Nearly two years ago I took a year off teaching to write full time. Next year will be my third year away from teaching, but I still haven’t had the chance to write much at all. As often happens, ‘life’ got in the way of ‘dreams’.
After 18 years teaching internationally, my husband and I moved to our sixth country together in July, 2013. This was to be my first time not working. ‘The Plan’ was that I’d take a year off and try my hand at writing full time. We’d live off my husband’s salary for a year. If it worked out, great; I’d be the next J K Rowling (with the millions of dollars) or E L James (without the terrible clichéd writing). If it didn’t, no big deal; I’d go back to teaching full time, a job I loved and was pretty good at (I’m told). The Plan was that I’d get a job at the same school as my husband, which my children were also attending. A fifteen-minute walk through the park from our apartment.
My husband started work in August and my children went off to school, leaving me at home on the sofa for hours each day. Writing. At last! Except (and this is where I’m going to sound mighty spoiled, so forgive me), my ‘helper’, which is a euphemism for maid, had not yet arrived. For the first time in my spoiled expat life I was cooking and cleaning full time. And I…did…not…cope…well! I became cranky and nit-picky with my husband and children, and the tension in our house ramped up considerably. With all the moving-in organisation to do, I ended up with less than one or two hours per day to write, and by then I was usually so fed up with it all that I didn’t get much quality writing done.
My son reacted badly to the ‘new’ mother he had, and his anxiety spilled over into school. He didn’t cope well with the new social environment either, where he was suddenly ‘just another white kid’, rather than the superstar he had been treated as in China (where he’d been born), and our very Chinese suburb of Singapore (where we’d lived for two years and he’d attended Kindergarten).
He started school, and developed a new habit of constantly chewing on his collars, his bag straps, his water bottle. He’d never done this before starting at his new school, and I was annoyed that a child who’d never sucked his thumb or had a ‘blankie’ would suddenly choose to start doing something like that. I didn’t figure out until much later that this was a sign of anxiety.
For the first couple of months here in our new country he was fine at school, but when he got caught doing something silly in the classroom one lunch-hour and his teacher told him off, he completely broke down. Screamed ‘No’, ran away, and hid out in the shared area. When told about this, I reacted as a teacher, not a concerned parent. I told him off even more at home. I punished him. I reminded him that he had to do what the teacher says, every single time. I didn’t even stop to think why he had gone to hide from his teacher, to cower behind a cupboard in the corridor. I treated his behaviour as a sign of defiance and naughtiness, not a sign of fear. And pretty soon, we were to pay the price, big time!
Within six weeks of that first incident, my beautiful, funny, charming, sweet 6-year-old boy had been expelled. In six weeks, he’d gone from being fine to being unmanageable at school. Disruptive. Aggressive. Rude. Uncontrollable. Neither the school or us as a family had any idea why, and because he was new at the school they just assumed he’d always been like that. It was my first time sitting on the other side of the parent-teacher table. My first time not being thought of as a respected professional educator, but rather as a useless mother with a bratty kid. They didn’t know me as anything other than this problem child’s mother. My husband worked at the school, and I am in awe of how he managed to go in every day and face everyone and remain professional.
So, my son came home and stayed home for a while. After a month or so, we enrolled him in a local Montessori School, effectively repeating him in his Pre-Kindergarten year. We live in a country where the waiting lists for schools are often two or more years long, so we were fortunate to get him in somewhere. The only place available was the afternoon session – three hours per day. His teacher was young and inexperienced, but patient and caring. And he thrived. He was happy. He was learning (I gained a huge respect for Montessori education – it’s fabulous!), and the negative behaviours mostly stopped. He still wasn’t perfect, but he was doing okay. Within two or three weeks of starting at Montessori School, the chewing on things completely stopped.
He stayed at Montessori for the rest of the school year without much trouble. Towards the end of the school year, his previous school (where my husband works) sent their Deputy Principal to come and observe him in his Montessori class, with a view to having him start Year One again the next August. A week before she was due to observe him, I told him she was coming to visit his class, and he promptly started messing up again. Hitting other kids. Climbing under tables. Refusing to do as he was told. Shouting and being defiant. His teacher introduced a behaviour system for him and told the Deputy Principal about his recent behaviour. The Deputy Principal did not make the connection between his behaviour and his anxiety about her visit. She just assumed he’d always been like that.
My husband’s school is part of a large group of schools, and so my son has the right to a school place at any of the schools in the group. Many of the other schools have Learning Support Classes, and my husband’s school was pushing for my son to be transferred into one of them. The organisation that runs the schools wasn’t so sure he fit into that category. They sent some more people to observe him in his Montessori class, and these Special Education experts determined that my son was fine and belonged in the mainstream. So, in August 2014, he was put back into the same school he had previously been kicked out of.
Things didn’t go well. He had been assigned to a class with a beginning teacher who had two years’ experience and had gained her teaching qualifications online (she told me she previously ‘worked in fashion’). The class was very structured; each child had an assigned place on the carpet which was divided into squares, and the children were not allowed to get their own materials – they had to sit and wait until the Teaching Assistant brought them their pencils, scissors, books etc. My son didn’t do well with this kind of approach, and he often cried and ran out of the room. Or he curled in a ball in the library corner. When forcibly brought back in or made to go back to his desk, he became aggressive and would hit other kids, kick the furniture, etc. He spent a lot of time in the office.
After eight days back at school he was expelled again, permanently. My husband and I were called to that meeting, and were told to take him home and not come back.
It was August, a full year since I’d started on my one-year ‘full time writer’ experiment. And I still hadn’t had more than a few days’ worth of uninterrupted writing time. Things were not going according to The Plan!
My son was now too old to go back to the Montessori School, so I began home-schooling him. I am incredibly thankful that I’d always been a lower elementary teacher, so teaching him to read was a breeze. His maths is great too, so that was never a problem. But writing…oh boy! That’s when I finally started to realise what was going on. He was terrified. I could get him to do anything else. He’d work for hours. He’d clean his room. He’d read or do maths problems or work on science activities. He do it all, without any fuss or bother, until…I asked him to write. And then, he’d yell. He’d run away and lock himself in the bathroom. He’d push the chairs over and throw things on the floor. He’d shout at me. All to avoid writing even one sentence of invented spelling! And sometimes, even to avoid writing just his name. It would take me approximately three hours to battle with him, punish him, threaten him, bribe him, hound him, berate him, sweet-talk him, do whatever I had to do to get him to write. I could have just left it, but I was working on the premise that he just needed desensitisation. If he got used to it, I figured, he would be able to just do it. In the end I was right, but it took months and months, and I’m still not sure I handled it the right way. I guess I’ll never know.
For seven months, from August 2014 until March 2015, my son did not go to school. That’s difficult in a place like this where schooling is such a hot topic that it’s the first question anyone asks about – “What school does he go to?”. Ouch. I would just laugh and say, “That’s a long story…”. People would assume he hadn’t got a school place yet (which is normal here), and I never once told anyone, not even my family, that he had been expelled. That’s kind of humiliating for an ex-teacher! I was fortunate to have one very good old friend I was in touch with on Facebook, whose child has Asperger’s. She was my rock. Non-judgemental. Supportive. And on my side. Thank God for her!
In March 2015, my son was finally given a place in one of the Learning Support Classes here. It’s not a separate class, just an extra level of support to cope within an inclusive mainstream classroom. This time, we were armed with a much better understanding of what was going on with him. He’d had months of counseling, Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, work with a behavioural advisor. Psychological Assessments, visits to a psychiatrist (who spoke to him for ten minutes, then said that he possibly had Generalised Anxiety Disorder, that he had some signs of Autistic Spectrum Disorder, and possibly ADHD, and that we should medicate him for the ADHD ‘to rule it out’, ‘just in case he had it’ rather than try to help him with the anxiety or possible autism. No thanks!)
We knew that the major trigger for his behaviour was writing, and this time his new school believed me when I told them what I’d observed of this. It also helped that the only time he’d ever been non-compliant (downright ‘devil child’ actually) during his OT sessions was when the therapist asked him to write something, and she had written this in her report. So, we came up with a very slow transition plan where he visited school for some short sessions only, during play time, reading time, maths time, art, PE, etc. Anything but writing time. Slowly, he stayed for longer each day, until finally after three or four weeks he was there when some writing was expected. He didn’t like it, but he did it. Without throwing chairs around or kicking his teacher. Phew!
He has now been at school for six weeks, and is attending full time. He’s had a few ‘hiccoughs’, as his teacher calls them (about three incidents in six weeks, I think), but the difference is that his new school is determined to make this work. They are determined to help him, to get him on track and behaving, rather than putting him in the ‘too hard’ basket and kicking him out. I am so grateful, and yet I’m still so terrified that one day I’m going to get a call to go in for that meeting again.
He is doing fine academically (he’s way above grade level in both reading and maths), and has made some good friends. He’s happy. And he has even started to write the most glorious, funny stories in his own little notebook. The chewing has not returned. Yesterday, out of the blue, he said “I love school”, and when I told him that was great, and that he hadn’t loved school before, he responded “Yes I did. In Singapore, remember?” and he also said he loved it at Montessori School. Just not at the school that had kicked him out. When I asked him why, he talked about getting in trouble for hitting a boy who had been hitting him and picking on him everyday. He talked about the Principal not believing him. I don’t know if it’s true, and it doesn’t really matter because I think he’s in a better place now, but I feel sad for my frightened little boy and I feel guilty that the mother part of me didn’t ignore the teacher part of me. I didn’t stop to consider that maybe there was more to what was going on than a little boy being naughty, and I should have.
I should have spoken up when the Principal ‘restrained’ him so hard that she left bruises on his arm (she was the one who told me about this, so it wasn’t a case of abuse). My son recently started to talk about that too even though it happened over a year ago, so it was obviously a big deal to him and added to his anxiety. I should have spoken up when I found out he was to be put in that teacher’s class (I had previously subbed for her, so I knew what her class organisation was like!). I should have been his advocate, and stepped over from the teachers’ side to the parents’ side. Throughout the whole saga, I remained professional, and maybe I shouldn’t have.
I don’t know if my child is special needs or if he just had a really bad experience at one particular school. He is a bit ‘kooky’ on a social level, but I can’t help but think that I’ve taught lots of kids like him, and I’ve never been at a school that has kicked out a six-year old. So I waver between thinking that he must be really bad, or must have been really unfairly treated. I guess that’s the teacher/parent balance thing again. And I guess until he’s 25 years old and off on his own, not in jail or beating his girlfriends, I’ll never know.
I’ll just have to keep working on it and helping him and trying to teach him how to be one of the ‘good guys’.
And now, he’s at school full time. And I’m writing, almost full time (I’ve had to take a part-time job teaching Creative Writing as an after-school activity, just to help pay for all his therapy!).
This August I will start my third year of my one year off teaching.
I might even be able to get back to The Plan.
Except… I just got a phone call from his school that although he’s being good at school, he is now causing trouble on the school bus. If he does it again, I’ll have to do the commute with him myself. An hour and a half each way. A bus. A train. Then a taxi. And then home again. Sigh…there goes my writing time…again.
This is not part of The Plan!
But I tell myself he’s worth it. He’s so worth it!
Luanna Johns worked as an International School teacher for 18 years, in Asia, Europe, and Africa. She has recently left teaching to write full-time. She is the author of many books, the most respectable of which is How to Choose the Best School for Your Child. She’s not into judgement and says she’ll only know she’s a good parent when her children are 25 years old and haven’t spent any time in jail.
How to Choose the Best School for Your Child: By a Teacher, School Inspector, and Parent by Luanna Johns