Somebody Else’s Kids Blog
Tomaso Gonzalez is a 10th grade student in my chemistry class at Howard High School in Texas. I learned through record reviews and conversations with the counselor, the special education teacher and the principal that Tomaso has had a very unstable home life since he was very young. His mother died when he was an infant; when he was five years old, he witnessed his stepmother murder his father and older brother. Tomaso spent many years in and out of various home settings, including more than ten different foster care families and living with an uncle who made him work in the strawberry fields at age seven and later abused him. Unfortunately, Tomaso missed several years of schooling during the course of his countless transitions. He is currently in foster care again, since having been removed from yet another uncle’s home, so this foster family is a new transition for him too.
Tomaso is not mentally or physically disabled, but because of his lack of attendance at school, his inability to confront the reality of his father’s death and his poor anger management, Tomaso has not been able to learn and excel at the rate of a normal child. Thus he has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Tomaso has made some strides, according to everyone else with whom I have spoken, yet he still reads at a 7th grade level and often times refers to his dead father as if he is still alive. In addition, he has an explosive personality which anyone can unknowingly trigger by drawing attention to his shortcomings, including his low skills and his unstable home life, or anything that reminds him of his father. The challenge will be managing Tomaso’s high needs with the needs of the other 25 students (including six other IEP students) in the classroom.
Tomaso needs very personal attention, especially if the assignment requires reading at a high school level or beyond. Often times, I will use science articles from “Newsela.com” because the website offers articles in differentiated format. Thus each student can read the same content at his own reading level. Tomaso’s IEP requires that he sit close to the whiteboard so that he can focus on his work and minimize distractions that may lead him to have an outburst. He uses inappropriate language and often gets into heated arguments with other students and sometimes staff members, which can turn violent. This disrupts the class and takes time away from instruction for everyone. In addition, the major requirement of his IEP is that Tomaso not be expected to learn the same amount of material as his peers because his reading ability is so much lower than the average 10th grade student. He receives additional reading support in his Reading class, which is targeted for his level, but his core content teachers must modify all of his work so that Tomaso only has to complete a portion (85%) of what the other students complete, unless reading is not a major component of the work. Many times, we teachers provide Tomaso with guided notes. This entails giving him pre-copied notes of the lesson with blank spaces for him to fill in along the way. This is to continue to encourage Tomaso and not have him fall into a downward spiral of depression because he cannot accomplish all that the other students can. The goal is that with scaffolding, in time Tomaso will advance to a level close to that of his peers and at a minimum will be able to function as an adult in the world at the time of graduation.
The main drawbacks of providing the accommodations for Tomaso are his pride and his becoming dependent on them. Tomaso does not want the other students to know how much of a deficit he has. He also does not want anyone to highlight his shortcomings. In trying to meet Tomaso where he is, he may get upset if he notices that his work does not exactly match the other students’ work. In addition, the other students themselves may point out that Tomaso receives different assignments. I sometimes have to have a talk with the students and explain that “equal” is not always fair. The students are used to being in classes with students who have IEPs so this does not pose too big of a problem for most students. Also, it is necessary to make sure that Tomaso does not use the modifications as a crutch and begin to lessen his efforts in class. Thus, it is very important that his teachers modify his progress periodically to ensure that he is moving forward.
As his teacher, I can best accommodate Tomaso by realizing first that he is a person not just a statistic. Understanding his plight and having the insight about why he behaves the way he does allows me to have empathy for him and approach him from a less rigid perspective. No matter what he does to try to push me away and make me hate him, I can remain calm in every situation I encounter with him to let him know that his techniques do not work with me and that I care about him. I can offer him time to leave the class to get a drink of water or to take a quick walk to regain his composure if he needs to “cool down.” Because teachers are not allowed to touch students, I could never physically restrain Tomaso, but I could call for additional support from the resource teacher, special education teacher, contract room teacher, or administration if needed to escort him for a walk. Eventually with patience and time, he may grow to “let down his guard” and let me into his world. This may help him to better control his temper.
Upon realizing that Tomaso has a tender side, another strategy is to use flexible grouping and pair Tomaso with other IEP students who also need help with reading. Allowing Tomaso to help other students will give him a bigger purpose and help grow his self-confidence. Giving Tomaso other responsibilities within the classroom will also work to help him remain even-tempered. I might even recommend Tomaso for an after-school program where he mentors and reads to elementary and middle school-aged children. This will boost his confidence greatly and help him form a bond with the younger children who will grow to rely on him.
Some of the personal challenges that making the accommodations might pose for me are that I could easily begin to feel worn down by always feeling like I have to fight with Tomaso and working hard to not lose face in front of the other students if I ever get into a disagreement with Tomaso. Even though I need to appear calm on the outside, I will still feel the agitation of the situation on the inside. I will need to continue with coping strategies such as breathing exercises, being extra nice to Tomaso, giving him positive reinforcement, and trying to get to know him on a more personal level. Before I go home to my family, I will need to take at least a 30 minute respite to get my mind out of “school mode” and transition into my evening routine (“home/family mode”). I will try various techniques such as walking at a park, yoga, or meditation. Also, it will pose a challenge for me to remain composed in heated situations, but it will be so necessary because I do not want the other students to think that they can affect me by easily getting me upset. In order to not lose face in front of the class, I may need to talk quietly and privately to Tomaso or change the structure of the activity we are doing from large group to smaller group (or vice versa) just to mix up the dynamic and draw attention away from him.
I know that Tomaso Gonzalez is a challenging student, but with empathy and understanding, I feel that I can help to effect change in him and support his academic growth during the school year.
Hayden, T. (1981). Somebody Else's Kids. New York: Avon Books/Harper Collins Publishers.
McKinney, K. (2013). Addressing Students' Needs. Retrieved from CIRTL Network: http://www.cirtl.net/node/2553