Most of the kids in Miss Tee’s class had what were called “behavior problems.” It’s one of those nice educational terms that exists so kids aren’t called bad, naughty, or, as I like to think of them, devil children. Another term used to describe Miss Tee’s class was “self-contained.” This is an odd phrase, one that makes it unclear as to whether the teacher works with children or with a contagious disease. By definition, it just means that the students learn all subject areas in one classroom, but it sounds as though they have the bird flue or something. I wonder if there was a big meeting somewhere, and the brightest people in the school system chose the term “self-contained classroom” narrowly over “sequestered zone” or “quarantined place of learning.”
In February of 2005, I got my first job in the field of education, becoming Miss Tee’s Teacher Assistant. I chose to be a TA because I thought that the experience would show me the ropes. As a TA, I could learn how to be a teacher from the inside. Miss Tee had taught for ages, and I figured she would show me how to write lesson plans, how to differentiate instruction, and how to implement classroom management techniques that could turn a bunch of hooligans into a class of student-handbook abiding citizens.
For the first few days, this was what happened. Miss Tee was a slightly older woman in her late forties or early fifties. She was alternatively stern and kind as I thought a teacher should be. Despite her name, Miss Tee had been married for years and had a daughter in high school. I eventually learned that every woman in the South is referred to as “miss” regardless of her marital status. In addition to Miss Tee, there was also a sign language interpreter in the classroom, an Italian woman around the same age as Miss Tee named Miss Pepperoni (hey, changing real people’s names is hard, cut me some slack on this one). Of course, Miss Pepperoni was also married. She and Miss Tee got along famously. So well, it turned out, that on some days there would be very little interpreting and even less teaching.
As I got used to working in the classroom, I started to grasp the daily routine. After I got the kids off the bus, the class ate breakfast in the empty cafeteria. Next came the longest portion of the day, when the kids did a math worksheet independently while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni read the newspaper and talked about their lives. Around mid-afternoon I took the kids to the gym for Adaptive PE. Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni stayed in the classroom. Lunch followed, and then story time. Finally came my most active duty of the school day: taking the kids to the soccer field to play while Miss Tee and Miss Pepperoni watched Oprah.
Since I considered myself her apprentice, I was a bit disappointed. When I asked Miss Tee about lesson plans, she simply said, “I don’t do those.” There were no tests and I saw no evidence of any curriculum being followed. Eventually, Miss Tee laid it out for me nice and clearly.
“We’re self-contained special ed,” she said. “The school don’t care about us. How many times does the Principal come in here? Maybe once or twice to say ‘hi’ to the kids. These kids don’t take state tests! They don’t do EOGs. That’s what the school cares about. We just stay in our room and make it look like everything is nice and happy.”
Way back in the 1950s, a criminologist named Walter Reckless created what he called his “Containment Theory.” It concerns how individuals resist acting out in deviant ways. One of the main “buffers” in his theory is the “outer society,” which basically provides rules and dictates what is generally acceptable behavior. Thinking back on that classroom, with all those “behavior problem” students, it’s striking how the teacher, Miss Tee, might have been the most deviant of anybody. It makes sense, though. There was no outer society to keep Miss Tee in line. She had broken away from it, presumably after years and years of her special education class getting nothing but neglect and indifference from the rest of the school. Our class wasn’t really a part of the school society. And as a result, everyone did what they wanted. The kids played soccer. The teacher watched Oprah.
Remembering my time as her assistant, though, I can clearly recall those days when Miss Tee’s “inner buffer” took over and she did what she knew how to do: she taught. And man could Miss Tee teach when she wanted to. When she read the class a story, they sat there riveted. When she talked, they listened. When they misbehaved, she ended it with just a look. Being with Miss Tee, I saw glimpses of one heck of an amazing teacher. And I also saw – maybe more importantly – what can happen to a great teacher stuck in self-containment, in a school system that never bothers to look or say thanks.
(In Self-Containment: Memories of a Teacher’s Assistant is my ongoing serial about the year I spent as a TA in a self-contained special ed middle school classroom. The names of the students and teachers I talk about have been changed. “Deviants in the Classroom” is Part Three.)