Dear General Education Teacher: Surprise! You’re A Special Ed Teacher!

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My first job out of college was working as a general ed high school biology teacher.  On day one, during second period, a woman I had never met before walked into my room, alongside the kids.  She introduced herself as a special education teacher in the building and informed me she was assigned to work with me during that hour.  At first I thought she meant for the day, but she meant for the entire school year.  I had no idea why.

Turns out, I had a high percentage of special ed students in my class that hour, and the model utilized at this school to help address those individualized needs was co-teaching.  I didn’t have any special education training, I didn’t know the best practices of teaching with another teacher in my room. No one, it seemed, had bothered to inform me ahead of time that this is what my job as a high school science teacher would entail.

I suppose they didn’t need to: it might not have been emphasized during teacher training, but a large part of general ed teaching is teaching special ed students.

It worked out well, for the most part.  I just taught the kids who were in my room, and did the best I could to help them succeed, and she did the same, complementing my actions and responses with her own.  Each year I taught, I ended up adding a section of co-taught classes.  Eventually I taught a biology class that was made up entirely of special education students, a course that had previously been taught by a special ed teacher with no biology background.  I’m not sure if other biology teachers had tried teaching this class in the past, and it didn’t work out, or if the special ed department had never even considered asking any of the other teachers to teach it. Eventually I got my masters in special ed, and then I was the co-teacher, in someone else’s science room, and now I work mostly with students on the autism spectrum in a resource room setting.

For me, teaching a diverse set of learners was never easy.  But it made sense.  I had kids in my classroom. Some got it.  Some sort of got it.  Some struggled.

This was true for both academics and social/emotional regulation.  It was easiest to teach the kids who got it. It doesn’t take a lot of skill to “teach” students who are readily teachable, who can basically teach themselves, who have maturity and coping mechanisms solidly in place.  It takes a lot more patience, more time, more creativity, more ability, to help the kids who struggle. It took me awhile to figure out where I needed to be firm and rigid, and where I could bend, molding myself into the teacher that each particular student needed me to be.

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It was difficult, and sometimes impossible, to find the time to plan lessons for the “easy” kids and also creatively change the plan for the ones who didn’t get it, or the ones who seemed unruly.  I could not meet all of their needs.

But I tried.

I went to conferences, and I collaborated with peers, and I spent a lot of time working, well after that sixth hour bell rang.  I asked my co-teachers for help and I took them up on every opportunity offered to present a concept to the class in a different way, or to adapt a worksheet to make it more accessible.  I kept learning the content, and more importantly, I kept learning about the kids, because I knew there was really no point in me learning additional facts, if I was unable to help pass this along, in any sort of relevant fashion, to the people placed into my classroom.

It never surprised me when I learned that seated in the front row was a student with Prader-Willi Syndrome, or a student with ADHD, or a student with a significant attitude problem.  It surprises me that this surprises other teachers.  Doesn’t everyone know about the bell curve?  That there are always points outside of the average range (and a lot of them!), and it’s impossible for everyone to be A students, for everyone to complete each task in the same way, or in the same amount of time, or for everyone to be at the exact same point of social/emotional awareness and ability?  Doesn’t everyone get that we are still responsible for teaching the kid who is that data point, waaaaaaaaaaaay out there, far to the left?

I have certainly had days when my students drove me crazy, or puzzled me and put me in positions where I didn’t know what I was going to do to help them become successful adults.  I have often felt frustrated and worn out and exasperated.  But, I’ve never looked at a student name on my roster and literally thought to myself, “I shouldn’t have to teach that kid”, or “That kid isn’t good enough to belong in my room”. That is a very dangerous mentality. Especially considering the fact that the problem isn’t the kid. The problem is that I just don’t know how to reach him or her. That’s my shortcoming, not theirs.

 In the public school setting, we don’t get to pick and choose who we get to teach, but we do get to decide, in many ways, how we will support them, how we will help them improve their knowledge of the subject matter, their confidence levels, and their strategies for dealing with stress.  Even when I know I can’t meet every need, I know I can still do something.

 I am constantly asking myself, “What can I do to help support these kids?”.and “What do these kids need?”  And I mean all of them.  Not just the ones that make my job easy.

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Maybe we need a separate sign that starts with Dear Teachers…..

 

Call Me a Fanfaron This Week

Ok, I’m going to be a little boasty, braggy, hippity hoppity.  I can’t help it, I just might explode – this week has been sort of amazing.  I have had a lot of horribly dark weeks, and this one is shiny and bright and remarkably different than those.

FRIDAY: I am starting a support program for students on the Autism Spectrum at the high school I work in – we will be piloting it, starting in September.  A local news channel  interviewed me last week, along with a parent and student in the program, and ran a segment about the program on the 5 o’clock news.  Bonus: My excessive facial hair was not overly noticable, even with the high def cameras.

SATURDAY:   A record number of views today on my Accidental Marathoner post made my day!  I also got a piece of “fan mail” in the form of a message on my fb page from someone who had enjoyed the post.  The message said this:

Congratulations on your achievement! Besides it being your own personal achievement, you’ve inspired countless others you’ll never know. This is … a great thing in light of ALL the events of the past week. 4 of my children will run in the Illinois Marathon this coming Saturday (the first for all of them!). I shared your Accidental Marathoner blog with them….truly inspiring, very much the truth, they agreed. I just wanted you to know that what you write makes a difference.

Um, can you say BEST EMAIL EVER?!

SUNDAY:  I ran my first marathon.  Despite not running for two years before having my baby, and running the race 7 months post-baby (the point being: I did not feel NEARLY as strong as I think I should feel before running a marathon), I decided to just go for it. I had a great experience, and my time beautifully corresponded with the whole reason I ran the marathon in the first place.

MONDAY: Our news story aired a second time, on the local news channel’s morning program.  I could also walk down the stairs pretty comfortably – something I was not anticipating after the 26.37 miler the day before.

TUESDAY:  Baby Grouch got her 2nd tooth.  I know I had nothing to do with this, but I sort of feel like I do because I MADE HER (Double bonus:  I MADE A BABY –  still pretty excited about that).

WEDNESDAY:  I thought Saturday went well, but today I was completely overwhelemed with the number of views, replies and comments on my post in honor of Infertility Awareness Week.  This far surpassed my previous record on Saturday of most views on a post.  I had a lot of people share the Top 10 list, and there were so many women who said that this hit the nail on the head, that it said what they felt, but were often too afraid to say.  It is sort of amazing when you realize you aren’t alone, and there are so many others who understand you.

THURSDAY:  I dropped the cap to my water bottle, but then immediately caught it ON MY SHIN before it hit the floor and I lifted my leg up to return said cap to my hand.  Clumsy and yet SO coordinated at the same time.

And ALSO, I got my first piece of hate mail!  It was very exciting and occurred in the form of another blogger posting about how my Infertility Awareness Post pissed her off. HAH!  She didn’t actually point out much that she didn’t like about it, other than a) my agressive tone (absolutely guilty as charged, that was the idea) and b) when I said infertiles didn’t want to hear pregnant people complaining about their whaleish pregnant bodies.  Her huffiness made more sense when I noticed she had JUST written a post about how horribly whaleish she’s feeling because she’s got a big pregnant body (I’m paraphrasing here).  I get it.  Other side of the coin and all that.  I’m not offended that she got offended.  Plus, the fact that she hated it helped me raise awareness even more, so I thank her for helping me accomplish my goal.

Perhaps I was linked into her post an effort to draw more readers to her blog.  If that’s the case, I guess the joke’s on her, because I’m really a half-assed blogger and I don’t have that many readers! She must think I care deeply about my readership numbers since she felt the need to point out to me that she wouldn’t have bothered complaining about my post publically if she had noticed ahead of time that I wasn’t a “big time blogger”.

FRIDAY:  A few months ago I entered my infertility story (the nice one, not the bitchy one) into a writing contest.  And guess what? I won a $400 prize package –  money towards a vacation destination and also money towards future services at the fertility center that hosted the contest.  Maybe enjoying a free weekend away will make my husband less annoyed that my face is constantly shoved into my computer keyboard.

I also utilized the word “fanfaron” which came in my word-a-day email this week.  I never remember to practice those words.

Ok, I’m done.  I’ll be humble again, now that I got that out.

For all you jealous types, don’t worry, I’m sure next week I’ll get rear ended, drop my cell phone in the toilet and my cat will pee all over the living room carpet.  Because, that’s how life works.

On Gratitude and Compassion.

This is the week where we are reminded to reflect on what we are thankful for.  This year my biggest gratitude and thanks go to Baby Grouch.

She makes me happy simply because she is she.  I am grateful for her smiles, her snores, her little grasp on my finger, her cuddles and coos.  I’m grateful for her cries and her tears and for the exhaustion that comes from her waking me up at all hours of the night.  I’m grateful for every tiny bit of her being.

She is a really good baby, very content and calm most of the time.  There was one night when she screamed bloody murder – and nothing could be done to console her.  She continued to shriek and shriek for what felt like an eternity, but in reality was about 40 minutes.  Unlike the annoyance that I imagined I might someday feel when my child didn’t stop screaming, I surprised myself by feeling compassion.  I knew she wouldn’t be crying without a reason and I just wanted her to be happy again.  I wasn’t angry, and I just calmly did what I could to try to help.

Within my years teaching high school students, I’ve worked with upwards of a thousand high school students.  For all of those years, at least some of my students have been considered “at risk” and there is a substantial number of them have been said to have behavior problems in other people’s rooms.  From what I’ve heard, some of them have really been little fuckers, I must admit.  In my classroom, however, there are very few students I would have classified in that way.  That’s not to say they didn’t sometimes do things they weren’t supposed to, but by punishing the action and not the child – by approaching each outburst with compassion and empathy – I haven’t had to deal with too much – and I’d say that all of my students have been, and are, really great people.

Well, all except two.  Two of them I thought were pretty evil and beyond help.  During my second year of teaching there was Steve, and my 5th year of teaching there was Michael.  It’s okay to be honest here, right?

Okay, okay, in all reality, those two probably just needed help beyond what I was capable of giving. But, see how easy it was for me to put the blame on them? To say that there must be something wrong with THEM, when really it was ME who couldn’t help?

Unlike babies, teenagers (and adults) don’t always cry at the exact moment when something is wrong.  More often than not, this unhappiness manifests in some other form, and is often redirected at sources other than the real problem.  When someone lashes out angrily, or cruelly or even violently, we can condemn the behavior, but we need to look at that person with compassion and do what we can to help.  Maybe they have sensory issues, maybe they have a cognitive impairment, have poor coping skills, are dealing with depression or mental illness, have anger issues due to neglect or abuse, or were just never taught how to use good judgement.  We need to remember that good people can do stupid things.  Even horrible things.

I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions or that poor choices shouldn’t have consequences.  Not at all.  But, we sometimes need a reminder that it is incredibly easy for those of us who are so lucky to have support, love, guidance, strong role models, financial means and good health, to judge the actions of others who do not have the benefit of these gifts.  But just because it is easy doesn’t make it okay.

It’s so easy to sit back in our cushy lives, look down our noses and arrogantly scoff, “What is wrong with these people?”  Well, guess what,  there is probably a LOT wrong. And the reason we don’t act that way is because we are LUCKY, not just because we are so much better than everyone else.  Instead of judging, we need to all have a little more compassion.

This is why despite the incessant bashing of teachers – calling us lazy, calling us greedy,  politicians taking away health care, and pensions and our funding, and increasing class size – despite all of this, I still love my job, because, like so many of my colleagues, I choose my “core curriculum” to include empathy and compassion.

I’m so grateful for Baby Grouch, and the happiness she has given me, and for her reminding me what I already know, but what is so easy to forget.

Oh, and I’m also thankful for wine.  Very, very thankful for wine.

This post is a part of Yeah Write #84.  If you like what you read, vote for me on Thursday 🙂