The Work Comes Second

Author: Amy Shatila
Date: Mar 15, 2024

Today I met with a classroom teacher to discuss some work samples for a six year old in her class.

Within moments of sitting down at the tiny table near her desk, her eyes welled with unshed tears. “T isn’t doing the work,” she told me.

The contents of her red work sample folder supported that. Instead of sentences and stick figures, the pages were full of scribbles and erasures. Instead of neatly formed letters, I saw the hash marks of frustration and anger.

“I know T knows this, but I have to give them zeros, because they’re not doing the work.”

So we talked about T. We talked about T’s disability and what it looks like in class. We talked about how T is reluctant to sit down and how noise makes T upset. We talked about available support, and the support T’s teacher wishes she had. We talked about T’s accommodations and about alternate grading ideas for T.

“I try to do all I can for T,” the teacher told me. “But I have 39 other kids who I really want to spend time with too, and I feel like I’m not getting to be their teacher.” And as her tears spilled over, I saw her whole body respond to the weight of this statement.

And so we sat for a moment, T’s teacher and I, and we shared the feeling of overwhelm we all experience when we want to give so much but our time and resources are limited, and we feel unfairly divided.

“You’re doing a great job, and you don’t have to do it all,” I told her after a moment. “The most important thing is to make sure T feels safe and included.”

T’s teacher looked up. “We’re playing the long game?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re playing the long game. We may not see some of the skills we’re hoping T develops this year, and that’s okay. We’re showing up for T every day, and T is showing up for us every day. And right now, that’s enough.”

And then the teacher said the most profound thing I’ve ever heard in education. T’s teacher looked at me and said, “Thank you for giving me permission to be creative with T, because the work comes second.”

Y’all. The. Work. Comes. Second. Safety and trust come first. Relationships come first. Food and rest and play come first. There are a lot of “firsts,” and work products don’t make the list.

“Yes,” I said. “It is my professional opinion that the work comes second, and that what you are doing with T right now is far more important than any worksheet you could coerce T to complete.”


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