For my blog post this week I am going to go a bit off-topic and share some of my reflections about an exceptional learner I have in my second-grade classroom this year. I wanted to put these thoughts down somewhere because this is one of the most unique experiences I have had as a teacher. Just like I had my students write to capture and memorialize their Home Learning experiences during CoVID-19, I wanted and needed to do the same.
Mr. Watson is not the character from the Mercy Watson books, though the books’ character would become the inspiration for my student’s “new name.”
Before I had formally met Mr. Watson in August 2019, I had heard the numerous stories. He was infamous. I worried about having him in my class. Would I know how to meet his needs? How would I get him to do any of his school work? How would I manage all of the incidences? I heard the stories of the shouting and yelling in class, of the running away from teachers, and of the isolation from peers.
When I saw him walk towards my classroom on that first day of school, Mr. Watson was wearing his green-uniform polo-shirt on top of grey sweatpants. He had his best friend in tow-a Spiderman teddy bear named Teddy. I had no idea of the impact he was about to make on my life. When I saw him, all I could muster was a deep breath to brace myself for what was about to come.
He walked closer with a surprised look on his face. He stopped and hesitated looking overwhelmed by the students unpacking at their cubbies. He did not greet them. They did not greet him. We all waited to see what he would do next.
One Step at a Time
Regardless of whether or not I was ready, the year was underway. I would either sink or swim.
The first few days felt like a mess. I quickly saw that Mr. Watson loved reading books. However, when he did so, he read aloud to himself VERY loudly. This made it difficult for anyone to focus on their own reading. During Independent Writing time, Mr. Watson would write airline boarding passes, while the rest worked on personal narratives. There were times he’d say he was tired and lay down to take a nap. He would run from the classroom when it was lunchtime (his favorite time of the day). He’d yell when he didn’t get his way. He would interrupt while I was teaching. How could I ever get anything done with these interruptions? How could the students concentrate? How could I make things run more smoothly each day?
I did research online, found visual schedules and reminders, and got some tips from a visiting expert in the field of special education. I was learning along the way, trying my best. I gave him a pair of headphones that seemed to help when he was reading independently. I let him write a made-up narrative story with his best friend Teddy as the main character. It wasn’t a personal narrative, but he was writing and trying out things like dialogue and adding details. I started using visual timers so he could break up his work into smaller bits of time.
Little by little, I was able to build a relationship with him. Instead of keeping him from playing with Teddy, I would engage him in conversations about Teddy. I indulged in some of his eccentricities. His love for airplanes, dogs, and food. I shared pictures of my dogs. He instantly loved them and asks about them every single day. I’d answer his repetitive questions like, “What sound does thunder make?” As I gained his trust, he started to respond to some of the strategies I had put into place.
Others were Watching
While I was gaining his trust, he was stealing my heart. I couldn’t help but love his clever ways of maneuvering his way out of his classwork. I loved how he held one of Teddy’s paws while I held the other paw and we walked down the hallway with the rest of the class following.
He may have had me wrapped around his little finger, but I wasn’t seeing the same response from my students, yet. I wanted more than tolerance towards Mr. Watson from the students. I wanted them to show Mr. Watson they cared about him. I wanted the students to interact with him. I wanted him to become an important member of the classroom community. This would happen with time. I was hopeful.
I knew the students were watching me. They could see how I treated him and how I responded to his strange behavior. I was aware that my actions could have a big impact on them, so I did my best to show him love, care, acceptance, and patience through my actions each and every day. The students picked up on this. They took note and they started to change too.
Eventually, I saw small improvements. They were interested. They had questions. They thought he was interesting and therefore they wanted to know how they could interact with him. They too would feed into his eccentricities.
We’d also do little things in the classroom like have conversations about Mr. Watson while he was out of the room so that the students could better understand him. They’d ask questions about his behavior. I’d explain that his classroom expectations would look different than theirs. I’d help them understand why. We discussed how fair doesn’t mean giving every child the same thing. I helped them understand times like when Mr. Watson would get to play his favorite math game, Prodigy, as a reward for completing a task. I read aloud books about acceptance, love, and being different. It took time and effort to help my students understand that he was worthy of their love and friendship too.
One big turning point came when I introduced the Mercy Watson Series by Kate DiCamillo to my class. He fell in love with the characters. I even had a wooden Mercy Watson pig in my classroom and he began carrying her everywhere with him. He loved Mercy and he loved pretending to be Mr. Watson, eventually, I became Mrs. Watson to him.
Mr. Watson’s love for all things Mercy Watson gave me some leverage in getting him to do classwork. I’d say something like, “First you will complete pages 145-146 in your math workbook, then you can read Mercy Watson.” It worked some of the time.
My wonderful assistant would speak to him in her Mercy Watson voice. She’d answer his questions geared towards Mercy and she’d respond in her cute Mercy voice. He loved it and so did we because we were able to get him to do some of his work this way.
The students loved it too. Eventually, many of them became Mercy Watson characters to him. He renamed one girl, Mercy Watson. He still refers to her as, “Darling” like Mrs. Watson does in the books.
His love for the Mercy Watson Series helped spotlight his loving, playful, and fun side. Students were starting to see another side of him. They were interested and wanted to be around him. For some, it was easy to love Mr. Watson, but it took some others a bit longer to find this love.
One moment I will never forget was at lunch one day when I saw a group of second-grade boys teasing Mr. Watson at the lunch table. As I sat and ate my lunch, I could see that the conversation between the boys and Mr. Watson was not one out of kindness. These students were trying to humiliate him. They wanted to prove that he was not smart. However, he proved them wrong by answering every single math problem they threw at him correctly.
Before I even had a chance to get up and stop it, one brave boy stood up and came over to report the incident. He saw what was happening and he said something. I was so proud of him!
I was also sad and disappointed with the other kids. I was, however, able to turn this into a teachable moment. I showed my students how hurt I was that day by the actions of these students. I cried in front of all of them. I couldn’t hold it back, but that pain resonated with my second graders. It changed them. It changed me.
After that day, I saw more and more students who were going out of their way to be helpful to him. They would invite him to sit with them at lunch. Ask him to play at recess. They would play along with his make-believe games. Rub his back when he was angry. Accept that his classroom behavior looked much different than everyone else. They accepted Teddy as a class member. They wanted to hear what he had to say. They laughed at his silliness. They were calm when he was angry. They would tell him, “It’s okay, Mr. Watson” and bring him a tissue to wipe his tears.
I’ve seen a boy in my class go from being on behavior probation for a series of poor choices since 1st grade to being one of the most kind, caring students towards Mr. Watson. I’ve witnessed this boy invite Mr. Watson to play at recess, teach him how to play Kerplunk, and attempt to engage in a conversation with Mr. Watson and his pal, Teddy.
The students who had ignored him on day 1 had grown to love him.
Then COVID-19 pushed our school online. I wasn’t sure how Mr. Watson would continue to learn. I had strategies in the classroom I used to motivate and direct him, but even then it was a constant struggle to keep him on-task. Not being able to see him in person would make this an even bigger challenge. I felt pretty helpless.
Fast forward three weeks into Home Learning and he hadn’t done anything. Grade 2 wasn’t using Zoom yet and the only thing we could do was reach out to the family to make sure he was okay. I knew it would be difficult for his parents to support him at home, but it was also difficult for me because I missed him and I didn’t want to leave him behind. I couldn’t just give up on him. I wanted to support him in some way. Eventually, I connected with him through his mother’s WhatsApp a few times, and soon after grade 2 started using Zoom.
In addition to our regular morning Zoom meetings, I held Office Hours from 2:00 P.M. to 3:00 P.M. every day. Students could join through Zoom to get extra support in Reading or Writing. Most days there were only one or two students who popped in for a question or one student who was working on something, but Mr. Watson was there every day at 2:00 on the dot. He’d say, “Good Afternoon, Mrs. Watson. Where are Benny and Bowser (my dogs)? Do they bark at me?” Then he would turn off his video and pretend to bake different sweets as he read the recipes online.
I’d listen and say things like, “delicious, yum, are you going to deliver?” We’d go on like that for an hour and in the end, he’d say, “Talk to you tomorrow, Mrs. Watson!” We didn’t get much accomplished in that hour, but I sure looked forward to seeing him every day and my love for him continued to grow.
After like 8 weeks of Home Learning, I started to realize the potential for never going back to school this year-never working with Mr. Watson as his teacher again in the classroom, never seeing my students interact with him again- I was incredibly sad (I’m crying now writing that). I felt like this child had been placed in my classroom for a reason.
To make matters worse, I found out that the school had decided that we could no longer meet his needs. He would need to find a new school for grade 3. I haven’t stopped thinking about that since. I worry about him. I feel sad that my students and I have grown to love him and now he will have to leave and start all over. What can I do to change this?
Despite feeling super sad about having to say goodbye to Mr. Watson in a few weeks, we were finally able to go back to school after 14 weeks of Home Learning. I was so happy to be able to finish the school year off with my students in the classroom, but it wasn’t the ending I wanted.
It breaks my heart because I look at the impact he has made on all of our lives, and I think it is so unfair. It’s unfair to him. He has found a place that accepts him. He’s made friends this year. He knows he is loved at our school.
It’s unfair for the students who have grown attached to him. It is unfair because I believe our school is the best place for him at this time and place. I’m not sure he has other options; especially with a global pandemic making it difficult for anyone to relocate. It breaks my heart to think about how helpless his parents must feel.
This year, I’ve seen Mr. Watson make friends-REAL friends. Students who care deeply about him. Classmates who play with him at recess, walk him to specials after lunch, and patiently listen as he tells us made up stories that seem to be a reality to him.
I know that because of Mr. Watson, none of us will ever be the same. My students are more compassionate and more accepting of people with differences. I am a better teacher and person because of him.
Next year will be a little less bright at school without Mr. Watson.