Why Experience Counts

3 Aug

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.


15 Responses to “Why Experience Counts”

  1. Erin August 4, 2009 at 12:53 am #

    What a vivid look into your day, Dan. Thanks for this. I long to work in this field, but it wouldn’t be possible unless the state and the school had enough money to hire me a little bit of help! I admire you so much for what you do, and I know your students and their parents feel the same way!

    • Daniel Dage August 4, 2009 at 8:02 pm #

      Perhaps the technology will exist one day where you could wear a robot suit ala Power Rangers! Because you definitely have the head and heart for it. There’s also a large topography of other services that impact my students such as speech language pathology or adaptive technology where the needs are great.

  2. Terri August 4, 2009 at 7:08 am #

    Thank you for sharing about your day. I agree it’s horrendous the way bureaucracy gets in the way of teaching. It’s wonderful that your students have someone who truly cares about them!

    • Daniel Dage August 4, 2009 at 8:03 pm #

      Yes, Terri, the political side of this business gets really old sometimes. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. John Lloyd August 4, 2009 at 12:00 pm #

    Some might just poop their pants all day long.

    It’s gotta be tough when the teachers do that. Teehee.

    Congrats on starting another year! Your continuing contributions on the front lines (from whence you lead!) certainly earn my admiration.

    • Daniel Dage August 4, 2009 at 8:07 pm #

      Ha! I just about had an administrator drop a load when he offered to assist in any way possible and I suggested he feed or change the kid of his choice! Good to see you ’round, John!

  4. Tara August 4, 2009 at 2:32 pm #

    It is so tough when our good paras get pulled away. With all the budget cuts this year, I lost 2 paras (a total of 11 hours) and am struggling to visualize how I am going to effectively serve all of our kids! I teach 4-6 grade resource, so not only am I in charge of my IEP kids and Tier III title kids, but I am responsible for all of the ELL students and all of the title kids that are served in the general classroom. We’re now implementing RTI and multi-tiered instruction, but who is going to do those tier 2 interventions in the gen ed? Every year, we get more and more responsibilities but less and less resources. How exactly can that work?

    • Daniel Dage August 4, 2009 at 8:14 pm #

      You’re right about everyone being caught in a terrible squeeze, Tara. I think a lot of general ed. teachers look at the smaller numbers and think that it’s easy not realizing the mountain of paperwork each child generates. My understanding of RTI is that regular ed. is supposed to be doing all of the lower tier levels. The whole idea is to prevent students from entering the special ed. pipeline, thus save a buck or two by not having to go to special ed. However, it is often abused in order to prevent too many Sp.Ed. kids and thus prevent it from being a subgroup for AYP purposes.

  5. Cathleen August 4, 2009 at 6:23 pm #

    I can understand your frustration. I too have to teach at least one para a year new responsibilites and expectations. It seems that once the paras know what they need to know and how to work with fellow teachers, students etc… they get moved to another school due to budget cuts. It is so frustrating.
    I also can sympathize with Tara. I have 10 aide hours a week to help me service students appropriately. My school also implements RTI and multi-tiered instruction, but we special educators are the ones who support gen ed and make sure that the tier II interventions are done.
    We are losing so much in resources due to budget cuts but yet we are at that critical point as teachers. We must choose 1- lose all hope or 2- take it as a challenge.
    I choose to take it as a challenge
    Best of luck to all of those amazing Special Eudcation Teachers out there.

    • Daniel Dage August 4, 2009 at 8:20 pm #

      I think your school is misusing you for the tier 2 interventions. Students in tier 2 aren’t in special ed, yet. Sure, you serve every student you can, but with limited resources and a large caseload, your responsibility is for the kids who are already identified.
      10 hours/week doesn’t sound like much, especially if you have to train your paras along the way.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • Tara August 4, 2009 at 9:03 pm #

        We’ve been told that yes, gen eds implement tier 2 interventions, but we are to teach them how, help them along the way, and provide support. Because we are a title school, a certain amount of my para time must be allocated for those title kids in the regular class. Last year, I did not have any para assistance in my classroom and this year will be the same. We do the best with what we have.

  6. Tara August 4, 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    Cathleen, yes it seems we are all in the same boat. We (the sped teachers) are the ones to help with all the interventions but for in-class services, I like to place a para so that they may help the teacher and do some progress monitoring/data collection. I teach four and a half hours a day and have an hour and a half (scattered throughout the day) for IEP’s, testing, and plan time. This makes it difficult to make sure that all of my teachers are implementing the multi-tiered instruction (and interventions) properly. We have 18 gen ed classrooms and there’s 2 of us. We would like to do much more co-teaching – maybe we’ll be able to work out a suitable schedule. We all have the common goal of student success.

  7. Monica August 9, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    Boy do I hear you on training new learning assistants. I have had years where we have had several staff changes in the year and nothing was settled all year because of it. Its crazy. This fall I think I’m heading in with all the ones I had at the end of last year and that they will all stay the whole year (knock on wood). I’m so excited.

    Glad to hear that the second day was better than the first. Good luck with the school year.

  8. Deborah August 10, 2009 at 2:33 pm #

    I really enjoy your blog. I am the parent of a child with significant disabilities, and enjoy your ‘teacher’ perspective. Thanks!

  9. Tandy August 12, 2009 at 11:01 pm #

    I’ve been pretty lucky at my school to have the same para for the last 3 years now. I was kind of worried about it because when I first took over the class and was given a choice I asked for her. She came in in tears and was very upset because of the experience the previous one had had with the previous teacher. I told her to give me a couple weeks and then decide. She now absolutely refuses to leave my room and go work in another class when the other paras start grumbling and want to switch. I value her input and I know I wouldn’t be able to get nearly as much done without her. I know it’s not easy to train new ones. Hope you have a great year.

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