Recognizing a Student’s Ability

At the beginning of a new school year, we usually don’t know our new students very well, if at all. We may have heard their names a few times or been given bits of information from their previous teachers. If a student is receiving special education services, we receive information pertaining to that student, such as behavior interventions, special accommodations and/or adaptations required in the classroom setting. To be honest, I usually don’t read that information thoroughly before those kids walk through the door that first week of school. I want to get to know my students by heart not by reputation.

After getting to know my students, there have been times when I’ve been completely surprised by the student I got to know, and the student I read about in an IEP. This past year was one of those times.

I had skimmed “Billy’s” IEP, which indicated that this boy had a quick temper and a reputation for being very belligerent. His reading scores were very low, as well as his language arts standardized test scores. Included in his IEP were many accommodations for academic and behavioral areas. In a nutshell, I got the feeling that he was going to be a very challenging student.

The more I learned about Billy as the days continued, the more I recognized that his boy was one of the most emotionally-gifted students I had ever worked with. I mean this kid was deep! When working with a small guided reading group, Billy was the first to comment and answer comprehension questions. His level of understanding far surpassed the students in that group AND most of the students in the entire class! I was truly in awe of the depth of his understanding and connection to the stories we read. His ability to read the words on a page independently may have been lower than most of the other students, but his comprehension was higher and more complete than most of the other students. The discrepancy totally baffled me!

Another thing I learned about Billy was that he had an incredible sense of fairness and social justice. He needed to be addressed respectfully, and if he needed to be disciplined, it was important to talk with him quietly and privately. Thankfully, this is the way I typically interact with my students, so there wasn’t an issue. In fact, I didn’t learn how important this was with Billy until a few months in the year, when another teacher didn’t interact this way with him. Then it was very evident that there were behavioral issues that were difficult to deal with.

Prior to the day that I first observed Billy’s inappropriate behavior, his case manager and I would often visit about him. She hadn’t worked with Billy before so he was new to her too. We discussed how odd it was that his history was full of defiant, impulsive, and violent responses to both students and teachers, and that we hadn’t seen any of that. Even that first day when his behavior became evident to us, it wasn’t nearly as bad as one would’ve expected, and it didn’t last long.

At Billy’s first parent-teacher conference, I told his parents about everything I had learned about their son. I explained my thoughts about his emotional intelligence and his deep regard to social justice issues. I told them that their son was incredibly smart and that his future was full of possibility, and I meant it. I told Billy that too. Regularly. He would often say he was stupid, and I think he really believed it too. But I kept telling him I disagreed and always told him why.

Throughout the school year, Billy’s reading ability soared. All of his test scores in language arts jumped. I couldn’t have been happier for this boy! I am so thankful that Billy’s case manager and I were able to recognize his ability and build on it. He truly had an astounding year.

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