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How one teacher, child, and parent turned failure to success. Gradually, school became more than an aching wait for recess

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When seven-year-old Charles was transferred to Virginia Chalmers's classroom, he left behind a trail of scholastic disaster. At his former school, Charles had spent nearly five hours of every day in the principal's office. Teachers had given up on him. His mother, a single parent of West Indian background, had given up on the teachers.

If something was going to be done to redirect a child already heading for academic failure, it had to be done - fast.

``I had to build a relationship with him and his mother,'' says Ms. Chalmers, then a first-grade teacher in the Cambridge school system. She is now director of the Eliot-Pearson Children's School, a laboratory school at nearby Tufts University. Outlining her approach, she explains that when dealing with a child who has a behavior problem, ``it's important to understand his understanding'' about what's appropriate and what isn't.

In the case of Charles (not his real name) the issue of correct behavior had so overwhelmed his experience that it was all he talked about. ``I can't concentrate,'' ``I can't sit still,'' were his constant refrains.

``My job was to make him feel like he can do those things,'' says Chalmers, a veteran of 14 years of teaching, mostly in the Cambridge system. Her approach was to help Charles realize that school could be interesting, fun, and relevant to things he really cared about.

One of her first steps was to recruit his parent's active assistance. Charles's mother agreed to make sure he got to school by the ``first bell'' every morning, well ahead of most of his first-grade classmates. This meant Chalmers had 20 minutes or so to concentrate on him and help him plan for the day ahead.

Among other things, she had him put notices of activities on the bulletin board, so that he could have some feeling of having a part in making the class run smoothly. Before, his only ``plan'' had been to get to the playground as quickly as possible.

She discovered, too, that Charles had a passionate interest in insects. This was a key. Scientists have to know math - something this child had an aversion to. And ``they read a whole lot,'' Chalmers told him.

An interest in the natural world is ``one route'' toward becoming a student. It's often particularly useful with young boys who've been turned off to schooling, says Chalmers.

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