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Before receiving my certification in visual arts, I worked for several years as a special education teacher assistant. Though not claiming to be an expert, I have been educated in, and have handled many behavioral issue situations. However, nothing prepared me for the time I would spend with *Jack* (name has been changed).
Before Jack even entered my class, the red flags were flying. I received several emails informing me that he would be in my class, and that there were people who could support me if needed. One teacher even approached me in the courtyard.
“You have Jack in your class”, she said with a look that I can now only describe as pity. “It will make you a stronger teacher.”
I didn’t think much of these communications. I’d had students of all kinds in my classes and my plan was to proceed as usual.
The first few weeks went off as planned. Jack participated in class and seemed to enjoy art. His work, however, was well below the standard of the rest of the class. This didn’t bother me, but it apparently bothered Jack.
Jack was always willing to start, but he demanded attention at a much higher level than I could afford to offer. In fact, if I attended to all of Jack’s needs, I would have spent 100% of my time with him.
To compensate for the lack of attention, Jack soon added a twist to his projects. Each assignment started fine but would soon end in a destructive manner. There would be water all over the floor, or paint splattered on the wall, or papers glued together. All this was presented with a thinly veiled attempt to disguise the destruction as an accident.
Soon the accidents turned to pranks. The line changed from, “Sorry, that was a accident,” to, “I thought you would think it was funny.” The pranks however, were never funny. Always annoying. Sometime infuriating. I had to find a method of dealing with these behaviors.
When I confronted Jack about his behavior, he retreated to his Special Ed room. This was easy for me, as I could then attend to my class. Other times, when I could no longer deal, I’d send him back myself, not giving him the option.
By December, my class was preparing to work in clay. This was a medium I had no intention of letting Jack be destructive with. I’d go through the usual routine. Give Jack a chance, wait for him to blow it and send him away. But Jack didn’t blow it. When he saw the clay he asked if he could make Christmas ornaments. He spent the entire class time working and even stayed during lunch to finish.
Jack asked everyday if the ornaments were done. I was firing three classes worth of clay projects, so it took a week or so before his pieces were fired. Unfortunately, several of his ornaments were ruined. He was legitimately upset. Then again, Jack had never paid attention to my lesson on scoring and sliping or making sure clay is wedged so it wouldn’t blow up in the kiln. As Jack slunk out of class he said, “Goodbye”. I replied with, “Have a day”. I couldn’t find it in myself to add the word “good”.
The next day Jack returned with a poster he created on the computer. It was an image of a yellow smile face but with a straight line for the mouth. The caption read, “Have A Day”.
Later that week he returned with a stack of posters asking to borrow tape. He placed the “Have A Day” posters throughout the school.
The next week, he email me a link to the official “Have A Day” website. It was complete with the “Have A Day” poster for download, “Have A Day” screen saver, “Have A Day” desktop wallpaper and even the “Have A Day” telephone answering message available for download in .wav format.
As usual, Jack’s practical joke was very funny to him, but this time, on the bright side, the Have A Day creations weren’t destructive in anyway. More importantly, he was creating. Obviously I had tapped into something.
However, all this came a little too late. We spent another week together after Christmas break before finals and then the semester was over. Jack moved on to other classes, and I had a new group of highly motivated students ready to create art every day without being destructive at all.
At the time I was glad to put my Jack experience behind me. Looking back now, I can’t help but wonder what our time together would have been like if I could have learned to understand him sooner. If I could have been less wrapped up in what I considered the teaching of “art” and more concerned about the creative process and tapping into Jack’s creative nature, I might possibly have saved myself, and Jack, a little heartache.
I have to say Jack was the hardest student I ever taught. However, he taught me more about myself then I could have ever taught him including to make sure I always… have a day.
What is the most difficult student you have ever taught?
Did that student teach you anything about yourself?
Were you able to form a meaningful relationship? Why or why not?
*For confidentiality reasons, please refrain from using students’ actual names!*