An Unconditional Education

By Derek Govin

My classroom is a beautiful world of bright, talented, and sophisticated young men and women. It is a place of student learning, individualized education, research-based strategies, and student voice.

It is a place of love for public education. For professional growth. For the belief that all children deserve a better education.

No one warned me how much I would grow to love these students. No class prepared me for the overwhelming feelings for a child’s social and emotional well-being. No one told me that there would be tears shed over feeling helpless sometimes.

Yet this is exactly what a relationship between a teacher and the students is all about.

For those of us who are dog lovers, we know the excitement that hits you the very minute you walk through the door of your own home. Tails wagging, paws with nails clicking all over the floor, jumping when they definitely know they aren’t supposed to.

And why is that?

Because they simply cannot stand the excitement. Dogs can love us so unconditionally that they live for those moments of just seeing our faces again. Your warm embrace, petting his or her head, giving the scratches, or holding him or her while getting all the slobbers.

You’re so loved by them.

This is what our students deserve (minus the slobbers, perhaps): to be greeted with warmth and love that overflows. Our students deserve to hear and feel a sweet welcome, high five, or yes, even a hug. Our students deserve, and need, to be loved by their teacher.

Connecting with students in the first two weeks of school is vital. Laying down the foundations and the classroom rules should be happening, of course, but teachers sometimes get so focused on rules, procedures, and foundations that they forget to build loving relationships.

We simply cannot afford to fail at building these relationships. Nothing else can happen if those relationships aren’t there.

Connecting with a student with special needs means a variety of things. Most importantly, gaining the love and respect of the student can alter the student’s level of stress about the teacher, the classroom, and even the school.

When a student feels valued and empowered by the teacher, displaying inappropriate behaviors can be just as upsetting to the student. Knowing that not only are the behaviors inappropriate, but that the behaviors are “letting the teacher down,” can have a tremendous impact on the student.

A former student of mine was having a particularly hard day. The work load led to frustration and he tested the limits of appropriate behavior. Then he realized the desired reward wasn’t earned due to his behavior.

“NOOOOOOOOO!!!” he yelled loudly, disappointment and anger on his face.

Special education classrooms aren’t always rainbows and butterflies.

What happened next wasn’t what I expected.

As the student began to cry and have a meltdown, I thought, “Don’t make eye contact. State your stance once, then use only pointing with no eye contact to help guide the student to appropriate behavior. Wait it out.”

As I’m doing my part to help the student, I hear “Don’t hit Mr. Govin. That’s a baaaaaaad day!” What followed was possibly the gentlest punch I will ever feel in my lifetime.

That’s when the student erupted like a volcano.

Not because the student wanted to hurt me. I didn’t get “punched” because the student was mad at me. I was targeted because the student knew I would display an unconditional love because we had already built that relationship.

“I’m sorry Mr. Govin! That’s a bad day!”

Within a reasonably short amount of time, the meltdown was over and life continued. Processing began and alternative behaviors were discussed.

The level of love, respect, and understanding between the two of us allowed the student to feel safe with his feelings but also work through them without fear.

This is why connection is important. Students do not desire to be “bad.” I believe that all children are inherently good individuals by nature.

As a special education teacher, it is my responsibility to not only educate and empower young minds within my classroom, but to educate the school, the state, and the general public on the wonderful things happening within public education.

If you are reading this as a parent, I’m beyond excited to have your child in my classroom! Your child will be known, respected, educated, empowered, and loved.

If you are reading this as a teacher, I hope that this sharing brings you happiness while subsequently encouraging you to share your truth. Public education is a beautiful thing and it is time that we add our voices to the discussion.

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Derek Govin is a Special Education Teacher for the Hawaii Department of Education. He is also a Hawaii Hope Street Group State Teacher Fellow.