School officially began and I am almost too wiped out and crushed to write. At the same time, I am feeling almosted to crushed NOT to write!
I’ve found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain to administrators as to why experience and attitude are equally important in teaching students with severe disabilities. While it is important no matter what you teach, there can be some dire consequences for NOT having some background with this population. And if there is a poor attitude, such as a prejudice against kids with disabilities, no amount of knowledge or background will help. We had a case a couple of years ago where a teacher and para got canned because of abuse charges, and they were both competent and experienced. But they didn’t really like most of the students, and took it out on them with some rather foolish misconduct.
It takes at least a year for me to get a para up to full speed, and at least another year before I can consider them fully skilled. Some take longer and some can learn a bit quicker, but it really does take a full year to learn all of the ropes involved in opening school, teaching the GAA, doing all of the Special Olympic events and enduring me through all of my IEPs. For the past several years, it has been almost impossible for me to keep a fully qualified team intact. Sometimes it is because staff members move on, but most often it is because the administration sees a sharp para and they take them away for AYP/political/unkown reasons. This infuriates me, especially when I have an oppressive class load like I do this year. It is basically a case of discrimination based upon disability, considering my students less worthy of highly qualified people rather than the more general population. And I am not putting up with that any more. Next time that happens, there WILL be a letter sent to the office of civil rights. The culture of discrimination ends today.
So just what does the learning curve involve for a new para? First, knowing the kids and their names and the nature of each ones disability. It’s important to know whaen someone is just having a behavioral issue and when someone is having an autistic issue. It’s important to know who has seizures. You have to know things dealing with mobility, physical therapy, communication, feeding, toileting, and allergies. And the preceding list are all things that have to be known simply to get the students through breakfast!! The learning curve is extraordinarily steep, detailed and challenging. Feed them something they are allergic to can result in DEATH! But most of my students have no way of telling us if something is bothering them or what it is. The best way is by knowing them, and it takes time to do that. With regular high school kids, they can tell you all about their summer, what they are allergic to, what they like and dislike, what positions or noises or things make them uncomfortable. Many of my kids just scream, holler and hit their faces or bang their heads, and we have to figure it out. Knowing them over a period of time helps take some of the guesswork out it. And then there’s the work involved in getting to know the new students. It’s difficult for me to quickly get to know a couple of new students if I’m also helping new staff get to know the other 6 as well as the new ones.
The first day of school is stressful for all students and teachers. Many express themselves in various ways by talking about it. Some might act out behaviorally. Some might just poop their pants all day long. Which leads to the next extraordinary facet of my setting. It is totally and utterly physical.
By 10:30, my shirt was soaked with sweat, even though the thermometer in my room read 68 degrees. I felt really bad for the poor kids I was changing as sweat was dripping from me on to them. I tried keeping it wiped off and soldiered on. It was all about lifting, undressing, dressing lifting some more, positioning in a wedge, stander or on the floor and getting the next one, followed by repositioning. I found myself channeling the days on the farm stacking hay under a hot tin roof!
Some folks are a bit surprised that I, as a teacher, change diapers instead of just letting the paras do it all. But I totally believe in leading from the front. Besides, if I have a couple of students that are demanding all of my time for whatever reason, changing might be the most quality time I spend with some! It is a very sad fact that even with only 7 or 8 students that it is often difficult to find a sufficient amount of time to spend with any individual students. So today was spent teaching the 2 (out of three) new paras some of the ropes while also trying to decipher and figure out the new behaviors from the old students and all of the behaviors from my new students. By the end of the day, I was sore and exhausted. I spent too much time laying around this summer!
I do think my new para team will work well once everyone gets up to speed. I also have faith that my students will adjust and be fun to work with, each in their own way. But it is always such a long and steep climb to get to that point! It’s difficult explaining this to someone who does not exist in the world where I’ve been living over the past 10 years. But those who are making these decisions need to know that their seemingly haphazard decisions have consequences.