❅ Real-Life Elsa: The Story of Alan*
*Name has been changed.
During the 2008-2009 school year, I was interning and then student teaching in an inner-city middle school in Greensboro, NC. A young boy named Alan transferred to our school in October 2008, and within days of introducing him into our third-period class, we realized we had a troubling situation on our hands.
It wasn't that Alan was a bad kid--he just couldn't sit still, or sit at all. He was constantly up out of his seat, talking to anyone and everyone at lightning speed, fidgeting, and utterly unable to focus on anything...and yet, when we asked him to "please sit down and complete your work," he would reply with, "I'm trying, I'm sorry." He seemed to genuinely want to be a "good student," despite his behavior. We gave him lunch detention and even after-school detention according to our classroom discipline plan, but I absolutely hated doing it--he really didn't seem to deserve it, and it wasn't solving the problem in the slightest.
From Awkward to Weird to Worse
After a couple of weeks of this, my cooperating teacher (basically my mentor while interning and student teaching) finally asked the Exceptional Children Coordinator to come in and observe Alan's behavior, to see what she thought about this. After a couple of observations, the EC coordinator suggested we get in contact with Alan's parents, to see if we could have Alan tested for various learning disabilities and disorders.
Unfortunately, Alan's mother was strongly against this. "Nothing's wrong with my baby boy," she said over and over in the phone call with us. "Nothing's wrong with him. He ain't got any disorder." She insisted Alan was fine and could cope with the normal classroom. Privately, I wondered if she and I were looking at the same kid.
At this point, our hands were legally tied, as his educators. Despite his daily disruptions in third period, we could not move him to another, smaller classroom so he wouldn't disrupt our whole class, or otherwise modify his learning environment without parental permission. Nor could he be diagnosed and medicated for what we were pretty sure was ADHD. It seemed we were absolutely stuck, having to deal with a kid who could not learn in our structured environment, and who kept his 25 other classmates from learning as well.
And then, I had a huge light bulb go off.
The Strangely Awesome Solution
At this point, I have to mention my own physical disability in the classroom. Due to being born with flat feet and weak ankles, as well as having suffered several knee and ankle injuries during college, I could not physically tolerate the pain of standing on hard concrete floors for 7 1/2 hours a day. (No pain relievers, muscle relaxers, or even narcotics can treat this pain--every step sends lightning shocks up my leg, and when I stand for more than 30 minutes, my feet begin to swell, burn, and eventually either go numb or become so intensely painful that I MUST sit down.)
Even with this condition, I powered through first and second period pretty well most days, and relished my 20-minute lunch as much as I could, but by third period every day I usually had to sit down most of the time. Our third period class was rowdy anyway, and Alan's behavior was a constant disruption to boot--I NEEDED to be up and about handling all the behavioral issues, but I was in so much pain by third period that I couldn't do it. (This is one reason I'm a former teacher.)
One day during planning, I was mentally bemoaning this fact, when it occurred to me: I could not physically stand and move around the room in third period, which meant that I had lost much of my authority and could not handle behavioral problems as quickly. I also could not stop Alan from moving around the room. What if Alan could become my legs and feet, doing the tasks which my painful ankles and feet prevented me from doing? What if, instead of punishing Alan for his behavior, I capitalized on his need to move?
I ran this by my cooperating teacher, and though she was dubious about my plan's long-term success, she said it couldn't hurt to try. Thus, in the next class period, after privately conferencing with Alan beforehand, I publicly designated Alan as our class "deputy", passing out papers, taking up homework, collecting trash, sharpening pencils, even handing out lunch detention notes and escorting rowdy students to the "quiet desks" at the front of the classroom. The only things I didn't let Alan do was check in-class assignments for completion and hand back graded work.
The day I debuted this new procedure, I wasn't sure how to handle this--I didn't want the other kids seeing Alan as a "teacher's pet," because this certainly wasn't about any stellar grades or behavior. Finally, I went with complete transparency, and took the first 5 minutes of the class period to explain what was going on.
"There are two reasons I'm having Alan do these classroom tasks," I explained. "First, we have all seen that Alan has a hard time staying still. But you've also seen that I have a hard time standing and walking. So I thought Alan could help me out by doing a lot of the standing and walking for me. This is not a reward, but a workaround. Alan has a lot of energy and I don't--that's all."
The kids seemed to understand...and even though the first day of this new strategy was admittedly rocky, it didn't take long to see the benefits. Alan was calmer and happier when he was seated, knowing that at any moment he could be called upon to help the class out. I was in less pain and could teach better. And the rest of the class learned to appreciate Alan's willingness to help, and by the same token they respected me more as well for having instituted the workaround. Plus, they couldn't cut up as much during class, because all I had to do was get Alan's attention and say, "Alan, please escort [kid's name] to the quiet desk."
As for Alan's personal education, he began to do much better on his classroom assignments, despite the fact that he was up and about so much during class time. I had worried about that, but it seemed that he focused so much better when he knew he'd be given time to move around and be active. He finished classwork early and made better grades than ever on it; he began to take pride in helping run the classroom, even doing odd jobs like sweeping up and straightening bookshelves without being asked. For a twelve-year-old boy, that was saying quite a lot!
Alan's boundless energy had been thought of as a curse, something we had to control; instead, I turned it around and used it for the gift it was, compensating for my own weakness and building up Alan's confidence as a result. I did not get to see the long-term effects of this behavior program, but what I saw in the 3 remaining months I taught him was proof enough that my hunch had been right. Once he was given an outlet for his energy and a place to serve in the classroom, Alan became the good kid he wanted to be and the good kid I knew he could be.