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So You Want To Be An Online Teacher

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

This past year, I was a special education teacher, co-teaching algebra 1 to mostly 9th grade students. This alone would have been a challenge for me in any setting, since math is not exactly my best subject. Unfortunately, this is true of most special educators as most teachers who have a talent for math end up teaching it regularly. And those with a talent for both math and teaching are even more rare than those with the temperament for teaching special education. So I would have been breathing rarified air in any case, but the fact that I was doing it in an online environment made it even moreso.

The first question I always get is “How do you teach special education in an online environment?” Sometimes it is more generic, as in “How does online teaching work?”

It involves some of the same skills and routines as regular teaching, but the environment is totally different and it involves some new skills in communication and technology.

Most of the same things that hold true for online learning apply to online teaching. There is a steep learning curve, more work spread over more hours. While there is some flexibility and environmental benefits, it is not easier or less rigorous than teaching in a regular brick and mortar (B&M) setting. If someone is considering teaching in an online environment there are some things they need to know. Now I can share a few things that I learned over the past year.

The first and biggest adjustment I had to make was realizing that my school never sleeps. Ever. I think the closest thing my school came to taking a break was on Christmas and New Years and maybe the 4th of July. That does not mean that we as teachers don’t have breaks, but it does mean that the company is a constant task gin and taking vacations, taking time off and otherwise being unplugged results in a backlog of things that will be waiting for you when you plug back in. If you are the sort that likes a tidy desk with all things completed at the end of the day you will be in a constant state of stress and frustration. And I was one of those people who enjoyed some sense of completion and closure. This was doable and possible when teaching in a B&M setting with individuals with severe and profound disabilities, because I worked diligently during the day and could have most things done when I went home, even if I had to stay for a few extra hours. During IEP season, I might be there as late as 7 or 8 at night but when I went home it was done and there were few things carrying forward to the next day.

This is not even remotely possible in this environment. People take advantage of the flexibility, and so a teacher or administrator with young kids might wait until their kids were asleep to delve into the their major work tasks. So if I decide to check my email at 10 at night, I might find a dozen new things to do, many of which might be due by noon the next day.

My peers in the B&M setting are currently on their summer break, and have been for a couple of months. I get one month off, but there is some assumption that I will plug in and check my email and complete some tasks during that time. This assumption is a bit grating, as I am used to work being work and time off being time off. I still have some things to learn about managing the time and finding balance.

So just what ARE these tasks? Public education has become an endeavor that is data driven, and so much of what I do involves inputting, tracking and doing things with that data much more so that my friends in the B&M environment. Being a special education teacher adds an additional layer of compliancy that is not present anywhere else. In this setting, whatever the maximum caseload size is, you can count on having it.

In the B&M setting, spring is typically “IEP season.” However, within my setting, with a caseload of the maximum 26, it is year round with assorted amendments that have to take place constantly. Last year, the state did a sort of sumo belly flop on our department, trying to use special ed. issues to close the school and revoke our charter. This resulted in us having to work diligently until the wee hours of the morning over the course of several months in order to meet the various state-mandated deadlines, changing our IEPs into state-mandated language. It was an oppressive, stressful environment that made me wonder why I was here and what I had gotten myself into.

My day starts off with a commute of just a few feet to fire up my laptop, during which time I might go get something to eat and perhaps even take a showers. Note to perspective online teachers: taking a shower more than once a week will make you feel better! If I wait until 8 to wake up and log in, I do have the flexibility to sneak a shower in later in the day.

We do have live class sessions, which most teachers enjoy as this is where the most direct interaction occurs with the students. My first one was not until 9, so the first hour of my workday was checking my email and kmail and responding while making out my task list for the day. This list was in a notebook, and usually things carried over from one day to the next and the closest I got to a clean desk was scratching off each thing I completed as I went through the day. Math had more sessions than any other subject, which was 4 times a week 9-10, and then 3 times a week 1-2. There were also weekly school meetings, weekly trainings and weekly special ed department meetings as well as other weekly staff meetings with math and high school and high school special education. Each of these meetings were opportunities to get some more tasks and work to add to our list.

If I paint a picture of a lot of administrative work, that is because it is the lion’s share of what we do. The academic classes on the high school level are huge. I co-taught in a section of 160-180 students. Most of the work that students do is independent and fairly self-directed, which is a huge adjustment for most of them. This is why the learning coach is such a critical component of the online learning equation.

Up to this point, it might look like a bleak picture. Perhaps I can make it a little darker by pointing out that we do get paid substantially less than our B&M peers. The benefits are fairly competitive, but you will pay as they do take a huge chunk out of ones paycheck.

So to summarize: longer hours, less time off and less pay. You still want to do this?

We attract a lot of women with young children who want to spend more time at home with their kids and see this flexibility as a way of doing that. However once in, many realize that this is not necessarily working out like they had hoped. A lot of time is spent in meetings and on the telephone and kids and pets (and perhaps spouses) have an uncanny knack of knowing just when to make lots of noise to get mommy’s attention. So the demands can seem fairly constant, now with children and job both crowding in often at the same time. I’m fortunate to have a wife who can take care of the kids while I work, and kids old enough to know to stay out of the office when I am busy. But that is not to say that y parents, students and fellow teachers will never hear the sound of baritone practice, video games or other loud sounds in the background.

Haha…Let me reward those of you who got this far with a few rewards!

Aside from the benefits of saving on wardrobe and commuting, there are other benefits. But these two things are not unsubstantial. Everyday is pajama day if you want, though I would caution that getting showered and dressed might help to differentiate work time from not-work time which is something every home-worker has to struggle with. It is otherwise easy to get in the pit of all the time being work time. But even wearing jeans, shorts, no shoes or whatever I might want to be “work clothes” is a big benefit. In my former B&M school, the principal would reward teachers with “Jeans Day” or perhaps would sell tickets to wear jeans to raise money for some cause or club. Our kids go to live events wearing shirts saying “I love going to school everyday in my pajamas!” and teachers have something similar about teaching in their pajamas.

Not having to drive everyday is also a big benefit, as the morning and evening commutes in larger cities are considered a major stressor for most people. I don’t have to be out there worrying about getting hit by another car or what the weather is going to be. Of course that precludes snow days for me, but it lends to a more consistent schedule for the school.

The next biggest benefit as a teacher is not having to spend all the time we usually would spend managing behavior. This is a huge attraction for parents, students and teachers as the dangers and risks associated with being in a crowded classroom disappear when you are in your own house. A school shooting for our school would have to involve driving to every county in the state, visiting 12,000+ separate homes. We do take measures to keep the kids safe from cyberbullying but even these risks are greatly diminished when kids are not herded up and crowded into close proximity every day. Most fights in schools nowadays seem to spawn from something someone posted on Facebook and Twitter in a high tech variant of typical he-said she-said drama.

Teachers can see and monitor every singe thing said in their classrooms and can simply turn off or disable chat on an individual or a class-wide basis. We encourage and model appropriate online behavior in these settings and it is a boon for many who are otherwise socially awkward.

Not having to deal with behaviors like this makes it infinitely easier to deal with students 1:1, even in our huge classroom settings. And it makes it much easier to talk to kids who are already comfortable communicating digitally. It makes it easier to like them.

And I do like ALL of my students and their parents and families. In fact, I adore them. In group face-to-face settings, kids often put on a false face, trying to look cool or not wanting others to see their weaknesses. So they hide behind a false front. They can easily do this digitally, too, but all kids have a need to connect on a personal level. The words are pixels on a screen but the feelings and emotions behind them are very real and kids have become more and more adept at projecting and expressing those using technology. In B&M they often project badness in groups but teachers have to go 1:1 in order to get under that tough layer. I get to do this every day, all the time. With both parents AND students.

And this is, by far, the most satisfying part of my job. Touching kids is something every teacher lives for, and our kids thrive on the individual attention. And I thrive better as a teacher when I can do more of that. When I am feeling overwhelmed by my task list, I go to the kids and parents that need my help and it lifts us both. And they all are grateful and I have gotten SO much great and positive feedback that I never got in the B&M setting from those I have had the pleasure of working with this past year. It’s not about the pay, the vacations, the benefits or the flexibility. It’s about the connections and relationships. Being a bit of a misfit teacher, my students and I readily connect on a unique level that would not be possible in any other setting.

There is a need for more online teachers all the time as the waiting list for our school seems to get longer ever year, especially in high school. You think you have what it takes?

- You need to have a good work ethic that you can self-manage

- You need to be flexible because the only constant here is change, and often with little or no notice

- You need to be comfortable with technology as it is ALL done with the computer. Major tools for use include Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint as well as some other tools. You can get a feel for the live environment by attending one of Steve Hargadon’s Future of Education sessions live or recorded in Blackboard Collaborate.

- Communicate using all modalities. Chat, writing, live and over the telephone are all ways to get the message out.

Like I said in the post about students, there is a steep learning curve. Its even steeper for teacher because you will have to be able to help families navigate a foreign system while it is still somewhat foreign to you!

We do have live face-to-face conferences, workshops and professional development activities about every other month where you get to put faces to the voices and emails. New teachers meet for several days at the beginning of the year for orientation and training.

I’ll be looking over comments for anything I might have missed, but will be back at work on Monday 7/16!  So even if it never gets read, at least it is getting my head back around toward getting back to what is important.

So You Want To Be A Student At An Online School?

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

I am working on an article about being an online teacher but realized that I also needed to write something about being an online student since these go hand-in-hand. Since far more people will eventually be taking classes online than teaching them, I decided to lead off with this one.  All online teachers end up being online learners, so this is naturally a good place to start understanding what happens in an online school.

Our school is the largest in the state with over 12,000 k-12 students serving all 159 counties in the state. And we serve students in all grades with most disabilities including some with severe and multiple disabilities.

Families search us out for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve covered in prior articles about charter schools. I have personally served students who have been shot, stabbed, beat up, ridiculed, harassed, bullied and otherwise traumatized within the more typical brick and mortar setting. Some students were themselves bullies or were kicked out of their regular schools for being disruptive. Some students are professional actors, athletes or have other interests that simply do not work well with a traditional schedule. Some students have extensive medical needs that can not be met in a traditional setting or it poses an undo hardship. Some parents chose this option because, for whatever reason, they found themselves being called into the school to come and get their child, conference with administrators, or deal with other problems in the school often totally unrelated to a child’s education. Some of these are young teen parents themselves who want to take care of and raise their children without having to drop out of school.

Whatever the reason, families are coming to us from all corners of the state from all backgrounds. Over 50% of our students were eligible for free and reduced lunches in their regular home districts. While these students don’t get the free or reduced lunches in our setting, they are eligible to receive free laptops, printers and equipment from our school including the means to access the internet if they don’t already have it. Our school is a free, public charter school which does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, gender orientation, income or academic ability. In general, we have similar admission criteria as any other public school except we also do not discriminate based on ones zip code as long as they live in the state of Georgia. If you live in my state, you or your child can attend my school.

However, SHOULD you or your child attend my school? And if so, what do you need to know?

The first thing any perspective student and their parent should realize is that online education is not easier, less rigorous or less work than a regular school. It is more flexible. In exchange for eliminating some of the problems of scheduling and social pitfalls, it poses some extra challenges that are not present in more traditional educational settings. The work still has to be done, the standards still have to be met and the standardized tests still have to be taken and passed. These are state mandates for all public schools that do not go away just because the bus is not coming to the door.

Parents and students attending us for the first time are often a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected, having had some misconception that this would somehow be easier and less work. This is probably the biggest misconception of online education and it is the downfall of most students and parents entering our setting for the first time.

The second thing parents need to know is that they are going to be more involved and doing more work themselves. In our school, they are called “learning coaches”. While a learning coach can be any adult, it is most often a parent or guardian. Students of all ages need a certain level of support in our environment, and the parent needs to be willing, or know someone who is willing to fulfill this role. In the younger grades, this means that the parent takes on the role of being the primary teacher. While this lessens with age and grade level, it is still a critical component even in high school. It is a rare student that can manage themselves alone even in high school, especially if is their first year with us.

The benefit of flexibility is also a pitfall that many students and parents fall into, becoming a crater that they find themselves struggling to escape from. Most students who go back to the regular setting are ones who fell into this early on and struggled to get out of simply because they could not adequately manage their time. Procrastination is the biggest enemy of all in this setting and the online environment makes it exasperatingly easy to find other, more interesting things to do.

This is a new system and environment for most students. There is a new language, new technology, new system and an entirely new way of doing things. The learning curse is VERY steep. Even though we might spend an entire month trying to orient new students and parents, there is a still a lot to learn and the volume of new information can be overwhelming. There is an entirely new language to learn in the ways of the OLS, LMS, class connect, blackboard collaborate, Kmail, and navigating the system.

So if you are considering this environment, both parents and students need to have their eyes open.

- Are you willing to devote MORE hours and time upfront to learn the new language and system?

- Are you willing to keep up with the constant and steady flow of new material and information?

- Are you willing and able to structure your time into a daily/weekly routine that will allow room for changes and disruptions?

- Is the student/learning coach relationship robust enough to endure stress, hardship and trials by fire?

- Are you able to persist through many challenges that extend beyond just the academic material, but also the challenges of technology?

Discouraged yet?

Online learning IS the wave of the future, and just the virtue of reading this blog shows that you are plugged in some how and investing a considerable amount of time in learning and researching. So I hope I can reward your efforts with some advice, if you are still considering this route.

1. Don’t get behind. In fact, get ahead if you can. Things come up and Murphy’s law will be there to frustrate you. One of the biggest benefits of this setting is that you CAN shoot out front and build your own buffer. Do it and you won’t regret it.

2. If things come up and you DO get behind, communicate with the teacher. We always have catch-up plans and can help prioritize to get you back on track. One thing about my fellow teachers and I is that we never give up. As long as you are willing to do the work, we’ll hang with you.

3. If you are new, give the system a chance until Thanksgiving break. Persist and hang with us through the tough learning curve. I found most new families DO feel overwhelmed at first, just like I did as a new teacher. But it DOES get better.

If there are additional concerns or questions, I’ll do my best to address them in the comments. But in just a few days, my summer will be over and I’ll be back working again! And I already have a stack of work waiting for me. But it is a subject near and dear to my heart, which I will address in the next article about being an online teacher.

The Truth About charter Schools: Teachers

30 Oct

 

It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

 

Steve Jobs in a 2005 commencement address to Stanford students

 

One of the lost stories in the controversy around charter schools is the stories of teachers. We hear about parents and students who end up doing battle against some sort of administrative body trying to start a charter school or trying to get into one. Or there is the corporation trying to start a school for profit. Or a local district trying to stop them.

 

In the middle we have teachers. And I’m ashamed to say we are often at odds with one another on this subject. Many of my fellow teachers don’t hate me for what I do so much as where I do it. Perhaps they think I have sold my soul to the corporate devil. I do not fully understand why I and my school are disliked so much, but we are. Public school teachers seem to generally oppose charter schools because we are seen as robbing the public treasury of money that should rightly go to them.

 

Full public disclosure: I currently teach in the largest charter school in the state of Georgia which is affiliated with the largest virtual public charter school in the country. I DO have skin in the game when it comes to how charter schools fare in the upcoming election.

 

Prior to coming to this school, I have taught in a variety of settings, traditional and not so traditional. I taught at small public schools and large ones. I taught in a residential private boarding school and then later at a residential hospital. I also taught in the state psychoed network. But over half my career of nearly 20 years has been in a traditional brick and mortar setting. Most of this blog was written while in that setting, albeit teaching mostly nontraditional students.

 

But I did get to a point where I was no longer willing to settle and wanted something different. So I resigned out with the idea of reapplying and effecting a transfer that I was unable to get any other way. I asked for several years and the answer was always the same: “We’ll let you transfer when we can find someone to replace you.” But they never looked for anyone to replace me!

 

The result was that I was out, very much like Steve Jobs when he got fired from Apple. I spent the next 2 years trying to get back into a field where I had formerly occupied the top of my game. I had a 100% pass rate on my GAAs every year I ever did them. I proved myself over and over in long-term substitute positions and had administrators who were interested in me. But the board office was not. I was branded for trying to take control of my own destiny.

 

I was not proud of going on food stamps, and was plagued by self-doubt. I still loved teaching but no longer felt like this business had any use for me. Perhaps it was time to go back to the farm in Iowa and forget about teaching.

 

But I held out, hoping that the speech Steve Jobs gave might one day be something I could also say.

 

Yes, life hit me with a brick. But I can honestly say that through the loss, I managed to find life again. I’m passionate about reaching out to kids again. I’m passionate about helping the parents of kids again. Actually, it was always my passion, but I just needed to rediscover it. And the virtual academy has helped me do that. I love what I am doing, and think of it as great work. I have never been a traditional teacher of traditional students. I am an oddball, an out-lier, a nerd, a geek and a misfit in so many ways. But the kids I reach out to are also feeling those feelings and need a hand that will not judge or bully them. They need to relate to someone who is like them and for a lot of them that someone is me.

 

The traditional brick and mortar setting works for many ‘traditional typical kids.’ But it is very unyielding and even cruel to those who do not fit the traditional or typical mold. This is equally true of teachers. Those of us who are nontraditional often come up against stiff opposition from traditionalists. It has always been the case throughout educational history that the industry has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into more modern methods and technology. Much of the opposition to me being rehired in my county was because of the fact that I had a blog. THIS blog. They hated the fact that a teacher could write and publish their own material free of their ability to control or censor it.

 

Any administrator or school board member can have their own blog if they want. But instead of joining the conversation, they want to shut down everyone, so that no one has a voice. And I am not a good fit for that sort of atmosphere. And I am not the only teacher who is not a good fit for stiff and inflexible working conditions.

 

Schools like my school become a haven for teachers like me who are otherwise nerdy misfits who will never coach a football, basketball or soccer team. I didn’t fully realize just how well fitted I was for this job until my mom asked me questions like “Don’t you get tired of being on the computer all day?” or “Don’t you start to feel closed in and get a little stir crazy?” No and no. I don’t mind it because I am, in fact, reaching out continuously and touching students and families where they live, no matter where in the state they reside. I had never heard of Grovetown, Georgia until I talked to a student and parent that lived there.

 

I am where I am meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. I’m helping students and their families get the best education that I possibly can give them. I am making a difference. I am passionate about what I do.

 

I’m not kicking dirt on my fellow teachers in traditional settings who are passionate about what THEY do. So I find it hard to understand why the opposite might be true. My former traditional school system turned their back on me for the sake of petty politics, and yet opponents of the Charter School Amendment are trying to scare people into voting against it with the claim that a charter school commission would be a purely political body. For 11 years such a commission approved charter schools in the state of Georgia including the one I work for now. It was not until a group of school districts, among them Gwinnett County, Dekalb County and Atlanta Public Schools filed their lawsuit, costing their districts in excess of $300, 000 did the State court overturn the constitutionality of the commission in a 4-3 decision. These 3 districts are the epitome of political hubris and nepotism that stifles the educational creativity and achievement that we need to get Georgia’s educational system out of the national gutter. But they claim the the commission is too political.

 

I’ve seen and personally experienced the hurt and damage inflicted by the nepotism of the local community school district. My fellow teachers know it exists and live in fear of it. Everyone knew what was happening but no one could do anything about it. They couldn’t even talk about it because some unelected person sitting in the board office had friends and relatives who were waiting to take their jobs irregardless of qualifications or merit.

 

In a charter school, parental and student satisfaction matter. They do not HAVE to be there. The local control exercised by the parents in their own homes with their own families can be exercised at any time. They do not have to appeal to a board member who gets elected once every 4 years to exercise the right to vote with their feet. I feel some obligation to honor those parents who choose to stick with me for the year and do the best that I can for them. I think all of my fellow teachers are committed to the kids they teach in the same way. We are born into it, and feel joy in doing what we feel is an important work.

 

All of the teachers I teach with are just as committed as our traditional counterparts. We are all certified and highly qualified, many with advanced degrees. We like what we do. We chose to be here. If you are a teacher, you don’t have to settle. There are other places and options where you can discover and exercise your passion for teaching. I highly recommend that you consider keeping as many of those options open as you can for yourselves as well as for other teachers like me.

Preventable IEP Anxiety

7 May

I don’t have any IEP’s to write this year, which might be the best and only good thing about being underemployed.  Well…actually I do have one IEP to write; my son’s.

And this year it has been enough of a headache to make up for not having 10 others to write and schedule.  This one has been rescheduled at least 3 times.  Right before the original IEP date, I submitted a letter of parent concern that sort of threw his case manager into a mild panic.  I admit, that this sort of violated about half of my own rules for avoiding the long and ugly IEP meetings.  So I was not too concerned about delaying the meeting a week to enable people to get their legs back under them, and to address my concerns in a thoughtful manner.  But then another delay ensued and finally she wanted to delay until after the CRCT results.  The CRCT, for those who don’t know, is Georgia’s Criterion Referenced Competency Test, which is the state-wide high stakes test.  I decided to go along with this, but each and every time and during each and every communication I asked for exactly the same thing: a draft of the IEP.

And now I am absolutely convinced that failing to receive such a draft in a timely manner is the single greatest cause of preventable stress during IEP season.  This is why it is such a critical part of my aforementioned rules.  Procrastination and surprises do not serve anyone well.  It does not serve teachers well, because they are deciding and writing in a hurry.  It does not serve parents well, because their anxiety mostly comes from not knowing and the fear of the district ambushing them.  It does not serve the system well, because when parents feel ambushed, they tend to become contentious and litigious.  And yet, I witness this time after time after time, year after year after year, the same exact thing.  The worst was when I was the high school representative at a middle school IEP meeting and we were already an hour behind.  We were all in the meeting room, waiting for the case manager. When I asked the SLP where she was, I got an eye roll “She’s upstairs, writing the IEP draft.”

If you are a teacher with an IEP tomorrow morning and have not completed the draft yet, you should consider another career.  You are probably already on some sort of blood pressure medication.  Being a special education teacher is stressful. But this is one source of stress in your life that you can minimize by simply moving your own deadlines up a week.  I used to be like you.  I would wait and then scramble to get my drafts done, and then worried and ended up with all sorts of mistakes as I hurried and rushed.  I finally had enough and began writing my drafts further ahead of the actual meeting dates and got them to parents over a week in advance.  And guess what happened to that stress?  It disappeared.  And here is why:

Being a parent of a child in special education also consists of a stress, only this is one that rarely ever sleeps.  Although I knew this first-hand, it took me time to translate that into a practice that actually minimized worry for the parents as well as myself.  Having a draft in their hands a week in advance allowed the parents to think and consider what we were doing.  And it instilled a sense of trust. You have no idea how precious that is, until you realize that you have attained it universally and fully.  And it shortened my meetings by almost hour.  Parents could talk about what THEY wanted, because we had agreed on most things ahead of time.  Most of the heat fell on the itinerant providers who failed to submit their reports and recommendations in advance.  They were also procrastinators.

Having a draft written also diminished the effects of having to reschedule meetings.  I HATED rescheduling, but on the few occasions where it was absolutely necessary, it did not impact me significantly because I already had the draft written and distributed to the parent.  I used any extra time to talk to the parent some more, making sure everything was okay and it was just the way they wanted it.

It took some SERIOUS arm twisting to get an advanced draft this year, even though it should have been completed 2 months ago.  And what I got was something that was barely written at all, with no mastery or goals and objectives.  This means that this is going to be a very long and drawn-out meeting because we have to hammer out goals and objectives.  Fortunately I had already done some work on a few that I wanted, but I’m seeing some other concerns that have come up that will have to be addressed.

I’m going to challenge all special education teachers to set a goal to get their IEP drafts completed 5 days in advance of the meeting and get them in the hands of the parents at least 3 days ahead of time.  Of course it is a little late for most of you this year, but if you take the 5 day challenge I guarantee you will lower your own stress as well as the stress level of the parents.

It’s getting to be that time again…

27 Jan

Time to think about annual IEP reviews.  I know many teachers are still working on their GAA’s, but you need to be finishing those up and turning your sights on your next big thing which is IEP annual review season.

I don’t always agree with everything she posts, but Carol Sadler is definitely someone that is worth following on Facebook.  And she recently posted this:

Advocates Advice – We are quickly moving into “IEP Season”. Time to get your year end IEP meetings scheduled and on the books. Better to get scheduled in advance to make sure you have time to invite your help. Be sure to notify the school you will tape record the meeting and ask for a Draft copy of the IEP “that has been updated” with their proposed PLOP’s, accommodations and goals/objectives. Take the time to compare the Draft line by line to last year’s IEP to see what they changed and what they are proposing and make sure it is appropriate.

If you are a teacher and reading this, your hair might be turning a bit white or falling out.  Or you might be tempted to start pulling it out.  Let me tell you that what she is suggesting should be a matter of best practice for competent teachers.  Getting the meetings on the calendar early serves everyone well, and knowing who all is going to be attending will help secure a place that is big enough for everyone.

Tape recording the meeting (or using an mp3 recorder) is not a big deal.  If you are a teacher, bring your own to the meeting as well.  Both the parent and the district should be recording at the same time.  There is no presumption of privacy at these meetings, even though they are confidential.  You can’t podcast the meeting.  But by now teachers need to be getting used to being in the spotlight being recorded at any time, any where.  Transparency is our friend.  Stop being hostile to it, and open up your records, your mind, your intentions and your heart to the parents of the children you teach.  You might discover a wealth of rewards await you as the relationship transforms from confrontation to cooperation.

The idea of having a draft prepared a week ahead seems to always trip up teacher case managers. They can not seem to wrap their minds around the idea of moving their entire time table up one week.  You have to write this thing one way or another.  Stop the procrastinating and the excuse-making and just do it, and get it done.  You send it out a week or so ahead of time, with “DRAFT” written by hand in big letters, and attach a note “Please look over the enclosed proposed IEP DRAFT.  Please write down any concerns and/or suggested changes that you might have on the draft and send it back to me so I can include them and make sure they are acceptable to you before the meeting.”

Imagine an IEP that is less than an hour long, and everyone leaves the room smiling, and pleased and relaxed, feeling good about what just occurred.  If you have several annual reviews that are NOT like this then you should probably consider sending out your drafts well in advance so parents can look at them.  But aside from pleasing a parent, there are also other good reasons to move your time table up a week.  Remember you HAVE to write the thing regardless.  Why not do it well in advance when you can actually THINK about what you are writing instead of having that deadline looming over you?  You will discover that you make better choices and decisions when you are not rushed and pressured.  And if there are problems looming ahead, you have some time to begin addressing them before the meeting with the parents and the rest of the team.

I always did this as a matter of regular practice.  I always tried to get the draft done and out at least 4 days ahead of the meeting regardless of who the parent was.  If I get a parent making a request like Carol, guess what?  I move my time table up TWO weeks!  I want to swap IEP drafts, ideas and suggestions several times in advance of this meeting if at all possible.   If the parent is bringing an advocate, then I would rather the advocate look over my IEP, mark and bleed all over it with red ink and send it back however many times before the meeting, rather than rip me to shreds for hours in front of the rest of the team.  The advocate will have plenty of fodder for bloodletting at the meeting from other members of the IEP team but not me if I can do anything about it.

This is because the other members of my team balked at writing their portions in advance.  The occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech language pathologists have HUGE caseloads and I understand that.  BUT the workload is exactly the same whether you do it now or later.  I put all members of my team on notice as to the day the draft is going out.  It is up to them if they are ready or not, and 95% of the time, they failed to meet that deadline.

IEPs are exactly the same as alternate assessments that way.  If you procrastinate, you will end up under a huge backlog, and it will seem like a dark pit that you forever are trying to dig yourself out of as each deadline comes and overwhelms you.  You have got to get ahead and try to stay ahead.  Give yourself some wiggle room.  Waiting until the night before is a terrible choice that invites mistakes and trouble.

I actually attended one middle school meeting where everyone was there except the caseload manager.  When I asked the SLP where she was, I saw an eye roll and she whispered “She’s upstairs trying to write the IEP!”  This was a meeting that was already an hour late.  It was a good thing that parent was not paying Carol’s hourly rate!

Personal Web Presence

9 Jan

Today’s Mightybell task involves thinking about a personal web presence.  Whether you want to admit it or not, you have a web presence.  Even if you have never posted a thing and eschew Facebook, Google+, Youtube or any other social networking site, you have a web presence.  That is because people are talking about you, may be posting pictures of you and organizations are going to be posting information about you.  The fact is, it is getting to be more and difficult to NOT have a web presence.  If you are a teacher, you have a web presence.  Your school posts your email and possibly other information about you so that parents can contact you.  Students may post pictures, video and information about you.  You’re out there, like it or not.

The Professional Association Georgia Educators (PAGE) have said, and are basically still saying, in regards to social media “Don’t Do It” or “If you have to do it, be professional.”    Not doing it is not an option today.  Even the school systems themselves have a presence on Facebook.

So a person needs to be aware of what is out there, and they need to manage their own online presence.  For instance I have been out there for quite a long time and have a fairly big internet footprint.  There is not a lot I can do about that because once it is out there, it is out there potentially forever.  But I can mak sure that my best stuff is on top.  That means having  Linkedin site that I am active with and gets updated and it is listed on Google.  That means posting useful information here on my blog.  And it might mean contributing meaningfully to other projects.

Students need to manage their personal web presence, because they are inevitably going to post or have things posted about them, that might not be professionally enhancing.  Things that seem like a good idea at the time later turn out to be pretty dumb.  But even the best and smartest can enhance their future goals and options by starting to manage their web presence and putting forth a positive image.  And that is what the management is about; managing your own brand instead of letting others do it for you.

 

Mightybell: (Re) Discovering Passions

5 Jan

If I’m not working, I need to be writing.  I suppose that is my first resolution of the new year.  I need to write more.  Of course, doing more reading will always produce better writing, so I suppose reading more is my second resolution of the year, although I’m less excited about that than the first one.

A few months ago, I signed up for MightyBell through the Future of Education group that I belong to.  And then I promptly forgot about it, until I started getting the daily email alerts, encouraging me to go on to the next step, which is to say, take the first step.  The initial idea of signing up what to have something blogworthy, thus it might get me writing again.

I know that I am not the only person who is feeling pretty dissatisfied with education and the direction it has been going the past 10 years.  In fact I have never talked to anyone who has anything to do with it, who is totally satisfied with the direction of our educational system.  But the online groups, Future of Education in particular, has at least kept me in the loop when I have otherwise wanted to run away from the education business. It’s still an awkward relationship, but I’m at least willing to give it another go.

Mightybell is simply a string of tasks that is done whenever you feel like it, with a daily email reminding you of what you need to do next.  For instance, step one is signing up for Teacher 2.0.  That was fairly easy, although it took a day to get approved.  The next task was thinking about and listing your talents, as well as thinking about how to recognize student talent.  I sort of breezed through that with teaching being a talent, some writing, dealing with and using technology and applied behavior analysis.  These are all things that when I think about, people either have recognized me for, or they are asking me about.  I was one of the technology nerds as a student and as a teacher, who people ran to when they were having trouble with their computer.

The next task was about passions.  Things I love doing and things I love learning about.  I was pretty stumped and decided I had enough for the day, right there.  Now there are a lot of things I like learning about.  Technology being a big one, along with U.S. History and science.  I like learning about the latest trends in gardening and becoming more self-sufficient.  I like learning about elves and hobbits.  But I don’t know if these are all passions.  I’m pretty sure my family would all agree that I am passoniate about my laptop as I spend most of my time on it.

But a follow-up question asks: Do I spend enough time on my passions?  Lately, the answer has been “no”.  Or at least not enough on where my passions and talents align.  And that is what I’m working through at the moment.  Discovering where my passions and talents align.  It occurred to me the best things that have happened to me in the past month WERE because of my writing right here on this blog.  It’s one of the rare places where the talents and passions seem to intersect.  Of course, the real trick is to get this intersection to pay the bills!

I had a poll once (the only one I’ve ever run here!) where I ask if this blog helps or hurts my chances of getting hired.  It occurs to me that if it hurts, than I might possibly be ill-suited for whatever that job is.  I do love teaching, and it still is a passion of mine.  In many ways, this blog has provided me a platform to do some good teaching.  And some good learning!

Passions and talents don’t need to be the same, but it certainly does make things easier if you can get the two together.

Task completed!

A Culture of Abuse?

8 Nov

“The Fulton County School System will not tolerate the mistreatment of any children and has strict policies in place to prevent such actions. We have hundreds of caring, devoted individuals who work every day with our students with disabilities.”

This is a statement made by a spokeswoman for Fulton Couny schools in a case where the system is being charged with neglect and abuse.  To be sure I have no doubt that a part of this statement is mostly true.  There are some caring and devoted individuals working with students with disabilities.  But the first part?

Let’s just say that Fulton County is not alone in having a culture where those who have the most severe disabilities are systematically marginalized, neglected and outright abused.  It is not an isolated case.  It is a systemic problem where several heroic and caring individuals manage to overcome a bias against these students and those they care for that is inherent in our present system.  To be sure, I think this is an extreme case that was allowed to go on well past what it should have.  Reports show that there were loads and loads of reports, interviews and statements by faculty and staff that this was going on.  You see stacks of CDs with videos with these interviews on them.  I don’t think anyone seeing this video can be anything other than outraged.  It truly makes my blood boil which is why I am so moved to blog about it.  And I am so close to the business as a parent and as former teacher of this population, it does touch a raw nerve.

So how could something like this happen?  There are SO many reasons…let me see if I can count them…

1. The students are nonverbal and powerless.  These students represent the most vulnerable segment in the entire school population.  They are vulnerable to anything and everything because they can not tell what happened when they get home from school.  Many of them can barely move.  They have severe and multiple needs including limited language and limited mobility.  They can not escape and can not fight back.  Actually, some of them can and try to escape and fight back in their own way, but they are largely at the mercy of who ever is caring for them.

2. These students (and the staff that care for them) are the most isolated group in the school.  If you want to create an environment for abuse and neglect, the recipe is fairly simple: Take a bunch of people, put them in a room together all day and then put some stress on them.  I’ll talk a bit about the stresses in a moment, but the isolation is one of the things that makes this so bad in so many ways.  Despite the provisions in the law for “least restrictive environment” the students with the most severe disabilities continue to spend their entire day in a single room.  Many do not even eat in the cafeteria.  With budget and staff cuts, community-based instruction is largely a thing of the past.  If the staff in Fulton County saw abuse in the halls, you can only imagine how hideous conditions were in that room.  There are reasons for the isolation and I should do a blog post just on that alone. But isolation provides a place where bad things can brew and incubate, especially given #1 above.  Students and their teachers need to get the heck out of that room once in awhile!

3. The staff are some of the most poorly trained and unqualified.  I have had a chance to work with and around some wonderful and brilliant people in the field.  Some of them were truly amazing, especially a lot of the paraeducators.  With a bit of training they really shined, and were tremendously good with these students.  And then the administration promptly transferred them somewhere else.  To be honest, many of them may have asked to be transferred.  But many did not.  As a rule, truly competent paras usually were moved into other settings outside of those who have multiple and severe disabilities. As a rule, teachers have little or no say as to which paras get assigned to their classrooms.  They are expected to be thankful for whoever they get.

4. Overcrowded and understaffed classrooms.  If you simply look at the numbers, you would wonder how something like that could be.  How could a class of 10 students in a classrom with 5 adults be overcrowded and understaffed?  Part of it goes back to #3.  If I had the most qualified and capable staff, I could do a lot more with a lot less, and that is the way I would prefer it.  More adults CAN add to more overcrowding and more stress. But each of these students demand total and absolute care.  It isn’t necessarily the ones who have the most impairments that have the greatest needs, either.  It is the combination of the physically immobile and fragile, combined with those who might be totally physically capable that causes many of the problems.  If I have 10 students and 5 are in wheelchairs, it takes 5 people to to push 5 chairs such as during a fire alarm or assembly or fieldtrip.  However if I have 5 kids who like to run, it puts the teacher in a dilemma about leaving the one child to chase after another.  So this leads to problem #1.  It’s simply easier for an understaffed group to hunker down in the one classrom and play ‘zone defense’.  By the way, the state of Georgia once had a class size limit of 5 for individuals with profound intellectual disabilities.  Since waiving class size requirements, class sizes and caseloads have routinely doubled for this population.  I know of a teacher who at one point has 15 students.  And no matter how many paras you cram into a room to help, each student needs direct 1:1 time with the teacher, something more than just changing a diaper.

5. The noise level adds to the stress and isolation.   These students may be nonverbal but they are not silent.  Not by a long shot!  I have had several students that could rattle every window in the hallway with their various noises and screeches.  And they would do it often, they would do it all day and they would do it LOUDLY!  Many of the most frustrating instances of abuse occur over the noise and the stress it causes.  And the more students in the room, the more the noise level increases and the more stressed it feels.  It’s not that these students are necessarily in pain.  Sometimes they are expressin happiness.  But sometimes they are verbalizing their own frustration and stress.  And sometimes I’ve found myself with some of the loudest staff on the faculty!  Talk about days where I wanted to just wear earplugs!  But that is a big reason why many of these classrooms are as far away from other classrooms as possible so as to not disturb those who are trying to take and pass a standardized test.

6. Where is the administration?  Probably not in the self-contained classroom where none of the students help increase AYP, the graduation rate, test scores, athletic prowess or college enrollments and scholarships.  The sad fact is, is that not many administrators know what happens in these classrooms.  Not many know what should be happening in these classrooms.  This is a different world where things are not as easily measured as bubbling in answers.  The principal in Fulton county should have known that students were not supposed to be pushed, hit, kicked and kept isolated in little dark rooms.  But she probably also had no idea what should have been going on instead.  Many of my observations were conducted in the lunchroom while we fed the students.  At least once, I had no idea I was being observed!  And my final year, the principal never observed me.  He watched this video and based his observation on that.  I had videos of me actually teaching that he could have watched, but he made me take those down.  I’ve tried to show people what I do, but the administrators frankly do not care that much...until something happens:

“Many schools do not have a sufficient number of students with disabilities to ‘count’ as a subgroup for Adequate Yearly Progress,” the auditors wrote. “School-based leaders could not answer questions regarding the performance of students receiving special education. Their answers included these: ‘I will have to look it up,’ ‘It’s not as good as they want it to be,’ ‘I can’t remember the exact number but it was not good,’ and ‘We don’t have to worry about the group because there are not enough to count.’”

And this often leads to them hiring someone who is unqualified because they are unsure of what ‘qualified’ looks like beyond the certificate….

7. The #1 question I get asked by teachers who are just hired and new to this field is “What do I do with these kids all day?”   Anyone else see a problem with this?  I think it is good that a new teacher reaches out and asks for help.  And I am more than happy to help them!  Teachers in this positon are usually pretty good at listening and taking direction and they pick things up pretty quickly and are able to run with it.  I have no idea the credentials of this Fulton County teacher, but I do know of at least one very highly qualified and experienced teacher who has been passed over  for jobs like this only to put someone less experienced and qualified into it.  Why?

8. Speaking out against abuse, neglect, inequality and discrimination will get you fired, it may make you unemployable and/or make working conditions more unbearable.  In an age of accountability and feedback, this is one area where the tolerance is very low.   Teachers who talk too much, who blow the whistle and try to point out injustice and outrage find themselves in big trouble in a lot of ways.  In the Atlanta Public schools we saw this before in the cheating scandal where the district tried to fire teachers and humiliated and intimidated those that tried to report instances of cheating.  I have tried my best not to be overly critical in my blogging of specific instances in my home district, but my advocacy efforts using this blog might be one reason why I am writing this at home right now instead of delivering outstanding services to students with disabilities at a school near you.

9. Parents have no idea.  And that is probably the most frightening thing of all, as a parent myself.  At least my children are verbal and can talk.  That doesn’t always mean thay will but at least they can.  So how can a parent know?  Sometimes their kids DO let their parents now through behaviors.  But mostly the parents of these students are in the dark, and the system likes to conspire to keep it that way.  See #6 and #8 above, and you see why a teacher who knows will not necessarily tell you.  Everyone in the building may know that your child’s teacher is horribly incompetent and abusive but you, the parent, will be the last to know.  Unless you sew a microphone in your son’s shirt collar.

10.” Something bad has to happen before anything will change.”  This is what a former principal once told me while I was sitting in his office.  We were discussing a letter that I had written and I was getting ready to send home to parents, telling them about what was going on in my classroom.  He was not happy with my letter because it was written in such a fashion that it made it sound like the district and the school cared less about my students than other students in the school or less than cared.  See #8 and #9 above.   That letter never did get sent out to the parents.  My job was to make sure nothing did happen, while the system was making choices that seemed to guarantee and foster an environment where something bad had to happen.

THAT is why I resigned at the end of that year.  I could not speak out and tell my parents.  I didn’t feel like I was being listened to.  I was feeling more and more powerless as things deteriorated.  Keeping bad things from happening was getting to be more difficult and more stressful.  I am not a pessimist by nature, and always seek to turn situations around by finding new and creative solutions to whatever problems may exist. But I was faced with a situation where those above me were pretty much going to continue to let things deteriorate until something bad happened and then who would be to blame?

The system is set up so that bad things have to happen before people are motivated to do anything.  And even then, sometimes they are reluctant to make the necessary moves.  Which of you would volunteer your child to be the victim of abuse, injury or neglect in order to turn things around?  I know the parents of Alex Williams would not have wished this on their own child for anything.  I don’t think Stefan Ferrari’s parents would have volunteered their child for mistreatment.  In both cases the school district is aggressively trying to cover up and defend itself and seems rather unrepentant throughout the entire process.

The environment in education today is ripe for this sort of thing to happen in a school near you.  Is it happening in your school?  In your classroom?  With your child?

What happened in Fulton County is happening all over.  Much of what is happening can be summed up by the term “Willful Ignorance.”  Everyone acts like it is all okay, especially those within the institution itself.  Anyone who speaks out is shut up and silenced and intimidated.  Heaven forbid we let one of these people who see the problems back into our organization!

Next time, I would like to talk about what a teacher, a principal and/ or a parent could do to minimize the risk of this sort of thing.  Are there things that could be done to prevent this sort of abuse and neglect?  Yes!  But for now, I’ll leave you with an informative video about the tyranny of positive thinking:

 

 

 

One more thought on Homework…

9 Sep

As part of my previous article on homework, I did read an older article from 1999 that could have been written today.  But I did not use or source it because it seemed a bit old and dated.  However it does introduce one cause of the homework epidemic that I did not give adequate attention to.

For sure the accountability movement and testing climate have driven much of the homework given, there is one other notable factor driving homework and the problems associated with it.

Namely a certain demographic of parents.  That’s right, there are parents who are demanding homework for their kids.  If there is no homework, the parents assume it is a poor school or that their student is not learning anything.  To be sure, I would not advocate *no* homework, but would strive to cut the current load in half, at least.  But some parents are convinced the more homework will somehow give their children a competitive edge and parents who fuss and complain about there not being enough homework tend to be competitive overachievers.

I would guess that very few of these are parents of students with disabilities.  Those of us that have to deal with issues of poor attention, sensory issues, cognitive deficits and and any sort of behavior issues are clamoring for more homework.  In fact, I would argue that for students with disabilities, less is more.  Since they may languish longer in the acquisition stage, the amounts need to be bite-sized until some level of competence is achieved to where they can do it independently.

One other thing that I need to reiterate, based on my latest experiences with homework, is that sometimes even 4th grade math becomes too difficult to teach our own kids.  It’s not that I can’t multiply 2-by-2-digit numbers.  I can.  But the way it is taught now is entirely different and totally confusing and non-intuitive to those of us who learned to do this over 20 years ago. I know that the more mathematically inclined may be able to make complete sense of this but it took me several passes to figure this out for my gifted 4th grader.  I eventually got the idea, but even after I did and we were able to show our work and get the right answer, it still was not the way his teacher wanted it.

Welcome to a world where conformity is rewarded and innovation is punished or at best dismissed.

The Future of Education?

1 Sep

Once again, I am back in my old room as a substitute and meeting a new teacher for my old students and a few new ones. It’s just like riding a bike…it just becomes a natural extension of you as you know what to do instinctively. And so it is with this population of students. I kind of amazed myself with how quickly I was able to bond with the new students. A bit more about my status later.

But first I want to talk about a podcast that aired recently on the Future of Education website. You can listen to it too!

I bought Bob Compton’s 2 Million Minutes documentary, and he made a lot of astute observations about the education systems in India, China and the U.S. In his latest documentary, he teams up with Dr. Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) whose book I have read and even gave a few copies away to administrators. The Finland Phenomenon explores the education system in Finland, often regarded as the top system in the world. Compton and Wagner wanted to find out more about the Finnish educational system and why it is as good as it is.

I have not yet seen this film but do plan on seeing it and reviewing it. But I wanted to talk a bit about some things Compton said in this podcast. He talked a bit about barriers to true and genuine innovation and I was struck by his description of how large organizations try to kill or squash innovation. Basically, if there is someone who starts to excel, it makes the rest of the organization look bad or at the very least exposes mediocrity. And since no one wants to feel bad, the out-lier is attacked and either put in their place or ostracized almost out of existence. This is just the organization striving for self-preservation. People don’t like change and innovation has a habit of forcing change upon people. This is also discussed in the book about educational disruption in education that I read a couple years ago about the time I was also reading Tony Wagner’s book.

So…could that be the answer to the question I am too embarrassed to ask or talk much about? During my tenure teaching individuals with severe disabilities I was innovating and shaping things way beyond what anyone else was doing at the time.

  • I had an active Moodle site that was a repository of knowledge to help other teachers who teach students with severe disabilities.
  • I had an active blog, informing other teachers, future teachers, policiy makers and parents the effects of certain government policies on the classroom
  • I recorded and posted scores of videos on Teachertube, sharing best practices in how to use different types of technology in the classroom
  • I experimented with many different types of technology including mp4 players, open source programs and various switches and AAC devices
  • I encouraged the faculty to use the collaboration software that the county had purchased in order to collaborate and share their ideas and thoughts rather than burdening the email system.
  • We experimented with research-based interventions such as electronic social stories and video modeling to teach new behaviors.
  • I tried to get school leaders to use technology to reach or teach the staff asynchronously in order to afford greater flexibility with staff development and to leverage the technology to build capacity for more staff development options and offerings.
  • Participated and attended staff development activities such as Future of Education webinars, and subscribed to various educational podcasts, even experimenting with my own podcasting site.

These efforts were not always greeted with open arms. Sometimes there was active opposition to some of the ideas but most of the time efforts to reform practice was met with a polite smile and then people continued to do what they were used to doing. I was clearly out in front of most of my colleagues when it came to technology and ideas for building capacity especially in regards to staff development using multimedia and social collaboration.

And these activities are STILL regarded with a great deal of resistance and suspicion from many people who make decisions about education. Being an innovator is often very politically risky and I have to admit to being often very naive when it comes to politics. My thought is that the needs of the students should be greater than the need for any particular political vendetta. We might disagree about certain policies, but in the end we are charged with the trust of caring and educating all students.

I’m a bit lost as to what to do about whatever it is that keeps me from getting back into the classroom full-time and need to look at all other options. Surely some of these skills must translate into something else that is useful to someone.

OH…by the way, look at some of the other blogs who made the list!  What an honor and a treat to be listed alongside so many other excellent special education bloggers.

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