Kathryn DeBros on Failing Physics and the Special Needs Classroom

Noodle Expert Kathryn DeBros shares her experience struggling through high school physics and what she learned from teaching elementary school students with special needs.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

I love to play the dinner party game. Who would I invite to my dinner party? There are so many fascinating people. Mark Twain, for his sharp wit and clear perspective that cuts through social nonsense. Michael Pollan, for conversations about the environment, politics, and food (one of my favorite topics). The Avett Brothers, because their lyrics are positively poetic, and I love the southern accent. Billy Collins, because his poetry is conversational and funny and so like life. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, of the YarnHarlot knitting blog, because she understands how healing and meaningful simple things — like sticks and string — can be.

But if I had to commit to one teacher for a year, I would absolutely choose Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who masterminded Homeboy (and Homegirl) Industries in his efforts to lessen gang activity in the very active city of Los Angeles. I have such respect for his decades of work with a very difficult demographic, and for the impeccable sense of humor he brings to his work. I would love to learn lessons on frustration tolerance, empowering kids who feel anything but, managing adult expectations, and share in his infectious enthusiasm for educating (and caring for) every child, no matter where they're from.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

That everyone is insecure about something. My mom used to tell me this, but I didn't "get" it until I could apply it to someone I knew — my brother. I grew up thinking my older brother was invincible. He certainly acted like it. I, on the other hand, was always shy and anxious about everything. The day I realized that he was insecure about certain things (I won't say what), my whole world blew wide open. If he had a burden, then anybody could. And I realized that everybody DID.

Every single person on this earth has something that scares or worries them, and nobody is perfect. This means that everyone is just doing the best they can to get by. It's hard to judge someone who is working their hardest to do what they think is right. Right? This has changed every interaction with every person I've encountered since then, and has made me more empathic. It's also given me confidence, since I don't have to be invincible either.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

I would highly recommend that students try traveling in a country where they don't speak the language. The experience of being the "other," and learning to enjoy feeling a little silly as you use the few words you've learned to try and find the bathroom or order lunch, can make a philosopher out of anybody. I loved traveling in Paris, Geneva, and Budapest, but Hungary was by far the most challenging — and produced the best stories!

I think as the world becomes more of a global culture, it's more and more important to learn about other cultures in order to broaden your perspective and develop empathy for others. I would just recommend that students go with a good travel buddy and spend some time away from the tourist zones, in order to better understand what life is like for the locals, when possible.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

I failed once despite a good teacher, and once because I didn't have a good teacher — "failed," for me, meaning that I wasn't able to get to the place I was hoping I'd be. The first was high school physics — that topic, for whatever reason, was my kryptonite. I would attend the same lectures and labs as my friends, but they'd all be nodding and I'd ask someone to explain it one more time. Nothing stuck! I used to spend my lunch periods (crying) with the teacher, who very generously taught me again and again. I was able to pass the class, but the word "velocity" still makes me cringe.

The second time was in graduate school, when life circumstances disrupted a series of data I was gathering on a student for a portfolio. Like the physics example, I worked hard to put together as much of the portfolio as I could, but the teacher would not make accommodations, and I got the lowest grade I've ever gotten. She even took points off because she thought I'd misspelled my own name.

The most important things I learned were that hard work and kindness will get you far, but ultimately grades aren't as important as what I actually learned - and sometimes learning comes second to life, which is an education in itself. Also, that I will never - ever - be a physicist.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

My field has already changed in many ways. I had planned on teaching high school English, and I'm now working with elementary kids with special needs. Can you get much farther away in the teaching world? I originally went into teaching because I loved literature and working with kids. I quickly found that the best part of my day was the "aha!' moment. As I was looking for teaching jobs, I did a lot of subbing in a variety of schools and classrooms, and totally fell in love with special education.

I loved getting to know the kids in a smaller setting, and the creative thinking involved in making school work for atypical kids. I had never expected how much joy there is in a special education classroom, and additionally, how accepting peers are of even the most intensive needs–kids. Much of the stigma, I've found, comes from the adults — the other teachers and parents are much more hesitant and cautious around atypical students than the other students.

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