Held Back

“Well, to be honest, Chad, I don’t really know your son.” She turned her chair toward me, her hands in her lap, a smile on her face. She’d kept me waiting outside the office for an extra ten minutes while she’d helped a couple of ten-year old girls brush through their hair, the girls having dropped in at the start of the school day unannounced, giggling. She clearly adored her students.

“I wouldn’t expect you to. There are hundreds of students here.”

Amy kept her lips pulled back over her teeth as continued the perma-smile. “But let me restate what you asked me, to see if I got this right. Your son A, who is 6, has struggled emotionally somewhat in his first grade classroom, largely because he is one of the youngest students in the room, but he seems to be fine academically, right? His birthday is in late July? And now that the teacher is recommending holding him back to repeat the first grade for the next year, you are wondering if this recommendation is legitimate? And that’s why you wanted to meet with me, the school principal?”

I nodded, feeling strangely defensive despite the fact that she was kind and calm in her presentation. “Yes. It’s a bit more complicated than that, and there are a lot of details behind all this, but, yes, that is basically my question.”

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“Well,” she leaned back in her chair, “given our education methods here as a Waldorf style school, it wouldn’t be uncommon for a teacher to recommend holding a child back. As you probably know, we focus our education on the individual children, and what might be best for them. If a child is struggling behaviorally or emotionally, and they don’t seem to be on par with the rest of the students, then it is common to talk to the parents about the possibility of repeating a year so that the child can have a more consistent learning environment, one more suited to their individual needs.”

I furrowed my brown in frustration. “Wait, wait. ‘It wouldn’t be uncommon…’ Does that mean this is a regular recommendation? You are suggesting to many parents that they hold back their children to repeat a grade?”

Amy clicked her tongue and looked troubled. “Well, it isn’t as if we have a quota to fulfill. But in Wasatch learning environments, we focus on skill levels like integrating the five senses, handwork, hand-eye coordination, and–”

“Miss Lee, I’m sorry for interrupting, but I know about Waldorf learning. I enrolled my kids here. I don’t mean to be adversarial, but I feel as if sixty per cent of my conversations with professionals here are about the Waldorf learning method. I’m not here about that, I’m here about my son. I want to understand how holding him back would benefit him.”

The smile returned. “Well, let’s look at your terminology first of all. Listen to how negative it sounds. ‘Holding him back.’ Could I invite you to switch the words around to realize how much more positive you could make it sound? Let’s try this. Instead of using the words ‘holding him back’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of another year of childhood among his emotional peers, to provide the best and most effective learning method for his needs, rather than pushing him forward into an arena in which he is not equipped to handle?”

I glowered in frustration, and my tone took on a bit of sarcasm. “Let me turn that right back on you, regarding your terminology here. Can I invite you to switch your words? Instead of ‘pushing him forward’, why not try, ‘Let’s give A the gift of staying among his established peer group, in his ongoing classroom learning environment, rather than holding him back in an arena with a new peer group and covering material he has already effectively learned?”

Amy bit her lip, considering my unexpected words, and I kept talking.

“And honestly, I came in here to discuss concerns, and I feel like you are advocating for holding my child back when you began our conversation by admitting that you aren’t at all familiar with him! How do you know what he is ‘equipped to handle?” I noticed my voice had risen a bit, in both volume and passion, and I took a deep breath calming myself.

“I apologize.” Amy’s voice was soft, placating. “Let’s start again. Tell me your concerns.”

My words rushed out quickly. I explained how A had struggled emotionally in kindergarten the year before, being the youngest in the classroom, and how his teacher, though well-intentioned, had responded to his small outbursts by putting his name on the board and taking away privileges. “So his mom and I brought him here, to a new and more supportive learning environment, where he might thrive better. The learning environment here, with gardening, knitting, and story-telling in the classroom, is so much better suited to his personality. We love it here for him.” I talked about how A’s teacher was loving and supportive, but how she frequently provided behavioral reports on A that focused solely on his negative struggles and none of his strengths. “For the first two months of school, A wasn’t eating school lunches, and she never told us, so of course he was struggling with outbursts every day, he was super hungry. Since we have been packing his lunches, his behavioral struggles have dropped significantly.”

I saw Amy jotting notes on a pad of paper. “Besides,” I went on, “despite his struggle in the classroom with transitions, such as from recess back to classroom activities, and despite the fact that he picks up material slightly slower than the other, older, kids, he is thriving academically and making major strides. He learns on his level, at his speed. Five months ago, we had a parent/teacher meeting to discuss his concerns in the classroom, and every one of those concerns is no longer a factor. The teacher told us that herself, on the same day that she recommended holding him back.”

Amy nodded. “And why is it that you feel so strongly against having him repeat a grade?”

I breathed deep again, slowing my words. “That just feels like it should be a last resort, not a common recommendation. I’m a clinical social worker, and I regularly meet with kids who are behaviorally or emotionally disturbed. I’ve done this for over a decade. And in all my time, when I see a kid struggling in the classroom, I’ve never recommended that they be held back. Instead, I see help the teachers and parents come up with a learning strategy that helps the kids succeed where they are. An individualized education plan, with strategies in place during times of trouble. I also talked about this with my mom. She was an award-winning first-grade teacher for over twenty years. She had kids in her classroom who didn’t speak English, who were in extreme poverty, who had major anger issues, who had developmental disabilities, and who had extreme difficulties with hygiene.  She couldn’t recount cases where she recommended holding a child back as a first line of strategy, particularly a kid like A who is already doing so well academically, and who has so much support at home.”

Amy looked up from the page where she’d taken a few notes. “To be honest, when we have kids who have long-term struggles, perhaps an Autism diagnosis or a significant developmental struggle, we wouldn’t recommend they be held back. Those are cases where an individualized education plan would be more actively recommended.”

I felt my frustration boil over again. “So kids who are actively struggling stay where they are, but kids who have minor struggles are recommended to repeat a grade! I am sorry, but that is infuriating!”

There was silence as Amy considered my words. She nodded, jotting another note. “Okay, the key difference here is that the teacher feels a certain way and you have reservations. That is fine. It is only a recommendation. Normally if a parent disagrees, we would simply advance the child forward. But in this case, your kid’s child’s mother, who has primary custody, feels like holding A back is the best plan for him. And in cases where one parent disagrees from the other, we have to follow the primary custodial parent.”

I nodded several times, ignoring the anguish in my gut over all of this. “I will work out co-parenting concerns directly on my own. But I do want to have a clear understanding of why this recommendation has been made for my son. Was protocol followed? Did he get the help he needed this year? What are the costs and benefits of holding him back versus having him move forward?”

Amy reasoned with me. “I’m a mom, too. And I  can see how much you love our son. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to feel like you don’t get a say, or that you aren’t being considered.”

“I had a nightmare a few days ago,” I told her. “I pictured taking my sons to the first day of school this coming year. They were in their new clothes, with new backpacks full of new supplies, with fresh haircuts and huge smiles on their faces. We take J, my older son, to his class in fourth grade and wish him well for a new year. And then we take A back to the first grade class, and he turns to us, tears in his eyes, and asks why we are having him do first grade over again.” I paused, clearing the image from my head. “In reality, he’ll likely be fine no matter what. But I also worry about years down the line, when he explains to others that he was held back as a kid. This becomes a permanent part of his story from here forward. If it is right for him, then I’m all for it. But I just can’t understand the pressure I feel to hold him back when it doesn’t feel right. I don’t understand why we are even having this conversation. I see him as succeeding right where he is. He’s beautiful, smart, creative, compassionate, and a leader. He’s already a huge success.”

The teacher shook my hand and showed me out. I walked through the school with a nervous feeling in my heart, to the sounds of children playing in classrooms all around me. And, with the thought of all of the parents out there advocating for their children to succeed, I felt my love for my children expand within me, occupying a larger space than ever before, something I never thought possible.

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Ad Junct

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Over the course of six years, I went to three separate colleges. I learned the ins and outs of academic systems, loading myself with credits while working on the side to support myself financially. I learned how to stack up courses so that I could get ahead in some classes while staying right on track with others, how to balance in-person and online, and how to navigate my energies toward certain classes with 100% energy while giving only 40% to others, whatever it took to get an A. In addition, I learned how to make sure I was invested in my assignments, planning out ways to keep myself invested. I learned that I was a great paper writer, and excellent at oral interviews, but terrible at memorization and test-taking.

I loved college. I loved being in the academic arena, with new energy always. I joined choirs, formed improv troops, sang in A Cappella groups, and starred in school plays. During the course of my six-year education, which culminated in a Masters degree in Social Work, or MSW, I had dozens of teachers. Now, from the vantage point of 15 years later, I can only name maybe 6 of those teachers by name, the ones that had the most profound impact on me. Of the others, many were ineffective, boring, disconnected, or simply not memorable.

When I started teaching, back in 2009, I wanted to be a teacher who was memorable.

I’ve always had a flair for teaching. (My mom has always told me that my three greatest talents are in “writing, teaching, and helping”). Most of my experience teaching was in Sunday School (or Gospel Doctrine) in Mormon wards throughout my adult life. I had the ability to take dense material from the Old Testament (like Jonah and Ninevah), difficult-to-understand topics (like “the Gifts of the Spirit”), or complex modern revelations (like eternal marriage and polygamy) and disseminate them for a room full of peers in a way that was both enlightening and entertaining. I liked to push people’s buttons, make them uncomfortable, and then leave them with a strong dose of spiritual enlightenment. I wanted them to leave the room feeling powerful. I wanted them to be talking about the lesson for the whole week afterwards.

Teaching Sunday School required a tremendous amount of preparation (reading and becoming familiar with the content and its adjacent topics), organization (understanding how this content fit into the wider spectrum of the overall curriculum), time management (knowing how to effectively get selected information across in an allotted time perfectly, not under- or over-planning), enthusiasm (if I was in love the topic, the room would be also), and group facilitation (trying to keep a large room full of very different people with very different expectations engaged, getting people to participate but not too much, answering unexpected questions, and keeping the content moving forward). I had to understand the room I was in and the role I was there to play, and I had to be ready for a myriad of possible distractions. Preparing for Sunday School lessons took me hours, and I loved it. More than that, I was good at it. It brought me joy and fulfillment.

So, after a few years of working full time at my forty-hour per week job (and in addition to my wife, son, home, and busy church calling), I decided I wanted to teach. I approached the local satellite university, a branch of Boise State University for students living in northern Idaho, and I was thrilled when they offered me an ad junket faculty position. Though I only had a Masters degree, they had a current opening, and brought me on board, offering me approximately $1000 per college credit for a 3 credit course. I enthusiastically accepted.

I quickly realized that that was not a lot of money. For $3000, I would have to read an entire text book and create a syllabus for an assigned curriculum. I would then spend 45 hours over the course of 15 weeks teaching it (one college credit means 15 hours of in class instruction, so for this class there would be 15 separate 3-hour classes). I would have to prepare each lecture, give assignments, and then grade the assignments of 27 individual non-traditional social work students. For my first class, they would each turn in 7 individual papers, and a longer essay final, making a total of 216 papers I would be grading. After it was all said and done, I was basically being paid half of minimum wage.

Navigating the strong personalities in the classroom quickly became the most difficult part of the job. Social work classes are dominated by people who have had terrible things happen to them and now want to figure themselves out. The classes were made up of 60 to 80 per cent women, and many of the students had a very strong sense of entitlement. (This is worthy of a different blog post, but here is an example of a typical interchange. Teacher: “Your papers are due tomorrow, don’t forget.” Student: “Can I please have a two week extension? You have no idea what I’m going through in my personal life!”)

It wasn’t until the end of that first semester that I started to understand what being an ad junct faculty member actually meant. The university had a certain amount of dollars to spend on a particular curriculum. They could only hire so many faculty, and they could only assign so many classes to each faculty member. But they still had to teach a minimum number of classes. So it was much cheaper and easier to hire outside resources to offer classes not covered by faculty. (One definition of the word ‘ad junct’ is, literally, “something joined or added to another thing but not essentially a part of it.”) I was not a part of the university or the program, but I was putting in dozens of hours per month to teach a course for the university. In short, I was not likely to ever hear from the dean or faculty unless a student complained.

Despite the drawbacks, teaching both exhilarated and exhausted me. I got to meet so many amazing students (and of course, several others I didn’t care for much), and I felt honored to be sharing my talents and experiences with them. I taught Diagnostics, and Introduction to Social Work, and Human Behavior in the Social Environment, and Ethics. I formed long-term relationships with many, and genuinely enjoyed my experiences. And the reviews I received were incredible, overwhelmingly positive, with some students calling me the best teacher they had ever had, and others saying I’d changed the course of their education for the better. In short, I loved it.

And then I came out of the closet and moved to Utah. And my teaching career (well, my ad junct teaching career), changed just like everything else.

(To be continued… in Ad Junct Part 2!)

transgender stick figures

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J, my seven year old is growing, and quickly. He’s a brilliant child, full of imagination and love for life. His hair is long in the center and combed over to the side, the sides shaved down a bit, making him look more grown up. He has a dusting of freckles on his cheeks, and both his front teeth are loose. Just last week, he graduated first grade and got a certificate for his achievements in math. He can be a little bit shy, but he’s also bold and very sweet. He will walk up to strangers and offer his hand, ask their name and introduce himself, with first, middle, and last names. He likes baby bunnies and feels bad that they get eaten by eagles and foxes. He draws pictures endlessly. He names his toys and creates stories with them nonstop. He dances, moving his entire body around the room, just because. He sings in front of crowds, into a microphone, without fear. He is an incredible child.

My sons live with their mother most of the time, and with me a few days per week. She’s dating someone seriously now, and the boys are spending more and more time with him and his two children.

Last night, as I made dinner, J came in to the kitchen to talk.

“Hi, dad, I have a question.”

“All right, monkey, what is it?” I stirred the spaghetti sauce in the pan.

“Well, if mom gets married, I’ll have a step-dad.”

I smiled, nodding. I genuinely like the guy, so that helps, but it is jarring to add another parent into the mix. “Yes, that’s right. And you would have a step-brother and step-sister who would live with you every other weekend.”

He moved around the room without looking at me while he talked. “Yeah. I like them. So I would have a mom and a dad and a step-dad. That sounds fun.”

I laughed. Ever the optimist, this one. “Yes, that does sound fun.”

“And if you got married, then I would have two step-dads.”

“Yes, that’s right, too.”

He crinkled his nose, like he does when he is thinking. “I would have three dads and one mom. Are there kids that have three moms and one dad?”

“Absolutely. Some kids have one mom. Some kids have four moms. Some kids have three dads and two moms. There is every kind of family out there.”

He grinned again. “Yeah, that’s cool.”

“It is cool, isn’t it?”

“Are some kids in my class gay, do you think?”

“I bet there are. But they are probably too little to know. Boys and girls who are gay sometimes figure it out when they grow up. It’s the same for transgender people.”

J tried the word out. “Transgender. What does that mean?”

A few minutes later, I had the food finished, and I sat down with J at the table with loose leaf paper and a pen. I drew four stick figures, a small depiction of our family, three boys and a girl.

“Okay, here is me. My body is a boy. How do we know a body is a boy body?”

“It has a penis.”

“Right. I’m a boy on the outside, and I’m also a boy on the inside. My spirit is a boy. I’m gay, which mean I like to date other boys. Now here is Mom. She has a girl body, and girls have a vagina. And she is also a girl on the inside. She’s straight because she likes to date boys.  And here are you and your brother.”

J smiled, catching on. “We are both boys on the outside and on the inside.”

“That’s right, monkey. Okay, now look at this.”

I drew another little stick figure. “This is my friend Jamie. When Jamie was born, she had a boy body.”

J crinkled his brow. “You said she.”

I grinned. “Yes I did. Even though Jamie was a boy on the outside, she was a girl on the inside.  Her spirit was a girl. So when she was little, she thought she was a boy for a while, but when she got older she realized she was really a girl. So now she is a grown up. She uses a girl’s name, Mary, and she wears dresses and has long hair and she likes makeup and she is a girl.”

J looked at the images for a minute. “So she still has a boy body?”

“Well, that part doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if she has a penis or a vagina. It just matters that she is a girl and we treat her like a girl. And sometimes there are people who are born with girl bodies who are really boys on the inside.”

“Like maybe a baby girl named Sue growed up and became a boy named Sam instead?”

“Yeah, kind of like that.”

J looked at the drawings for a few seconds. “That’s cool,” he repeated. “Can I go show my brother this?”

“Of course, monkey. Go ahead.”

J grabbed the paper and went skipping out of the room. “A! Come here! I want to show you transgender!”