Friday, February 14, 2014

It's the Small Things

Post by Shannan Retter: Shannan is a 2005 graduate of Bettendorf High School and is currently in her 5th year of teaching special education at BHS. You can follow her on twitter @ShannanRetter

As I was sitting in the Bettendorf High School gym in 2005 waiting to walk across the stage to receive my diploma, the last place I thought I would be nine years later would be back in the same high school gym, watching the first group of students I  ever taught walk across the same stage. I graduated from St. Ambrose University with a degree in elementary education and student taught in a first grade classroom.  The idea of teaching high school, let alone being a special education teacher at a high school, had never crossed my mind. Fast forward a few years, and I’m doing exactly that at the same high school from which I graduated. My principal is now my boss, my teachers are now my co-workers, and my classroom is now nestled between my old English classrooms.  Some people might find that weird (and it was at first), but after four years, I wouldn’t change a thing!

Most of the students I teach are struggling readers.  Several of them read at least a couple of grade levels below their peers.  They saunter into my classroom on the first day of school with a little bit of confidence, but also a bit of hesitance and fear because they realize they just walked into their English 9 class.  These students have been struggling readers for years and most of them dread reading.   When I tell them that they are going to be reading every day with me, of course, I get the usual “ughhhhs” and “oh no I’m not”.  A few weeks later, as students are walking to the board to add a sticker next to their name for reading a book cover to cover, I ask them when the last time was that they finished a book by themselves.  Most of them can’t give me an answer because it has been so long.  This might be a small accomplishment through some people’s eyes but to a student who is reading at the 6th or 7th grade level in high school, it is huge.

Over the few years I have been teaching, I have learned that we have to focus on the small things to continue to see our students grow academically and emotionally.  Very few of my students, if any, have never really experienced success in reading.  Their confidence in their reading and writing skills is usually nonexistent when they  walk through my classroom door.  By the time they get to me, they have checked out and it’s up to me to build that confidence and show them some success. They have to see at least minimal success with themselves before they can conquer bigger and more important tasks. 

I usually have a group of students for a full year and a half as they move through English 9 and 10. These particular students really struggle with reading and writing, as well as their own emotional struggles.  I watch them accomplish small things over the year and a half as they sit at their desks within the classroom walls. I watch as they finish book after book.  I watch as they learn new vocabulary words.  I watch as they learn to write a paragraph using capitalization and punctuation correctly.  Most importantly, I watch them gain confidence in their reading and writing skills.  They begin to come out of their shell. They begin to raise their hands to participate in classroom discussions and answer questions.  They begin to read and write on their own.

With this year’s group of students in my English 10 class, I let them decide what we did the last few weeks of the semester.  I told them what standards we needed to cover but how we got that done, was up to them.  We had just finished the second book in the Tears of a Tiger trilogy and, so far, they loved it.  They had the option to work on a project, any type of project they wanted, to show me how they comprehended the story and what they had learned or to start reading the third book.  They chose to continue reading.  I was amazed.  They could have created another iMovie but no, they chose to read.  All of their small accomplishments I had watched over the past year and a half had led to this huge accomplishment of having the confidence and desire to continue to read!

 I am not going to lie and say that being a special education teacher is a breeze because it definitely is not.  There are some days when I question why I went back to school to earn a degree in this field.  But then I remember the small things my students have been able to accomplish as they move through high school.   Most of my students leave my classroom after a year and a half making great strides in their reading.  It’s exciting to me to know that because of the hard work they put in during the instructional time with me, they are going to be more successful adults. 

My students also do small things outside of the academic world that reassure me that I’m in the right profession. There are days when I get a thank you card from a student, a picture a student drew for me, or they think of me to bring the snack they worked so hard to make in Foods and Nutrition or Introduction to Baking. There are the times when my past students hang out in my classroom before school or in between classes. Those cards, pictures, treats, moments, and knowing I made a difference are what keep me loving my job...the small things. 

As I sit at this year’s graduation ceremony, watching the class of 2014 walk across the stage, I will think of the small things that they accomplished that have now compiled into the biggest accomplishment they have had in their short lives.  I’ll also wonder if they’ll ever realize how the innumerable baby steps on the paths of reading and writing have led them to this endless road of confidence that will take them wherever they want to go in life. Just knowing that I have been a part of guiding them on their way verifies that I am in the right place, back where I started at Bettendorf High School.


  1. Shannan, as I read this, I think back to the day I came into your classroom when the students read the first book in the "Tears of a Tiger" series. Their excitement about the book, their knowledge of what they read and their retelling of the story was contagious. This is a great example of how you have taken some our most struggling students and built their confidence until they have become readers. Thank you for sharing one example of the awesome work you do every day with our students.

  2. Nice reminder to celebrate the little things. I feel lucky to have such a caring, hard working teacher just down the hall, making a difference for those students.