I volunteered in many of the schools my 4 sons attended throughout the years. I was at the middle school so often, the lovely head secretary asked me if I would ever consider working there. She thought I might as well get paid for my time. She obviously had some pull with the powers that be because I don’t remember ever applying for the job or ever being interviewed. Perhaps she saw something in me I had not yet realized about myself. Thus began my journey working in the Special Education Department as a Paraprofessional in the middle school.
My own experience in junior high was less than spectacular. I always had friends. Let’s just say, I had not yet come into my own. I was skinny, extremely shy and not quite sure of myself or where I fit in. Even though I was shy, I have always been able to make people laugh. I was kind. I was athletic. I was a pretty good student except in 9th grade earth science. Something I probably did not share with the 8th grade earth science teachers I worked with. I grew up with 4 brothers and 7 sisters and they offered great training for being able to handle myself in any kind of possible “bullying” situation.
Every experience in our life has some kind of influence on which doorways we choose to walk through. I have walked through many doorways in my life. Each one shaped me in ways I could not have imagined. Never in a million years would I have pictured myself walking through a middle school doorway to work every day and learning to love it. Perhaps it was the universe offering me another opportunity to relive middle school in a new and healing way. Life is a circle and I guess I needed to revisit middle school again and see it through a new lens.
I remember being in a 6th grade English class one day when I first started working at the middle school. The teacher was lecturing and I was listening and I was asking myself, “What am I doing here?” I looked over my shoulder at the back wall of the classroom and saw a poster hanging on the wall that captured my attention. As I started to read the items for living and building a community on this poster I paused and smiled to myself. I had literally experienced everything that was on that poster. It was one of those “aha moments.” I came to understand that I was exactly where I was meant to be at this moment in my life.
Each of the students I worked with had their own individual education plans and very specific special needs. I would work primarily in social studies, history, English, earth and life science classes. Middle school students are at a very tender age with many emotional and physical changes happening simultaneously. The kids with special needs have an even greater challenge on learning how to navigate middle school.
I have a degree in Social Work, but I was ill prepared for the myriad of challenges they not only faced every day, but in how I may best serve them. I came from a large family and I raised four boys. I knew how to be around children, handle chaotic situations and relate to many different personalities. But this was a whole new ballgame. I had the feeling this was going to be a baptism by fire.
My yoga and meditation practices truly saved me once again. (How do I love yoga, let me count the ways!) I was definitely in unchartered waters. These practices helped me to stay grounded, balanced, and to keep breathing deeply. When my breathing was audible and I found myself at times quite frustrated my students would invariably laugh and say I was doing my angry breath! They weren't far off the mark, but it worked in more ways than one. Breathing deeply and exhaling loudly out the mouth is a way of letting go, calming down, pausing and finding my center again.
I was looking at the world through new eyes and trying to stay in my practice of serving humanity. I was determined to make a positive difference in these students’ lives. It takes time, patience and a whole lot of trust and compassionate understanding to build relationships. Kids in general can read fear and uncertainty. They know exactly which buttons to push. I had to build working relationships with the students and their teachers. By being in the individual classes with students, I, too, was learning or relearning 6th, 7th, and 8th grade curriculum.
I learned so much while working in the school. The various teaching styles, personalities, energy, and gifts that these teachers had and shared was remarkable. I let go of the vulnerability I felt when I had to ask for help in comprehending some of the material. The teachers were willing and gracious in sharing their expertise. I learned that I loved learning and teaching. I don’t remember loving English, Life Science and Earth Science the first time around. I got pretty good at all of the subjects after 13 years of middle school!
After a few years of working in the classrooms with teachers, I was asked to run the resource room. Working in their classrooms and observing and learning the material laid the groundwork for my move into the resource room. The resource room was a study hall for students with special needs who needed extra guidance and support.
The paraprofessionals and I forged a magnificent bond over the years. We worked together like a well oiled machine. We communicated with each other regarding assignments, tests, and how best to work with certain students and teachers. They would bring groups of students to the resource room to read tests aloud or work on projects. The resource room was also a respite for students who may have needed a break, meet with a specialist, or retake a test.
I had 6 different classes of students that I would work with every day in all subjects and those classes would change every quarter. I got to know these kids very well. They would become quite comfortable with me and share their life experiences and challenges. I cried on several occasions at what they had endured at home and school. They taught me resilience and their own insights which were many. They trusted me and I grew to love them all and we learned from each other. I missed the teachers and being in their classrooms, but this turned out to be the greatest opportunity for me to see what I was capable of and how much I was growing along the way.
I asked the principal if I could paint the resource room a different color than the standard white cement blocks. He agreed and let me paint and reimbursed me for the materials. It took me and another para a week during the summer to paint. We were not paid for this job. That is how badly I wanted the room to change into something other than what it had been. I painted 2 teal green walls and 2 dark purple walls. Green is the color for the heart chakra and purple is the color of transformation. Ocean breeze was the name of the green paint color and thunder was the name of the purple. Perfect balance.
My generous husband who is part owner of a commercial office furniture company donated countless numbers of beautiful, colorful office chairs. All of the chairs had gadgets to make the seats and arms adjust and move up and down. They were also on wheels. Each student had a wonderful chair to sit in. It turns out that they were great fun and actually helped the fidgety students. He donated mobile white boards, oversized plush chairs with desktops, and a desk for me. The room was really coming together beautifully. I was filled with gratitude.
Being a gardener and lover of plants I always had plants in my classroom. Plants and flowers have their own special healing energy. It also helped to teach kids about plants when the unit in their 7th grade life science class studied plants. We learned about the symbiotic relationship we have with plants. We give plants the carbon dioxide the plants need for photosynthesis and they make oxygen so we can breathe. A beautiful exchange of resources.
A great lesson in how we are all connected. Then we would practice breathing in and out. I would sprinkle in some yoga asana (tree pose was a popular one), breath work and a little meditation whenever possible. I call those teachable moments. I was planting seeds in these children that were not only of the plant variety. Tools they could use to calm down their anxious minds and learn how to be present. Tools they can take out into the world and use throughout their lifetime.
I had a white board outside my room daily with an inspirational quote on it. It inspired some of the students to find a quote that spoke to them and write it on the board, too. My vision was to transform the resource room into a place where everyone felt welcomed. A place where students could be themselves, feel safe, and eat something if they had not eaten. Which unfortunately was quite often the case. Every Friday we would enjoy a cup of hot chocolate together while we worked on their homework or studied for tests. I wanted the resource room to be a comfortable place where they wanted to be. A place where they were loved and belonged.
The staff was always welcome to join in our monthly para birthday celebrations where we brought in all kinds of goodies to share. It became a room of unity. A place to gather and feel nourished in mind, body and soul.
I believe wholeheartedly that everyone needs to be seen, heard, recognized, and loved for who they are. Not who we think they should be. I taught the students that they were not special but that they were important. When you label someone “special” you immediately cause a separation. They think they are above someone else. We are all equal. No one is above or below anyone.
I also encouraged them to listen deeply and look into their fellow students' eyes while they were sharing something about their personal story. They took turns speaking and listening to each other. We were building trust and respect.
I wanted the resource room to be a sanctuary for the students, staff, and all who entered. It did become just that. I loved it when teachers would come into the resource room during their prep hour to enjoy a birthday snack. It gave the students a different perspective on their teachers. They were able to witness their teachers in a new way. They could see a lightness in them that was different than when they had to teach and manage 35+ students in a classroom.
A playful exchange would happen between student and teacher. Teachers' breaks are not really a break they are constantly preparing for their next class. These incredible educators dedicate hours upon hours beyond the classroom in order to do their very best in teaching their students. Unless you are a teacher or you have worked at a school you have no idea what these amazing human beings do on a daily basis. Teachers have my utmost respect.
Oftentimes they would sit down and help a student who was not completely understanding a homework assignment. It didn't matter to the teacher if that was not their subject of expertise. It was beautiful to observe teachers one on one with my students. Large class sizes and time constraints limited the teacher’s ability to share one on one time with each of their students like I could experience hourly/daily in the resource room. I would bet working one on one with students or with smaller class sizes was what they dreamt of when they chose to become a teacher in the first place.
I was blessed and honored to work with the most incredible staff. Each one is integral in doing their part in providing the finest learning environment possible. All staff worked together in a unified way from the custodians, administrators, secretaries, counselors, therapists, speech pathologists, volunteers, paras, kitchen staff and teachers. The teachers there were the absolute kindest, most generous, highly educated and dedicated colleagues to work alongside. I learned so much from all of them. I will be forever grateful for their sharing their expertise and teaching me 6th, 7th, and 8th grade over and over and over again! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Truth Be Told, I thought I would be making a difference in these students’ lives and they are the ones who made an incredible difference in my life. They changed my life in countless ways. They inspired me every day to show up, dig down deep, and find a way to meet them where they were in a conscious and loving way. We built our own symbiotic relationships. The ones who challenged me, frustrated me, tried my patience the most, taught me how to look at the situation from a new perspective and always try to lift up, lighten up, and calm down. We all have the opportunity to make a difference and bloom wherever we are planted.
Thank a teacher next time the opportunity arises. Especially now during COVID they are still teaching and making a difference during these challenging times of uncertainty. They need lots of love, appreciation, affection, and encouragement. Love grows and expands.