I started my second year as an assistant professor at SFSU in a warm, crowded classroom full of teachers going to school after working all day. Many of these special education teachers, my students, taught in the hardest-to-fill positions in underserved communities. They arrived in my class quiet, even sullen, I thought. They interrupted with tales of unusual and complex teaching problems. They batted away my curricular suggestions with sighs of “I have no classroom budget.” They complained about the course workload and the reading. I tap danced and Power-Pointed and told stories trying to engage them in learning … and went home feeling defeated.
But then, I started listening. Not just listening, but hearing what they had to say about their attempts to do good work in a broken system.
Their slouches showed their feelings of defeat, their tardiness was due to after-school parent meetings that were confrontational or worse, no-shows, their challenges to my expertise were requests for support in situations that seemed impossible to resolve. Their defensiveness about lack of resources was a response to being told “no” by administrators time and time again. I realized that I had a much larger job than teaching them how to teach reading. I needed them to believe that even in the face of their very real challenges, they could be powerful agents of change.
The next week, I asked the students why they chose a career in special education. Their reasons included social justice, equity, making a difference, loving children, personal connections and more. They started to perk up! Trying to rekindle those passions, I wrote out my philosophy of possibility, inspired by Jack and Carol Webber’s leadership course at Darden School of Business, University of Virginia. After sharing the philosophy, I asked the students to write a reflection on this question: If anything were possible in your literacy instruction, what would it look like?
“Really? If anything were possible?” my students eventually asked. After writing, the group exchanged ideas, and we brainstormed about how to move one step closer to those possibilities. Some students knew how to get free book donations; others created mentoring programs between their students at different grades. I smiled to myself and hoped this was enough leverage to dive into the stressful topic of developing a case study and instructional plan for the final project without a mutiny. “Please, as you continue working on your final projects, think about these possibilities. Maybe you can’t implement your whole plan by winter break, but what can you start with?” At the end of the semester, they turned in thoughtful, forward-looking projects that reflected content knowledge, and I promptly plugged the Philosophy of Possibility into my syllabus.
Sharing and discussing this philosophy has fundamentally changed the culture in my classroom. When I sense frustration and defeat, we stop and engage in problem solving together. We acknowledge the challenges and work together to find solutions. This strategy has carried us through small and large: technological meltdowns, furloughs, school violence, and overwhelming workloads. But to get there, I had to let go of my own fears and insecurities long enough to see those of my students. I am now even more convinced that anything is possible, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable goals, if we can challenge our own and our students’ assumptions about what is possible.