At the end of September I began to work as ESL teacher of secondary level (in my school this means middle and high school) at a special education school. So far, I love it. I have six groups, mostly multiple grades groups (grade 5, grades 6-7, grade 7, grades 7-8, grades 9-10, grades 11-12). The biggest group has six student. The smallest group has only one student. Most of my students have behavorial special needs, so I must adapt my teaching methods and my disciplinary methods to meet their needs in the classroom. In total, I have 23 students, plus one more on the way (I have not meet him yet, but he will be in my classroom soon and I am already being informed of what needs he will have to be prepared when he arrives).
Although I should call it “special education”, I prefer to aim a “person-centered education.” With “person-centered” I do not mean exactly “individualized”, although sometimes I must individualize my lesson plans due my student’s needs. What I aim is “learning by forming”: teach them ESL through helping them to grow and to learn how become the best person they can be (this is what I mean with person-centered education). I could called it “learning by growing” too. I do have class books to follow, but I have a wide creative range to determine how to apply each lesson. Besides lesson plans, that are mandatory (of course they are, I would never deny their importance) I am designing “growth plans” to promote the best personal growth possible in the classroom. Designing something like this from scratch takes intellectual creativity, patience and time. Right now the only thing I can say is that with a person-centered approach almost all the attention issues and the discipline issues are avoided… but it is very, very important that students understand the importance of being person and of becoming the best persons they can be. That part can be tricky sometimes. Why? Because my students tend to reduce the definition of person to his or her behavior: we are how we behave. If you realize that special education students are constantly being evaluated according to their behavior, you understand their personal formation view perfectly. Teaching them that they are not their behavior and that the person is first and foremost a human being called to grow and be best is crucial to integrate a “growth plan” and to pursue a “person-centered learning” successfully. Right now I am working on that aspect while I keep developing the “growth plan” design. It takes time and resources, but it is worth it because you truly respect your students as persons when, instead of limiting yourself as teacher to give them certain information and skills, you keep looking how to help them to be, to do, to grow and to radiate as the best persons they can be.
Whatever I teach in the classroom, I teach it through affirming the person. It is like positive behavior, but I don’t limit myself to behavior: I affirm the whole person, so let’s call it “positive humanity” or “positive growth”. That means that my respect to the student and the opportunities that they are given to grow won’t change according to their behavior, so they learn they are valued unconditionally as human beings. They may loose privileges, but they won’t never loose “growth opportunities”. The main problem with a behavior-only approach is that the student learns to value himself or herself according to how he or she behaves, and I want them to learn to value themselves as whole human beings called to growth. I am not denying the importance of behavior: I am just integrating it to the whole person.
So far, I only have had one instance when this “growth approach” has not worked to avoid a discipline issue. One. My students have many behavior difficulties due being special education students, so having only one instance when it has not worked can be considered quite a success… but let’s see how it keeps going. I need to observe more and to refine more my methods to make more concrete conclusions. I recognize that the “growth plan objective” (value) it is not always fully reached because the students are unconsciously more focused in the “grade objective” (the lesson plan objective: the one that is graded summatively or formatively)… That is one of several of my current dilemas in the “growth plan” design: how to integrate the “growth approach” to the assessment. Right now, I am not assessing it formally, I am doing it just with observations, because I am not sure how it should be assessed. Should I make it part of the grade? But how they will learn to aim to be the best person they can be outside of the classroom if they do it only for a grade and not for life?
I can resume the difference between a “lesson plan” and a “growth plan” very easily: the lesson plan is what I must teach (the content) and the growth plan is the how I must teach it (how to help them to grow as human beings and to become the best persons they can be with the content I teach). Right now the growth plan has a “growth objective” and four phases: integration, action, realization and projection. As I said, I am designing it yet. So far, the growth plan works wonders as discipline method, although that is not its main aim. It’s main aim is affirming the person. As teacher I truly believe in always affirm the person, but it requires creative space, structure and… sometimes it also requires to skip what the book says we should do, because how the book teaches certain stuff can be truly abstract sometimes. Whatever I teach, I must apply it to the personal formation’s growth of my students, it can’t be abstract. This is impossible if you are required to prepare the students only for a standardized test.
The best part of the “growth plan” is that the teacher doesn’t wait that a student misbehave to give him or her help: you always keep seeking how to offer him help to become the best person he or she can be, no matter what. When the misbehavior occurs, it is addressed too, but the approach is not only disciplinary: is a whole-person growth approach. What this means? First: all students receive support wherever they need it most (this eliminates the view that only those who misbehave need support). Second: as teacher I am not only teacher: I am also a mentor who seeks to help my students to grow as the best person they can be, according to their own view (that is important: a mentor never imposes his or her own view but help others to develop their own view and their own growth choices). The mentor factor is important. A psychologist deals with learning or emotional difficulties only. The person in charge of discipline deals with behavior difficulties only. A mentor helps to grow as the best person the student can be, integrating the whole person, including all the difficulties that the student may have, but not from a difficulty approach, but from a affirming-the-person approach. This is a “positive growth” focus.
I will keep sharing how the “growth plans” adventure keeps going. I am truly grateful of being in a school that gives me as teacher the creative space to develop this kind of approach to deal with discipline methodology and teaching methodology.
Let’s keep growing!