I Can't Do It! Yes You Can!
One day when I was observing a class for a research project, I witnessed one of the most moving teacher/student moments of my life. To understand the significance of the moment, you need to know the backstory.
This is the story of a fourth grade child with Asperger’s who began the school year sitting by himself and not communicating with his classmates or with her. The teacher allowed him to sit by himself in a corner of the room and cheerfully addressed him by name but spoke with him quietly in his corner. She gave him time to feel comfortable with the class and to trust her rather than insisting that he join in immediately. As the days progressed, she discovered that he loved math. Using this passion, she suggested one morning that he turn his desk 45 degrees to the left and walked away. Intrigued, this little boy figured out what 45 degrees would be and noisily turned his desk . The teacher merely caught his eye and smiled. He frowned. She used this tactic for the next few days, always giving him a different number of degrees to turn the desk. Each time, he would figure out the degrees, move his desk, and wait for her to notice. She would smile each day and, eventually, he smiled back. The boy would excitedly wait each morning to see how many degrees he should turn his desk that day. Finally, the teacher told him that, with his desk facing the rest of the class, he should move it a certain number of inches forward. He quickly measured the floor and moved the desk. Soon, his desk was a part of the class.
At this point, the teacher encouraged him to join the morning meetings, held on the carpet at the front of the room, and he eventually agreed to join in. His stipulation was that he could sit on the floor off to the side of the group. As time went by, she was able to place him in small groups, always with a kind-hearted boy who seemed to be able to reach him. And then, one day, realizing that he needed more academic rigor, she suggested that he move ahead in math because he had an affinity for it and enjoyed working on his own.
This takes us to the scene I observed. One day this “ornery” boy, as she referred to him with a smile, approached her desk. She looked up as he threw his math book onto the desk in front of her, gruffly saying, “I can’t do it.” She paused for a couple of seconds, picked the book up, looked him squarely in the eyes, and gruffly replied, “Yes you can,” and threw the book back at him. Surprised by her reaction, he picked the book up and stomped back to his seat where he flipped pages, grumbled, and glared at the teacher. He wrote on his paper and flipped more pages, and after a while returned to the teacher’s desk. Standing in front of her, he threw the paper down on her desk and gruffly announced, “I did it.” Taking a moment to review the answers, a smile crept across her face and she looked up and kindly responded, “Yes, you sure did.” And he smiled. This was a milestone moment in this child’s and this teacher’s lives. Sometimes all of the accommodations, modifications, and psychological assessment pales in comparison to a caring, engaged, enthusiastic teacher. She invited the boy to teach the lesson to the class when they got to that point and he readily agreed. Weeks later, as he stood at the board, showing the class how to do the problems, a very proud teacher simply observed, smiling, and brushing the tears from her eyes.
What a difference a single, caring teacher can make in a child’s life. All of the education, preparation, years of experience, workshops, and credentials pale in comparison to truly caring for children. The next time a child tells you, “I can’t do it.” Show your confidence (if appropriate) by responding, “Yes, you can.”