(All identifying information about the student mentioned below has been removed to protect the student.)
I knew it was a different kind of day when he first logged on.
"Hi!" I'm pretty exuberant for an introvert, particularly when the kiddo in front of me needs me to be. "How are you?" I asked in a quieter voice.
No response. No response to my ask if it had been an okay morning. I got a shrug when I asked if he needed a minute before we began. "Do you want to get a snack?" He didn't move. His eyes weren't red and watery. He wasn't spinning in his chair. He wasn't displaying any of his usual signs that something was wrong.
Here's where I had a choice. Right here is where the road clearly diverged into two paths. I'd like to say I've always chosen the path I chose that day, but the truth is I probably haven't. Okay, I haven't. But I'm grateful I made the choice that day to meet the needs of the kid in front of me, not the kid I thought I was going to get.
"Can we work on our Star Wars writing?" I typed into the chat. No response. I opened up the document, hopeful but not demanding, and I saw a cursor moving on the page. He was already in it, already working. He'd been in it for some time, it seemed, as there was a new paragraph of information on Luke Skywalker.
We spent 45 minutes of our 50 minutes in complete silence, other than the click-clacking of our computers.
"What color is Luke's lightsaber?" I typed.
"You don't know what color Luke's lightsaber is?"
I swear he was unaware that these were the first words he'd spoken to me the whole session. He was lit up with annoyance or awe or maybe both.
"Well, I think I do, but what if your reader doesn't?" I said aloud.
His look was skeptical. He added "blue" into his description and gave me a glance to see if I was surprised. I wasn't. I'm a Trekkie, but I know some Star Wars particulars (thanks, husband and kids).
No other words were spoken. Every once in a while I typed a question. "Is that a sentence?" He'd add an end mark. "Nothing about Leia's hairstyle?" A giggle.
It struck me after the session was over and he waved (not spoke) a goodbye that that session could've gone very differently. I could've demanded that he speak. It wouldn't have been the first time an instructor had made him, forced him to communicate through gestures or speech, thinking they were kind enough to let him choose which. I could've told him I'd get his mom if he didn't start talking. I could've said, "You know what? Let's log off and try again tomorrow." But I didn't.
I will say right here that I was totally prepared to teach a lesson to the air, as it were. I've worked with students who keep their cameras and microphones off, not yet ready to engage in any way. And let's not lie; it's so difficult. Instructors desire feedback. We crave those nods of understanding just to keep us going. But I've done without them, and I did it this time, too, because this wasn't my learning session; it was his. It wasn't easy to give up control. I'd had some cool stuff planned, and honestly, I missed his passionate monologues about the finer details of Star Wars lore. But you know what? That kiddo wrote for nearly an hour. An hour! Of writing! My best laid plans would never have included the remote possibility of such a thing.
Instructing, teaching, tutoring, educational therapy, whatever it is that we do, it doesn't always look the way we want it to. Because we're not the only variable. There's a kiddo in front of us with his/her own needs, and sometimes, those needs are so big they overwhelm. And sometimes, like on this day, their needs just make them quiet.
On those days we prioritize our students' emotional and sensory needs over our needs to impart a particular lesson, we often find we teach more than we would've if we'd just trudged along with our own important plans. Maybe Master Yoda said it best: "Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose." I'd add: even if that's a lesson plan.