloused today). In those first weeks of school, my para's knew about Mr. and Ms. Long's foster home. They shared that they had worked with children from the Long residence and sensed we would have trouble. I should have paid more attention to their premonitions, though years of experience still have not taught me what I could have done differently.