Snippets of one teacher’s witnessing of special education students’ mental and emotional health (or lack thereof) by Madeline Richer


Natasha, a ninth grader, bounces into my classroom sporting her usual goofy, childish smile and rushes to give me a big hug before chatting with her boyfriend. I calmly, but firmly, direct her to work on her essay that was due nearly a month ago.  She works slowly, but persistently, for the rest of the class period.  Last week, at her IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting,  I discussed her progress with her father and aunt.  We agreed  she has great potential, but she holds herself back  out of the fear of the responsibilities associated with high school, college, and adulthood.

My afternoon class begins, and Natasha doesn’t show up.  She should have been there to finally finish this essay, but she isn’t.  I ask another student if they’ve seen her, they respond that they haven’t.  Some time passes.  My colleague walks into the classroom to deliver some papers to a student.  I ask her if she’s seen Natasha.  She informs me that Natasha was sent to the hospital because she was planning to commit suicide. Oh and by the way, this has happened before.

The next day, I bump into Natasha in the hallway, and she smiles and gives me another hug before continuing on with her schedule as usual.



To say I taught Alex in my history class last year would be a stretch of the truth; Alex was on my roster, but he rarely attended class and when he did show up, wreaking of weed and high as a kite, he avoided schoolwork like the plague.  He would hold his pen and stare at his paper, feigning writing, for 10 whole minutes, without actually writing anything.  I had to sit next to him and coax him into simply turning to the right page.  One time, to avoid work, he claimed he couldn’t take out a pen and notebook from his backpack because his arm was too sore from basketball.

This year, he returned to my history class (because unsurprisingly, he failed it the first time around) and joined my English class with a brand new attitude.  He informed me that he was going to be “a better man.” Suddenly, as though he had been unleashed, Alex was filled with a hunger for learning.  His learning challenges were profound, and obvious to his classmates, but he persevered nonetheless.  Despite being several years behind in decoding, fluency, and reading comprehension, he would volunteer to read out loud in front of the class.  When assigned writing assignments, he wrote and wrote, filling up entire pages with  only somewhat coherent ideas, but with an internal drive that clearly shouted I CAN DO THIS, I WILL DO THIS, I AM GOING TO LEARN.  One day, after class, Alex surprised me by sticking around a few minutes after the bell to thank me for helping him become a better reader and writer.  In the spring, a reading assessment revealed that Alex had grown 1.5 grade levels in just 5 months.  The special education teachers were ecstatic, but nobody’s grin was wider upon receiving this news than Alex’s.

Shortly before Spring Break, a female student in my English class started shouting at Alex.  When I tried to intervene, she yelled that he kept “bothering” her.  I asked him if he had said something inappropriate to her, he admitted that yes he had, and he readily apologized.  Little did I know – until a colleague informed me – that he had been harassing her online.  Now, this young woman could stand up for herself and what’s more, probably could have ripped Alex’s head off if she wanted to, but Alex explained the situation as simple: He had a crush on her and wanted to get her attention.  While this may seem harmless, he was doing it by sending her offensive Facebook messages that totally disgusted her.  Alex couldn’t tell the difference between negative attention and positive attention.

At least three adults in the building, including myself, attempted to have frank conversations with him to make him realize both that his pursuit was a lost cause, and his methods were immoral and, if continued, could get him arrested.  He claimed he understood, but it was hard to tell what was getting through.  His demeanor had changed.  He was no longer the kind, driven Alex with intense focus on learning;  he was distant and scattered during classes and was no longer completing assignments.  Then, in the lunchroom, a group of popular students humiliated him with chants and encouraged the young lady to “show” him that she wouldn’t tolerate his behavior.  He cursed out a storm before fleeing the school building, leaving his peers gossiping for the rest of the afternoon.  The following day, we learned from his father that he had been admitted into a rehab facility in a hospital to address his drug addiction.

When Alex returned to school after about two weeks, he briefly returned to his quiet, hardworking self.  While waiting outside during a fire drill, he confessed to me that drug overuse had made him a worse person.  But he wasn’t fully recovered, something was still not right.  The school advised his father to have him evaluated by a psychiatrist, but advising is the most we’re allowed to do.

Shortly after his return, Alex cracked.  He got suspended for harassing a different female student, but, when he showed up to school the next morning, he was asked to leave.  He responded by cursing up a storm, yelling at any adult that attempted to talk to him or calm him down.  I wasn’t there, but I heard he pushed someone.  I also heard he pulled a weapon on school safety, but another version of the story was that he pulled out a pen.    He was taken away in handcuffs because he had become a threat to students’ and adults’ safety.

Yesterday, weeks after the incident, Alex returned to school and began attending his classes again.  I pulled him aside:

Me: “Hey Alex, welcome back, I missed you.  How are you doing?”

Alex: “I’m good.”


Me: “Yeah? What happened over the last few weeks? Do you want to talk about it?”

Alex: “I just got really mad, you know.  But I feel better now.”



We knew Kelvin was going to be a challenge before he even showed up to school, just from reading records from his previous school: His history included violence against peers, property misuse and damage, and verbal harassment.  His IEP stated that he required a para-professional with him at all times in order to be successful (and safe), but it soon became clear that a para-professional was not enough to keep Kelvin  on task during class.  He walked into class late, blasting music with profanity from his headphones and cursed out any teacher that told him to turn it off .  He’d walk out of the building without permission to buy Chinese food.  Kelvin was plenty smart.  Once, my co-teacher convinced him to watch a video version of the story we were reading and come up with questions about it.  He watched it, understood it, and then held a conversation with me about the story.  That was the closest I ever got to helping Kelvin learn.  I couldn’t even tell you what his handwriting looks like, that’s how much work he didn’t do.  Even at his IEP meeting, Kelvin refused to take his headphones off or look away from his phone.  When any of the 4 adults in the room addressed him, he responded with incoherent sentences alternating between one curse word and one non-curse word.

Kelvin’s family moved out of state.  I no longer (attempt to) teach him.


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