“Okay, class! Pop quiz.”
My grade three and four class were too smart for that!
“Yeah right! Uh-huh, wake me up when it is over! Dumb Teacher move, gangway, I’m outta here!” all my students said, some skipping words or saying other things I only heard about later.
“But seriously! Everything off your desks. EQAO practice test, today, not tomorrow. Time to show me how smart you are…Jimmy, sit down, please…Carter, where is your pencil case…Stop playing with that…Three Two One!!!!”
“Thank you. Celia, you, and someone you choose. Start when you get your paper.”
Houd was standing at the table next to my desk. Celia came up, being careful to whisper, “Does Houd get one?” I waved her off.
Houd. Son of a Syrian refugee family, far smarter than he looked. Dropped into my class from another school when the principal needed to offload a problem. I have particulars in my mailbox, OSR with a Syrian report card, all Arabic to me. Only some of the numbers made sense. Underachiever even in his home country. Let’s see. My amateur knowledge of world events put to the test: Syrian Civil War? Could that have something to do with this?
Oh, I patted myself on the back after I figured that one out. IEP said many modifications to the program are needed. Seriously? Let’s see, how were all those modifications working at his previous school? I looked through the student work portfolio for work that was supposed to accompany any student transfer. So light, thin as air. One sheet of ragged paper fluttered out and slid across my desk, upside down. Houd’s elaborate overwrought IEP and ESL documents dwarfed that paper by a magnitude of ten pages to one. So much teacherese to describe a very simple problem. In how few words could I say this: The student is doing no work? I turned Houd’s sheet of paper right side up and looked at him. Houd was uncomfortable. Good, I thought.
“Can you read what you wrote?”
“Yes, Mr. McDonald. “My name is Houd.”
I knew he was smart. Brainy even. His eyes followed everything. I would sit in my portable classroom and watch him play in the schoolyard. Or I should say, not play in the schoolyard. He was standing around watching my class play soccer. Not sporty. Which was too bad. I had seen other refugee kids show off superior soccer skills, but that wouldn’t work for Houd. What would work? I ran a chess club every week. Could I get him to play? Or what about the choir? Get him to sing? Hmm, there had to be something. I just knew I had to get him, friends, somehow.
Oh, don’t get me started about the foolishness of standardized testing and how the only thing that really matters is student achievement in standardized tests! I had seen so many teachers throw up their hands and say, I can’t care about how students are doing in anything else except those tests! To get a student a friend? Who evaluates that? Will the principal write me up for not caring about something like that? I’m too tired! Do you see that pile of marking? How many IEPs I must write? Have you seen the report card with huge empty boxes that had to be filled with gobs of writing? Talked for an hour to just one set of parents about every tiny thing imaginable and then know that there are five more sets of parents who will probably need meetings in the next few months.
“Jim, you’re scaring the kids,” my wife would say around the dinner table when I got started like this.
“Oh sorry!” I’m all red in the face, exhausted. I grab a drink and smile at poor Robert and Cindy, my kids, and remember that some of the most unhappy and maladjusted children on the planet could be the children of teachers. Especially the teachers who couldn’t shut the job down after hours. My wife was a teacher too, we decided she would not have a career so that our children would have a fighting chance.
“You know Singapore has a thing or two right about education. They employ people who promise to remain single and devote themselves completely to teaching. They work sixty-hour weeks, it’s all they do.”
“Jim, really, can you stop?”
The EQAO practice test was going to keep me up at night. Dismal results. The EQAO standardized real test was in May, and I had a precious few months to cover the entire school year’s work in such a way that my three’s didn’t stick out like a sore thumb when compared to the straight grade three class that had all the resources that I had to beg, borrow or outright steal. And I have Houd now too. He, at least, would get an exemption of some kind, working with a resource teacher in a room with other refugee kids. Oh, and I had to still teach my fours somehow. They didn’t have to do the test.
The principal was worried about not looking worried. She’d come by and make excuses for everything. If I remember right, her favorite words were “I’m sure everything will work out!” Then she would do that smile of hers, the one that made you wonder if she was counting the days until the end of the school year. We certainly were.
But I gave myself a break. The worst that could happen would be that I would be put into a grade that wouldn’t make the school look bad when the EQAO test results were released. We had heard the horror stories of teachers being fired in the States. This could not happen in Canada. Our teacher unions were too strong and well-funded for that. So, what to do about Houd? The rest was like a developing train wreck to me that I had no control over.
What to do about Houd, indeed. I was never one for fancy new teaching techniques. I had worked with a teacher partner at another school who was a wiz with such things. The resource teacher assigned us both balanced grade three classes at the beginning of that year. By June my kids were head and shoulders above her class in everything, especially in track and field, cross country, and even the same tests that we both had to give. So, she went to the resource teacher to complain at the end of the school year. Why did you give all the smart kids to Jim? She asked. The resource teacher went through all the paperwork and showed her the breakdown, then smirked at me in the staff room about it later.
“You have all the smart kids, Jim. How did that happen?”
I didn’t answer. But I focused on developing leadership in my kids. I ran a very tight ship. Every job in my class went to the kids who paid attention and knew what was going on. I never explained what I expected twice. Sure, I would teach new material until the cows came home, but what page number to turn to, or what book to use? Forget it. If someone didn’t know what to do about little things like that, I would say “Emma doesn’t know what to do,” And children would rush to her desk whispering and showing what is what.” Leadership, problem-solving, a deadly quiet room where everyone knew exactly what was expected and how we as a class were going to accomplish our objectives.
So, Houd became the class’s problem as much as my problem. Everything we did went through Houd. “Go see Houd,” I would say when kids wanted to do something. I would explain something to Houd and tell him to tell other kids what to do. And I didn’t care if it took forever at first to get things done. I could see the other kids fuming and upset when we were late for Phys Ed because Houd couldn’t find his gym clothes. They would be upset when Houd couldn’t find his library books. We would wait for Houd to copy his work off the board. People would stay behind to help Houd during recess with his schoolwork. Houd was at the center of everything.
You would think that the kids would hate him. Despise him. But I wouldn’t allow it. I modeled endless patience, the very thing that standardized testing cared less about, I did. And you know what? It worked. The kids were endlessly patient with Houd too.
I left that school at the end of that year. The principal didn’t like my methods, she got on my case, as so often happens when you don’t fit the mold. But I had the satisfaction of hearing about Houd years later. He was friends with all the boys in my class even into Middle School. All my former students were friends with each other too. They were unbeatable, against the odds kids. And Houd did his work. Really, he did.
So, be short-sighted if you wish around children. I take the long view. If you want high test scores, be my guest. I’ll take high scores on life.