The student who immediately comes to mind whenever I am asked about the student who most impacted my teaching career is a young man I met when he was an 8th grader, and I was a substitute teacher. I spent a few months substituting before I got my first teaching job in the high school where this young man would later be on my special education case load and then later have a seat in my 11th grade classroom with me as his general education English teacher.
I tell this story often as I feel this experience was one of the reasons I decided I would actively pursue my teaching certificate. I was new to Georgia, an individual with a Master’s of Science in Psychology who had just begun the process of Florida state licensure when my then husband was transferred to Georgia. Our daughter was two, and I did not have the contacts in Georgia or the family who were always there to assist while I continued my studies and internships. I thought it might be a good time to begin my PhD, as I knew that being a 100% stay at home mom was not something I could do. In the meanwhile, I decided to substitute teach as my work in Florida had primarily been with adolescents.
I was called almost every day to work in the middle school close to my home. The middle school and high school were next door to one another. On one occasion I substituted for an English teacher of an 8th grade class. As I called roll I said each name clearly and asked that each child raise his or her hand so I could be sure of who was whom. I came to the name Derek C. within a few seconds.
There was no response. I called the name again, and I noticed some of the students snickering and pointing to a shaggy haired boy sitting next to the wall with his head down. I walked over to him and gently asked, “Why didn’t you answer when I called your name?” There was no answer. The other students began to laugh and began talking all at once:
“Don’t mess with him, he’s crazy.”
“Yeah, he just got out of the crazy house.”
“Look at his arms, he tried to kill himself.”
I looked at these students in alarm and motioned for them to stop talking.
I stooped down beside the boy and asked again very quietly, “Why did you not answer when I called your name?”
He looked up briefly and said, “Because my name is Dirk.”
I looked at the roster to confirm the spelling of his name and stated still quietly from my stooped position, “I am sorry, the spelling of your name is different on the roster. How do you spell Dirk?
He raised his head and was eye level with me. He spelled his name and watched curiously as I crossed out the name Derek and wrote Dirk beside it.
The other students started howling at this point and said, “That is not really his name, he is just crazy.”
I looked pointedly at the one I had already identified as the ring-leader and said, “I am quite sure that Dirk knows his own name better than you.”
Others said, “Look, he only comes to school when they make him. He’s in the crazy house all the time. When he’s here the teacher just lets him keep his head down so she can teach.”
Still from my stooped position I directed my voice to Dirk again whose head was down once more and I said, “Dirk, I am very glad to meet you. You do not have to keep your head down in class for me to teach, but even if you do, I see you. I know you are here.”
I patted the place beside his head and stood. I then began the lesson which just so happened to be on a short story by Edgar Allen Poe. At that moment inspired and feeling on a mission I asked if the students knew anything about Mr. Poe. Some did and some did not. So I talked about his childhood and how misunderstood he always was as a boy and even as a young adult. I talked about how creative he was and how difficult it was for him to connect with others.
I had all the students’ attention, but I noticed above all, I had Dirk’s attention. The look in his eyes was one I will never forget. It was a look of a child who felt for the first time someone had actually seen him.
Later that same year, I was offered a job teaching at the high school next door to that middle school. I would begin on a provisional certificate and would take my special education certification course work through the University of Georgia. This was February of 2004, and I was replacing a resource science teacher who had been dismissed for sexual misconduct with a student. I was not a science teacher, but it was physical science and I decided to make a go of it. After all, physical science is logic based. All my boys- yes, it was a class full of boys – passed the class and their EOCT (this was the first year for the GA EOCT).
Even though I was largely successful with these boys and in this class, I wanted to team teach in the English department as this was a subject I knew well and loved. In the Fall of 2004, I met was given my new case load. The first name I noticed was Derek C. I smiled, crossed out Derek and wrote Dirk. Somehow the universe had placed this young man and me together, and I knew I had made the right choice.
I took my job as a special education teacher seriously, as I did my job as a general education teacher. I was not satisfied with managing my cases from afar. I used my planning period to check on these students to get to know them initially, and to communicate with their classroom teachers and parents.
When it came time for Dirk’s first IEP, I made sure that all his teachers were there and that we made a plan that he would be successful in high school. I was convinced that in spite of a specific learning disability that Dirk was extremely gifted. Yes, he was strange. Yes, he had dark thoughts. Yes, he was difficult to reach, but these were all my first clues to his giftedness, not an impediment to his learning. Fortunately, he had some phenomenal teachers that year that would form strong relationships with him and who later agreed with my assessment.
When Dirk was at the end of 10th grade year I knew that the next year I would not be his case manager anymore, as I was moving into general education as an English teacher. We held his IEP. Dirk was passing all of his classes with mostly Bs and Cs, but he was passing. He had really begun to work hard in high school and I felt he needed to be released from the stigma of special education in order for him to really shine. His mother was frightened by the idea as he had been served in special education since elementary school. Dirk was very enthused with the idea. All of his general education teachers and his team teachers agreed that he had made extraordinary progress. So we decided to allow him to fly solo in his English and history classes, but that for math, science and then later his senior government/economics class he should be in a team taught class, just for additional support even if he was not receiving direct services.
In the fall of 2006 I would have my first general education American Literature class, 11th grade. Dirk C. was on my roster, and it was not a team taught class. Dirk was very shy, very quiet, he always had been. He stood out with his shaggy hair, his dark eyes and pale skin. I made sure he sat in direct view of my podium and not in the back as he was wont to do.
As the school year progressed Dirk did begin to shine. His verbal responses in class were not on the level of other students, they were above. He thought on a much deeper level and when we began to read the works of the transcendentalists that is when he really began to connect with the literature, it brought him out of the dark and into the light. He needed to know that there had been and are others who question the universe and what has simply been accepted. He was another brilliant mind that had been crippled with Bible Belt education. He had been deemed weird, mentally unstable, and learning disabled because he thought differently, because he saw the world in different terms than others. His existence had been lonely. No wonder he had made attempts on his life. He is not the first brilliant mind to have done so.
That would be my last year in this school and district. I had decided to move onto a new district that I felt at the time would be a bit more progressive. I hated leaving Dirk, and all my students, but it was time. However, I remained in contact with Dirk through his teachers. He received the award for most unique senior project his senior year. He made all As and Bs, and he was planning to go to college, not a major four-year university, but to learn something that could allow him entry into the adult world where he really could make his own decisions. This worried me. I encouraged him to take creative writing and art courses.
I attended Dirk’s graduation and was warmly hugged by his mother and of course Dirk. His mother thanked me for my faith in her son. Nothing from a book or a class, just simple open eyed faith in the potential of a boy everyone thought weird, and dangerous.
Dirk would over the next couple of years send me his papers for review and talk to me of his plans, of girls, his worries over his best friend. I would later help Dirk in his grief over the untimely death of his longest and dearest friend. Today, he is married to a lovely young woman and is doing very well in his career. We recently met for coffee and he told me he would always be grateful to me for all I had done for him. I told him I would always be grateful we had been placed somehow in one another’s path, that each of us needed what the other had to give.
Dirk is in his mid 20s. He has not founded a mega corporation, he has not invented anything that will change the course of human history, or written a Pulitzer prize winning novel. However, he survived school and is a happy and productive member of society. He is happy with who he is and judging by his posts on Facebook, totally comfortable marching to the beat of a different drummer.
So in a nutshell, without ever having read a book on gifted education, while not even enrolled in my first education course, I did what all teachers should be capable of doing: Seeing a child and recognizing that child’s uniqueness. Recognizing that there has to be a more significant reason than “badness” that a child wishes himself harm, and does not engage with the world around him or her.
I advocated for Dirk from the moment I crossed out the name he had disowned and he saw me write the name he claimed. All it takes is one teacher who then engages other teachers in the effort. Any teacher who does not want to join in the effort to bring a child to his or her potential is in the wrong profession. Any teacher that dismisses a child based upon what others say of that child without looking into his or her eyes, without attempting to reach that child on some level, does not need to be in the profession.
I took a risk as his case manager in suggesting that we remove him from special education services. This label had been a yoke around this young man’s neck for his entire educational career. It was a risk worth taking. Teachers must be prepared to take risks for their students and on their behalf. This shows faith in the child and in ourselves as educators.
When I began formally learning how to identify and teach gifted students, I found that much of what I have done has been right, and it has also caused me to reflect on various ways I could have done things differently. It has caused me to be a better parent to my own gifted child, for as Baily (2007) states, parents, teachers, and counselors must think about and communicate with the gifted child in a different manner in which they would an ungifted child.
I did not take the gifted course as a teacher to teach “gifted classes”. I took it to make me a better teacher to all my students. Taking the class on gifted education aided me in understanding my own child and students I taught, it helped me to understand much of what I underwent as a child, and even now as an adult who is different. It also has validated what I have long suspected; I am drawn to and have an intuition about students like Dirk, because I see so much of myself in them. Gifted children who come from ordinary or impoverished families often find themselves lost and struggling to connect with others. This may lead to anger, depression, and simply dropping out (Baily, 2009). I was there… but I found myself and my own giftedness and am still striving to reach my fullest potential… to become as Maslow taught, self-actualized. My way there was to lead my students to their own level of actualization.
Bailey, C. L. (2007, October). Social and emotional needs of gifted students: What school counselors need to know to most effectively serve this diverse student population.
Paper based on a program presented at the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision Conference, Columbus, OH.
Dr. Burnett-Brown left teaching in Dec. 2016 due to irresolvable conflict with Cobb County School District. She is now a Supreme Court Approved Mediator with the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution and a Diversity and Inclusion consultant.
This is not a new career for Dr. Burnett-Brown, but rather a return to one she began in Florida as a Guardian ad Litem as well as a family and adolescent counselor and mediator.
Dr. Burnett-Brown is committed to fairness and justice. In her role as a mediator she must serve as a neutral, and will in her role facilitate negotiations between parties that bring about the most equitable resolution for all parties involved. When children are involved in either education or domestic disputes, the best interest of the child will always be recognized and served.
Note: This story is posted with speical permission from “the boy named Dirk.”