One breakthrough at a time
Pat Harmon knows intimately what her students are going through.
“I know. I remember sitting in sixth grade,and the girl behind me, when I was reading aloud, was chuckling and laughing when I kept missing words,” said Harmon, a reading specialist at Thomas Harrison Middle School in Harrisonburg and the 2008 Harrisonburg Teacher of the Year.
Her father used to sit her on the bed and have her read to him – “and he would ask me questions to make sure I understood,” Harmon remembers.
Back in her day, “They didn’t have the learning-disability label. Either you understood and you were making it, or you were retarded,” Harmon said. Today, of course, we know that there are a myriad of possible reasons why some students are more likely to struggle than others, and just as many different approaches for reaching out to them to help them get over the hump.
Which isn’t to say that it’s at all an easy thing to do, even for someone like Harmon, now in her 32nd year of teaching, who knows what it means to have a hard time learning a new concept.
“Building relationships comes first,” Harmon said. “I just sat today after school with a very frustrated young girl. I share my history with them at the beginning of the year. It’s kind of a fun thing. I tell them the first day of school I’m going to give them a quiz, but it’s a fun thing. I give them some facts about me and about the school and that kind of thing. She was so angry, and she kept erasing, and she wouldn’t talk to me. So I looked right at her, and I said, I know how you feel. You feel stupid, don’t you? And the tears …”
… started to flow. It’s happened more than once for Harmon, that kind of breakthrough moment.
“It’s God’s gift. It truly is. God has given me a gift to be able to connect with these kids,” Harmon said. “It’s important to be able to reach them where they are and then build from there. If you don’t put things in front of them at their instructional level, it doesn’t matter how good your relationship is, they’re going to shut down on you. And at this middle-school age, I feel very blessed that I have students who still want to connect and still are willing to take that academic risk. They’re willling to take that risk with me and invest their time and energy with me as a person, and they’re also willing to step outside that comfort zone to be willing to let me in to help them.”
And that student who was her most recent breakthrough – well, it’s baby steps sometimes, but baby steps in the right direction are still steps in the right direction. “I helped her pick out some books in the library,” Harmon said. “She doesn’t hate reading, because I’ve seen her when she gets the books she can read. She’s a sixth-grader, and she’s way below her level. In my classroom, it’s safe to read those books, but you can’t be seen carrying those books in the hallway. So I showed her. I said, Let’s get this book, and we’ll go to the library and put it inside this book, so when you carry it, it’s OK. But when you get it home, read it!”
– Chris Graham