Kevin Stein

The Special Needs Issue – Kevin

Road Posts Along The WayKevinStein3 

Before I started working at my current high school, the man who interviewed me tried to impress upon me that the students were, “a bit of a challenge.”  They were futoko, which, he explained meant that they had missed over 30 days of a school year, not because they were truant, but because… and then he ticked off a laundry list of reasons. They had been bullied. They had anxiety disorders. They were diagnosed with light cases of Aspergers. They exhibited behaviors like mild self-mutilation. They had been victims of domestic violence. He looked at my resume, mentioned that he was happy I had social work experience in Chicago, shook my hand and offered me the job.  Funny thing, my social work experience hasn’t actually been all that helpful.  Not when I started and not now, five years into the job.

Now I know that futoko can be translated as school refusal syndrome. I’ve also taken in-services and learned that many futoko are labled in some way or another (ADHD, DD, LD), a garden of capital letters blooming throughout their school records. But being able to decipher a school record hasn’t taught me much about how to meet the needs of my students. Fortunately, my students are willing to tell me what they need themselves. All I have to do is pay attention to how they stand up for each other, and how they care for each other.

Here are six things that my students have taught me about how to create the kind of safe space that can foster learning in a classroom.  There is no particular order to this list.  On some days some things are more important than others.  Some of the ideas on the list might even seem contradictory.  That is because they are. Learners are people. There’s no manual for how to connect with people and there’s no map for how to go about learning. Still, a few road posts are better than wandering around lost.

1. Make every success a group success. My students all progress at different rates.  Some get stuck for weeks without any sign of improvement.  Some suddenly switch on and take in months’ worth of language in a few days. But when one of them passes a standardized test, wins a speech contest, or gets into university, they all celebrate. Because they are a language community, I do everything I can to foster this feeling. Learning to celebrate these successes—big and small—helps all the students feel as if they are moving forward. It is the tailwind that keeps them learning.

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2. Honor and welcome who my student is today. Yesterday and maybe for the whole month before that, one of my students might have taken notes, been active in class, and flashed smiles here and there. But today a cloud hangs over his head. He can’t put together a full sentence. Maybe he doesn’t answer back when I say hello. Still, he is in school. He managed to pull himself through whatever darkness greeted him when he woke up in the morning and got himself to class. Thinking about what he could do yesterday is not going to help him do any better today. One of my students’ most common greeting to a friend in a funk is a simple, “I’m glad you’re here today.” It is a great greeting. I would even put it slightly ahead of “nice to see you,” on my list of useful phrases.

3. Focus on the language, not the person. My students have been bullied, pushed out and ignored. When they share something about themselves, it is a gift. When they correct each other in class (and they sometimes do), they have a way of saying a word and waiting for a few heartbeats for their classmate to respond. That one word and pause seems to change the gears of the conversation. It shifts it out of the personal. Now I try and do something similar to separate the content from the language and make the class feel safer. Jotting down student language on Post It Notes, correcting it, and laying it down on their desk is one way I’ve found to help depersonalize the language of a communicative act.

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4. Focus on the person, not the language Often as I watch students have a conversation in my class, one of them makes a shocking grammatical error, and the other student does not comment on it at all. I think this probably has something to do with students’ ability to differentiate between an error, a mistake, and a slip. If you put the jargon aside, it is really about how sometimes people just can’t put together a decent sentence—in a second language, or even in a first. Depending on what else is going on with the person, sometimes those errors/mistakes/slips do not really matter very much. So on those kinds of days, let a student talk, and instead of checking for cracks in the surface of their words, dive a bit deeper down towards their intentions.

5. Have more patience for students than they have for themselves:  Missing 30 days, 100 days, 1 year, or 3 years of school can make anyone feel a little stressed about lost time. Compound that with a diagnosis that implies the future is less than well paved and it is no wonder my students get a little impatient with themselves. Fortunately, most of the students in class are in or have been through a similar situation. Perhaps that is why they never, ever, get impatient with each other. As the teacher, I’ve learned to take it a bit more slowly, extend my class wait time, and give hints as necessary until a student can answer any question I ask. Someday I hope to be as patient with students as they are with each other.

KEVIN Image3 6. Ignore general lists of things that should or shouldn’t be done for students. When talking with one another, my students have no such lists in mind. As far as I can tell, they also have no intention of making one, which seems to me to be a very good thing indeed. Watching them support, share, and relate with each other from moment to moment is the best way I’ve found to keep learning what it means to be the kind of teacher I need to be—for them and for myself.

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Kevin Stein

Kevin Stein is a teacher and a program manager. He works at Clark Memorial International High School. His areas of professional interest include how to use standardized tests to help students develop autonomous learning skills and the effective use of literature in language teaching. Kevin's Blog:The Other Things Matter Twitter: @kevchanwow

10 thoughts on “The Special Needs Issue – Kevin”

  1. Thank you so much for this Kevin. I read so much compassion here. Your students for each other and you for them. It is truly inspiring. The quotes that got me:

    “All I have to do is pay attention to how they stand up for each other, and how they care for each other.”

    “Because they are a language community, I do everything I can to foster this feeling. Learning to celebrate these successes—big and small—helps all the students feel as if they are moving forward. It is the tailwind that keeps them learning.”

    “When they correct each other in class (and they sometimes do), they have a way of saying a word and waiting for a few heartbeats for their classmate to respond. ”

    “Fortunately, most of the students in class are in or have been through a similar situation. Perhaps that is why they never, ever, get impatient with each other.”

    This is such an important post. It shows a perspective we don’t usually see when we talk about classroom dynamics. What a great question to ask the teacher-trainees: how do your students support each other?

    Thank you again Kevin.


  2. Josette,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve been working at my school for a little over five years now. When I talk or write about my students, everything they do has a sheen of normality about it. When I was writing this post, I was focused on just getting down what I saw the students do when they interacted with each other and how it’s changed my teaching. While in the back of my head, I knew there was something special about the way they supported each other, I had, in some ways, grown to take it for granted. Writing this post gave me a chance to see that their warmth and sense of community is probably the most important source of my satisfaction as a teacher. I think your idea of taking this idea of how students support each other into teacher trainings is a wonderful idea. Noticing and building on those channels of support seems like a natural way to foster a sense of group and community development.

    It’s great to have your feedback and your support, Josette. Probably part of the reason I’veeven tried to notice more of what my students do for each other is because I have a chance to see what members of iTDi and the ELT community are willing to do for each other as well.

    Feeling propped up,



  3. I was so moved by this post. There is so much to discuss here, point by point.
    First of all, I blessed your headmaster for hiring you. I have ecnountered schools were such classes of kids are denoted as the “punishment” classes, and equally divided so each teacher has a share of the “suffering”. The kids don’t deserve that.
    I totally relate to “honor and welcome who my student is today”. The only way to get such students back on track is not to make an issue of their off times. They need more leeway.
    “Ignoring lists” – such children can’t constantly be measured against someone else’s yardstick. They feel that they are fallling short anyway. The way you encourage them to be proud of their achievements really is something they will carry with them always.
    Hang in there – you are “doing good”!

    1. Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for the comment and also thanks for your post as well. The way you write about your own teaching environment and your students has been an inspiration for me. Hanging in there is a lot easier knowing that you are a part of my teaching community.


  4. Dear Kevin,

    I’m truly touched at how you’ve got such a keen eye to look past the external facade of your learners to who they are and what they want as well, something that I’m still developing myself. Your experience above gives me the feeling that you’re a very empathetic, understanding teacher who constantly strives to have great classroom dynamics as well as provide an enriching, fulfilling and well-connected learning environment for your learners. It reminds me of a quote by my spiritual master “The individual helps the group, and the group helps the individual”. These insights come with years of experience, and can never be obtained from any sort of teacher training program.

    As a teacher, I sometimes forget that beyond successful methodologies and well-planned lessons, dynamics of communication is another key principle that plays a huge role within the walls of a classroom, most importantly, the relationship between learners themselves.

    Most of all, you’ve really inspired me (and gently nudged my head) to pay more attention to how students connect to one another, and (a harder nudge) how important it is to “Honor and welcome who my student is today”. This really really struck a chord within me, Kevin. You’ve just taught me to look at the positive side of things and focusing on the eternity of the moment where my students are concerned, .

    Thank you very very much Kevin, I’ve got much to learn from you.

    Best wishes,

    1. Ratna,

      Your tireless energy and continuous support are a marvel. You are an inspiration. And thanks for pointing out that the boundaries between the group and the individual aren’t so clear. At least that’s what I’m taking home from your master’s words. It’s something I think I can really tap into in classes, even large classes, more than I do now.

      I don’t really feel like I’ve changed much of what I do in the classroom lately. I’m pretty sure the students just really care about and have formed a strong bond with each other. I’ve been watching and picking up things here and there, but I’m not being humble when I say that I’ve just been lucky to find myself with these students at this moment as a teacher.

      Yesterday was the last day of classes. I took in this article as well as the feedback I’ve gotten on Twitter and the comments here. I didn’t do any serious language work. I just let the students read the article and the comments. Then I thanked them for making this a great year and helping to make my job just about as good as it could possibly get. It was a great way to set up a new beginning from April. Thanks Ratna for being a part of it.


  5. Those students are lucky to have such an aware teacher guiding them along their ‘roads’. And I’m sure you feel just as lucky to be both guiding them and having them as guides.
    Only six short paragraphs and yet, volumes spoken, shared…
    Thanks Kevin

    1. Hello Jeffrey,

      Thank you for the positive feedback. It’s nice to think that I might be able to help someone get somewhere, at least metaphorically. I actually have the worlds worst sense of direction and have gotten lost walking to the bus stop any number of times. Maybe that’s one of the things that has changed this year, when I come to think of it. I’m much more willing to just ask my students for directions when I find I don’t know which way I’m going.

      I actually added a bit more to the six paragraphs. There’s two more additional points over on my blog at:

      Anyway, sorry for the shameless self promotion. I’ll stop now. Thanks again for joining in the conversation.



  6. Thanks for the inspiring post. The compassion and empathy you convey can inform any teaching practice, whatever the age and level of the student.
    I believe your students are lucky to have you as their teacher.

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