My semester as a teacher’s aide…continued

On Fridays this fall I’m recalling the memorable moments of my time as a volunteer teacher’s aide in 1997. I volunteered to serve in this capacity in several different school districts, each time for just a week. The highlight of the fall tour was the week of September 29 to October 3 when I was in the behavior unit at Smith Middle School in Killeen ISD.

The first thing I noticed about the classroom was the wrestling mats on the floor. I inquired about this and was told “That’s for when we take them down.”

Yikes. Maybe this volunteer gig isn’t such a good idea. The aide who told me about “taking them down” was my fellow teacher’s aide, a skinny young guy a couple of inches shorter than me and weighing in at a good 140 I’d bet.

“We…. we take them down, you say? We do that?” I asked.

“Yeah. These kids…. sometimes you have to take them down.”

The second thing I noticed was the size of one of the students. There were only five or six students (all boys, by the way) and one of them stood out. He was an 8th grader. An Enormous Eighth grader. I wondered if Skinny Aide had actually “taken down” Enormous Eighth Grader. I learned that this boy was on the middle school football team, which did not surprise me. He was big enough to play Offensive Line. Not just one position on the Offensive Line—he could replace the entire line from Left Tackle to Right Tackle. I learned that the school had had to cobble together two pairs of football pants to fit him. The middle school coach came by every day to see if his Offensive Line was ready to be released from the behavior unit. Kids assigned to the behavior unit were not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities.

Let’s pause on that for a moment. I’m not sure I thought about it at the time, but the boys should not have been barred from extracurriculars. This was not a disciplinary placement. This was a self-contained unit where the boys had been placed by the ARD Committee as per their IEPs. That’s an educational placement, not a disciplinary one, and the students should have been allowed to play sports, perform with the band, and all the rest.

I grew to like and admire the teacher of this class. His name was Ed and he had a genuine affection for these students. I did not see anyone “taken down” nor did I witness any serious misconduct by any of the students. But it was very obvious that these boys were doing poorly academically. By this time in the semester, I had spent a week in a 4th grade language arts class, and a week in a middle school Content Mastery room. The students I encountered in those classrooms struck me as bright, capable, and for the most part, well-motivated. It was different in the behavior unit in Killeen. The teacher was working hard, but he was dealing with a group of students who were already far behind their peers. Their frustration with the formality and monotony of schooling was obvious, and understandable.

I had two experiences that week outside of the classroom that left a lasting impression. The kids left school early on Monday and the teachers had a faculty meeting. I attended. They were reviewing the results of the state standardized test—the TAAS, which was the 1997 version of the STAAR test. I could see how these statewide tests served a useful function. When used to diagnose what the students could do, and where they needed help, the tests were useful.

For example, the head of the math department pointed out that the test results clearly showed that doing math calculation was not the problem. Reading was the problem. The multiple-choice math questions always offered one possible answer that was designed to ensnare the student who misread the question. And sure enough, that’s where most of the wrong answers were. The kids did the arithmetic correctly but got the wrong answer because they didn’t read the question right. I learned that the so-called math test was a reading test in disguise.

Standardized tests are not good for evaluating teachers and should not be the sole basis for assessing individual student growth. But at that faculty meeting I saw how the test results told the math teachers something that could help them improve their teaching.

The second experience was the middle school dance, and the unfortunate assistant principal who was assigned to monitor for dirty dancing. Seemed to me there was quite a bit of that, and I decided that it was time for me to thank God for a week of no “taking them down,” and head on home.

Next stop: McAllen.


Got a question or comment for the Dawg? Let me hear from you at