Student Volunteers

9 Apr

I should note here, when I speak of student volunteers, much of what I write will apply to any sort of volunteer, whether it is a high school or college student volunteer or someone else from the community.

I’ll preface my discussion by giving a bit of a back story on myself. One of my first experiences in special education was as volunteer while in college. I was actually going for an additional year after graduating and working, and was picking up science courses in order to get a science endorsement on my certificate. I also needed some time to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I knew it would be teaching, but there was that what question that we see Erin dealing with over on her blog. I’ll get to a question or two of hers in a bit. But my experience as a volunteer was somewhat accidental.

It was the second semester and this was it for me at Iowa State. I knew this was my last year there ever. I was ready to move on and was running out of money. I was taking a sign language class and the instructor passed around a flyer from the local special needs preschool. A teacher of hearing impaired children wanted a volunteer to come ‘round, and she was especially keen to have a male volunteer since almost all her students were boys and she wanted some sort of male influence. So I signed up and I fell in love. I mean I seriously loved going over there and was terribly disappointed when they went on fieldtrips or said they didn’t need me. I liked working with those little kids, and would have considered a career change on the spot if I had any more money to spend. But it would be almost another 15 years before I came close to that sort of experience again, and I still wonder about going back to the preschool level.

One of the reasons why I liked volunteering so much is that the teacher and her para gave me a lot of trust and latitude working with the kids. I was able to play with them and it also helped me use my sign language which was at about the preschool level, handily enough. But I learned a lot more than sign language. The boys just loved having a big kid to climb all over and chase them around. I actually teased some verbal language from a couple of them, almost accidentally.

Now, 20 years later, I’m just starting to figure out what to do when I have volunteers of my own. The second year I was teaching my current positions I had 3 student volunteers. Fortunately they came during PE time as I didn’t know what to do with them otherewise. And then there was the one and only time I took one on a fieldtrip to downtown Atlanta and the bus ended up leaving us stranded at the MARTA station. She didn’t sign up to come the next year. None of those girls were interested in going into special education. A couple years later, I did have one who seemed very interested, but I still couldn’t figure out what to do with her.

This year, I’m just figuring out what I can do. I have one who just started today, who I’ll call Ellen. I had her come in and work on stretching Larry for awhile but she actually seemed to prefer working with Ravi. I had Ravi on the prone wedge and was letting him use a switch to run a tape player playing The Temptations Greatest Hits. This involved trying to teach him to use the switch which involved some risky physical prompting, as Ravi will bite if you get between him and his hand. But Ellen managed to dodge his snapping successfully and he showed some progress in independently manipulating the switch during the hour she was in class. So that’s one good thing. I have no idea how often she’ll be visiting as her class is right next door. But basically I plan on running her through the same sort of training I go through with my paras. I don’t know if we’ll get to any lifting, but that is an important thing to learn.

Ellen said she’d like to go into special education but wasn’t sure what grade or what disability area. She’s in 11th grade so this is a good time for her to get some exposure in order to decide what she wants to do. Better to learn if/that she hates it before investing a lot of time and money. But I’ll do whatever I can to encourage her.

Now back to Erin and a few things she was wondering about on her blog:

She wondered about special education teachers with disabilities and their job outlook. Do you have a pulse? You’re outlook looks bright!

Actually, long term job satisfaction figures the most as to if a person stays or not. And this seems to correlate with the amount of training a person has. People with more and higher levels of training last longer in special education as competence goes a long way towards buffering against burnout. I did have a colleague who was wheelchair bound the past couple of years and he seemed to do very well. But he was doing mostly consultative-collaborative teaching in the regular education setting. So he had none of the physical demands that go with teaching students with severe disabilities. But it is possible to do well with orthopedic disabilities. I have heard of people with vision and hearing impairments working in the field, but this is quite rare, especially with in the more severe end of the spectrum.

Erin wondered if she should just let the aides do all the toileting. The answer is, if at all possible, NO. There are several issues that come into play, not the least of which is equity and fairness. I believe in leading from the front, and I can change a diaper better and faster than any of my staff. And I do it often, without reluctance, because griping and complaining is totally bad for morale. I don’t complain and I don’t allow them to complain around the kids, either. Lifting always is done in teams of two, so weight is not a huge issue, although it can be with heavier kids.

The other issue is actually training the paras. Now it might seem rather silly to have to train paras to change a diaper especially those that parented their own kids. But it is definitely different with older kids with sensory issues and disabilities. I do have to train the paras not to complain about the smell in front of the kids and to do the job well. And the best way to do that, is by example and talking them through it. I also train them how to lift, again by example and then talking them through it. Often just being there and showing them can help build confidence. And often, confidence is the deciding factor in whether a para is successful or just drawing a paycheck.

It also shows interest in the kids. Changing diapers and toileting is decidedly unglamorous, but not much of what I do with this population is very exciting. However, to a kid who is nonverbal except for moans of discomfort, that extra time seems to mean something to them. Finally, if you are a parent, who would you rather change your child?

Oh, and there is also the issue of toilet training, but that’s not the issue raised here.

Something I had to learn the hard way is to NOT run after a kid that bolts away. I did that when I was younger and screwed my knee up badly enough that it still bothers me to this day. I don’t run after anyone nowadays and neither should any of you. I suppose there’s some sort of noble illusion of throwing myself in front of the bus to save a student, but what of all the other students that I leave behind who had sense enough not to run in front of the bus? I’ll walk gingerly after a kid who thinks it is funny running away, but I refuse to play chase. A body just learns how to anticipate things like eloping, with some experience.

How an administrator would feel about hiring someone with their own physical disabilities is an unknown. In the job climate of today, I wouldn’t consider mild CP to be a huge problem. I have worked with paras and teachers who were not at all very mobile because of their age or weight. Lifting is a big thing, though. Being healthy is a big thing. I have a para right now whose back is too fragile to do the type of lifting and positioning we need to do on a daily basis. I need to make sure that everyone can help lift equally well so that none of us are overworked. I still do the lion’s share because I’m leading from the front.

Volunteers can be very helpful or they can be an additional burden. In fact, they almost always represent an additional burden at least in the beginning. Once they get familiar with the students and with the classroom routine, they can fit in and be very helpful. I have issues with using volunteers to fill gaps created by staffing shortages, though. My main goal with these particular student volunteers is to recruit them into the business or at least give them some exposure to decide if they like it.


4 Responses to “Student Volunteers”

  1. Erin April 9, 2007 at 4:06 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post. 🙂 I absolutely love your outlook. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. Erin April 9, 2007 at 4:43 pm #

    I really love the fact that “L”, our CBI teacher, has started to include me when I can come work with the kids. She knows I’m passionate and sees me do “great work” with the kids, in her words. I think it has something to do with the fact that I have a disability too, and I often times experience a bit of a more emotional and personal connection with the kid I’m working with because I don’t know, I just feel like I know what they’re feeling, or at least some of it, most of the time.

    I know that in this post, you answered most of my most pressing questions – and for that, I thank you so much.

    Often as a volunteer, I feel a little more downplayed than the rest of the crowd – which is okay. They’re all trained and getting the $$$ to do what they do. That is, until recently. I feel like more people recognize my passion than ever. Is it weird I’m feeling it so young?

  3. Angela Mouzakitis April 12, 2007 at 1:12 am #

    Thanks for the post. The toileting issue comes up often with teachers I supervise. This is not seen as a teaching opportunity, which is unfortunate. It doesn’t help the situation that many schools in our state actually forbid teachers from implementing toilet training programs. Again this is unfortunate, as I rank toilet training up their with self-management of problem behavior and communication. The level of independence and dignitiy that is attained when toilet training is successful is immeasurable. I try to impart on my students that toilet training is their responsibility as a teacher, but it is a hard sell, and is usually a job left to teacher assistants and para-professionals.

    Thanks to your post, I am also going to explore the use of younger volunteers. Creative, bright, motivated, and energetic teachers are hard to come by. The older thay get, the less they are willing to get on the floor and sweat a little for the sake of learning. I’ll check it out.

  4. Dick April 12, 2007 at 6:50 am #

    Glad you’re so excited about getting into the business, Erin!

    And thanks for stopping by, Angela!

    I think we need to keep in mind when dealing with volunteers the issues of liability and accountability. It falls most squarely on the teacher, and to the paras to a lesser extent. Volunteers are not under any sort of pressure to perform and they are not liable for things they might do or not do. If toilet training is on that IEP, it falls on the teacher to do it, and the parent to work with the program and follow up. Volunteers can help and can be a motivating influence in the classroom, for sure. We all do better when we have company!;-)

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