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A Frustrating Failure
by Michele Ben


If last year had been my first year of teaching, it probably would also have been my last. After teaching for a quarter of a century, I had enough successes under my belt that experiencing total utter failure with one of my classes was not enough to break me. But it almost did.

The class that will be forever imprinted in my memory as the most frustrating was an eighth grade "TELEM" class. "TELEM" means "tochnit limudim mutemet" (tailored curriculum). It is a program sponsored by "Agaf Shachar" which provides the budget for programs for regular pupils having difficulties. The class was formed a few months after the pupils began Junior High School in the seventh grade. The pupils chosen for the class were failing in almost all their subjects in school, but the teachers felt that they had potential because they seemed to understand the material but did very poorly in their written work. In a "TELEM" class of 20 - 25, the pupils study fewer subjects for more hours each than in the other classes. The class also gets lessons in learning strategies and their homeroom teacher is paid extra hours in order to keep close tabs on all the pupils. Furthermore, there are two teacher's aides in the class with the teacher. The logic behind the program is that studying fewer subjects with more adult support will lead the pupils to success and eventual integration into the regular classes. In theory, this makes sense. But when the class was formed things didn't work as planned. Although pupils with extreme behavioral problems were not placed in the class, the dynamics in the class brought out the worst in each pupil's behavior. All the teachers who taught the class tried hard but all found themselves struggling with discipline rather than teaching. In English things were no better than in other classes and perhaps worse. I didn't teach the class when they were in the seventh grade, but one of the teacher's aides, who had worked with me as a teacher's aide in an Ometz class in the past, told me about what was going on.

Towards the end of the school year the school was thinking about canceling the class and a serious discussion was held with the pupils. The discussion revealed that the pupils understood the goals of the class, could verbalize their difficulties and they expressed a sincere desire to continue studying in the framework of "TELEM." They felt that the class provided the only opportunity for them to succeed in school and actually complete 12 years of formal education. It was decided that the class would continue into the eighth grade but that the most disruptive, violent pupils would be returned to the regular classes.

The class began the eighth grade with a slight change in the population; a few pupils were removed and replaced by others. Only experienced teachers who usually managed to control their classes with relatively few discipline problems were scheduled to teach it; I was to teach English. As a former special education teacher, I am trained to teach in special classes. After retraining as an English teacher, along with regular classes I have successfully taught in Ometz classes, one and three point classes in the high school and in special education classes. I knew that with this particular class I was in for a challenge. But I had faith that we would be able to work together and that the pupils would improve and succeed in English. I was mistaken.

At the beginning of the year I soon discovered that the pupils would not listen to me at all. I could barely get them seated. They would not be quiet long enough to hear directions. Although I spent hours planning and constructing what I considered to be appropriate lessons, taking into account the fact that many of the pupils could not yet decode, I couldn't conduct any activities or games that required any sort of listening on their part. Many would wander around the classroom and wander out of the classroom. I had two teacher's helpers with me. These were kids who had just finished high school and deferred their army service in order to do community service. However, they saw their role as a friend to the pupils rather than support for the teacher. They would sometimes even talk to the pupils while I was waiting for the class to settle down; they would sit on the tables, answer their cell phones and often leave the classroom before the end of the lesson. Rather than help, their presence was a hindrance. Soon I found that I was spending five hours a week in the class feeling utterly useless; I could have been an air balloon as far as the pupils were concerned. I tried to employ the help of the homeroom teacher, the coordinator of the eighth grade classes and the school principals but found that I was not getting much response from anyone. The quarter was ending and I needed to submit grades. Grades?

Although it seemed as though I was in a deep black hole with no way out, when I tried to consider the situation from a more positive vantage point I realized that we had made some progress. The pupils didn't leave the classroom during the lessons, some had started to work some of the time, most were willing to do something as long as an adult was sitting next to them and some had opted to try to read Dr. Seuss books that I had received through the Books for Israel project. I also had managed to give the pupils a diagnostic test, with an individualized assessment session aimed to determine how exactly to help each one of them and had conducted personal conversations with everyone. It seemed that all was not lost and I still believed that success was possible.

Since it was impossible to get the class to listen together to any sort of explanation about anything, it was clear that each pupil would have to work individually. The diagnostic test showed that there were three levels in the class: those who couldn't read but did know the names and sounds of most of the letters; those who could decode, had a basic vocabulary but had difficulty understanding; and those who could decode, had a wider vocabulary and could understand a passage when it was read to them but had difficulty with reading comprehension when they had to read to themselves. Within these three groups the pupils displayed a wide range of abilities and disabilities. The strongest group used "Rescue 2" and the other two groups used "Goals 2."

At first I thought that I would work with the pupils within these groups, each group with the book assigned to it. However, this soon proved to be impossible as well. The only solution it seemed was to have the pupils work individually. By this time, there was a paid adult teacher's aide in the classroom and the kids doing community service had begun to function as adults most of the time. Some of the time, some of the pupils worked. There were days when it seemed that most of the pupils were cooperating and that things were improving. But then the very next day would be disastrous. I did my best to be consistent, be predictable and never yell. However, I never knew what to expect when I went into that class. Believe it or not, sometimes I would get there and the room would be empty! Then the kids would file in 20 - 25 minutes late. And by now the first semester was coming to an end and I really had to give grades because of report cards. How in the world would I give these kids grades?

After thinking long and hard, I came up with a solution to the grading conundrum. The pupils would do a self evaluation and give themselves a grade. Then after a discussion with me about their self-assigned grade we would decide together what grade would go on the report card. To help them think objectively about their performance, I devised a questionnaire for them to fill out. The questionnaire focused mainly on work habits rather than actual achievement. The pupils were quite candid and evaluated themselves pretty accurately. I was both surprised and impressed. However, this process demonstrated to me that I needed some sort of mechanism to evaluate achievement and not just work habits. So I designed a progress chart and wrote an explanation sheet. After completing a unit of work, the pupils would take a quiz. They could have three chances to take a quiz until they got the grade they wanted. After three units, they would take a test which could be retaken to improve the grade. My aim was twofold: one, to give them as many chances to succeed as possible and two, to insure that they really internalized the material. The progress chart, directions, blank questionnaire and notebook went into a clear plastic folder that I prepared for each pupil and that was to be left in school so that it wouldn't disappear; the pupils were responsible for bringing their books to every lesson.

The homeroom teacher helped me present the new plan. The pupils thought it was a good idea. They were happy to receive the folders and brought their books to class regularly. My hopes rose. A few more pupils started working more consistently. But all in all, the pupils' performance was still rather erratic. When I thought about each pupil individually I could see that each one had progressed a bit. However, when I thought about the class as a whole or about what I knew each pupil was capable of doing, I knew that I was still in the black hole. And things weren't looking good.

The final quarter arrived along with the holidays and strikes. Any progress that had been made seemed to evaporate. At the end of the year I felt like I had been spending my time energetically driving a parked car. The year was over and I could honestly say that I had not really helped my pupils in this class. I am a firm believer that all children can learn and when provided with the right approach, they will. This class came close to shattering that belief. I had employed all the tools at my disposal and then some. Although I know that English is a particularly difficult challenge for these kids because of their learning disabilities coupled with a history of failure, I thought that I would be able to help. But I failed. I certainly got a taste of what they feel in school day after day. But more significantly, this failure lead me to question my abilities, knowledge and capabilities. At the close of the school year, my confidence was rattled and I was full of self-doubt. And I couldn't even use the excuse that the kids hated me; they didn't. They would smile and say "hi" to me in the hallways, come and talk to me during the breaks when I was hall monitor and come up to me in the street out of school to chat. I think that if I were an object of hate to them, failing to motivate them to learn English would have been easier to accept.

The class was assigned a different teacher this year. Like last year, the most disruptive pupils were removed from the class and others are taking their place. Maybe things will be different. I wish her success.

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