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Fear, Intimidation and Retaliation: The Atlanta Cheating Scandal and You

23 Apr

I promised in my last entry that I would blog a bit about the Atlanta Teacher scandal.  How little did I know how closely this thing would hit home for me, personally.  But you’ll have to hang on for a minute.

As I wrote my last entry, I began looking deeper and deeper into that situation, watching and reading hours of testimony given by witnesses.  There were initially over 170 educators from 40 different schools named in the investigation.  As time went on, educators came forward, confessed and cooperated and in return they were given a sort of leniency.  But it was all predicated on an admission of guilt.  They had to confess that they had some role in falsifying or corrupting the testing process.   One by one they came forward and made deals.  Until there were only 12 defendants left who went the distance and went to trial and all the way to sentencing.

Actually, that isn’t quite true.  There was at least one who could not be prosecuted because she died before she could have her day in court.

As I poured over the history of this unfortunate incident my heart went out to each and every person involved.  Everyone.  Of course the children who were fooled into thinking they were somehow gifted or doing better than they really were and subsequently failed to receive earlier intervention that might have come if the tests were serving the purpose they are purported to serve.  But in truth, these tests have never served that purpose.  George W. Bush made No Child Left Behind the crown jewel of his legacy.   Barack Obama took NCLB and “improved” it by taking the most onerous parts of it and incentivized it during a recession that gripped the nation through “Race to the Top.”  Beverly Hall won her accolades as Superintendent of The Year in 2009– on his watch.

The teachers involved lived in a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.  Their jobs were on the line.  They needed the benefits for taking care of their own children and to put food on their own tables.  Even if they didn’t cheat, they knew it was happening.  Erasing student scores was wrong.  We all know this.  But I often ask myself, “what would I have done?”  Then I ask myself “What am I going to do?”  Because you see, things have changed but maybe not that much.   Notice that these teachers were sentenced on April 1st– a mere 3 weeks before the state of Georgia goes into its testing season.  Fear, intimidation, retaliation.  Those sentences and this whole story casts a long, long shadow over every single teacher in this state and even across our entire nation.  NONE of us are immune from the fear, intimidation and the fear of retaliation caused by the spectre of the long arm of the law reaching and grasping us with its cold and loveless fingers.

I felt for the judge.  He really pleaded and did almost everything he could do to keep from having to hand down sentences to these educators.  He delayed his sentencing by a day, in order to give them all a chance to make a deal with the district attorney.  It reminded me of the story of Pontius Pilate who did not want to administer a certain other sentence, trying the flogging first and then appealing to the crowds.  I’m convinced he took no pleasure in this.  Everything about this trial was painful to watch.  I know the educators did wrong and deserved some form of punishment.  But are they that much of a threat to society that they need to be taken off the streets and incarcerated with rapists and murderers?  They’ve lost their credentials that they spent a good portion of their lives acquiring and will never be able to practice their profession again.  They are jobless and in some cases indigent, unable to afford to pay for their own appeals.  They are broke and broken.

As I watched the videos of the sentencing and the efforts of the attorneys to appeal for some mercy, I was genuinely moved by the entire thing.  I felt a sense of hopelessness for every single person in that courtroom.  I would have taken the deal.  Any deal.  Whatever it took to wash my hands of this dirty, filthy mess.

And that is what this entire testing culture is.  It’s not about the children.  It’s not even about accountability and it certainly is not about teaching and learning.  It’s pure filth.  And as educators, we all have to swim in this hot, steaming vat of it.  I’m beginning to wonder if there is any pension, insurance benefit or salary that can possibly wash the stink of it off of any of us.  We’re in it for the kids.  But it’s not about them anymore.  It’s all about the data.

In my last entry, I described our testing season.  We are now a mere 3 days into a 10 day ordeal.  I am working with a team of 6 other extremely dedicated educators who like our kids and enjoy teaching them.  And 3 days in, each and every single one of us have had to write at least one incident report, reporting some sort of “testing irregularity” that will put us on the radar of the Department Of Education and subsequent investigations that might just put an end to that.  Most of these things are out of our control.  The new computerized testing administration is full of glitches and problems which are still being hashed out and has caused most of these “irregularities.”  In some cases, entire tests will be invalidated because of these problems.  Some students didn’t get their accommodations and we scrambled to make the best of things.  Only time will tell if we did enough to satisfy all of the oversight.

Parents all around the state  and country are starting to push back for a variety of reasons.  But one thing they realize is that our education system is hopelessly broken and every effort by our government to “fix” it has made it even more broken.  One of the reasons schools push so hard for students to take these tests is because there is money tied not only to the pass rates, but simply for having at least 95% of the students take the test on test day.    Fear, intimidation and retaliation.  While those Atlanta teachers who cheated didn’t do the rest of the dedicated teachers in the country any favors, the system has not gotten any kinder.  It continues to cultivate the exact same culture that incubated the scandal in the first place.  And it has made teaching a much more difficult and less rewarding profession than at any other time in our history.  And its starting to show.  I would have a really hard time recommending this profession to any student given the present climate.  Back when I got my undergrad degree in agriculture education, only about 2 of us out of 10 who graduated the program that December had any intention of returning to the classroom, with the rest opting to go into agribusiness.  I’ve always liked teaching, and still do.  But so much of the job involves so many other things besides teaching students, and almost all of it revolves around “accountability.”  Covering your bum.  It’s increasingly difficult to survive and thrive in that sort of climate for students and the teachers who teach them.   We’re sowing seeds that will reap a bitter harvest for this country unless we can regain some control over a testing culture that has gotten out of control.

Just remember that whenever you hear the word “Accountability” when applied to education, it is shorthand for fear, intimidation and retaliation.

5/4/2015 Edit: Thank you John Oliver!

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.

Advancing Miracles

23 Nov

One of the reasons for my frustration, is that I am forever looking to advance my students along.  The current economic and political realities seem bent on thwarting those efforts, and I suspect every teacher feels this way.  We want to keep moving forward, but get bogged down by forces beyond our control.

But we still do it and we succeed in spite of public policies, like NCLB.  And so it is, I’m blogging the student teacher I said I wouldn’t blog about.  Well, this is noteworthy and deserves to be published and promoted!

I have several students who have profound intellectual disabilities, meaning they rely almost totally on caregivers to meet their needs.  It’s one of the reasons why the adult:student ratio is so critical.  If there isn’t an adult around to meet a need, it is not going to be met.  Period.  However, any move in the direction of independence is a monumental one, considering that these students are all in high school.  If they have not learned something by now, it isn’t likely they will, especially since the adult/student ratio is cut in half as soon as they exit middle school.

But having a capable and motivated adult can really help move things along.  In this case, the student teacher has been working with one of my students who has PID as well as being mostly physically disabled. She has to be fed, like most of my students.  She can move her hands and arms, but just doesn’t very much.  Until now.  We started off teaching communication skills, geting her to push a Big Mac switch in order to say “more” meaning she wanted more food.  She quickly caught on to this, as eating is highly reinforcing to her.

However, this student did not stop there.  At some point the food wasn’t coming fast enough so she grabbed the teacher’s hand and brought it up to her mouth.  This was HUGE!  We hadn’t seen this before, but then we never had time to look.  Feeding time is something we generally do as quick as we can to get it over with, like any other task we have to do.  However, we made a break through, past the communication exercise.  I showed the student teacher how to hold the spoon and help facilitate more engagement and learning in the feeding and within a couple fo days, the girl was beginning to feed herself.  It is still a very sloppy process, but we are off and running!

It’s been awhile since we had a breakthrough like that in our room.  It looks downright miraculous.  It’s mostly good teaching involving consistency and persistence.  And it is also a good shot in the arm for all of us, morale-wise.  It will be interesting to see if we can sustain it over the course of the year, even after this student teacher leaves.

Here’s the thing: This is a gigantic leap forward for this one student.  Feeding herself with the spoon.  It is monumental, significant and practical.  But it is not even a blip on the NCLB radar screen.  It carries NO weight to anyone outside of this girl’s life.  It does not improve a test score, does not improve the graduation rate or any other measure devised to measure “accountability.”  It is not something I could use to become one of Georgia’s Master Teachers.  The resounding message from the outside is that what we do doesn’t matter, when in reality, what we do totally matters!

But I have no idea how on earth to convey that to the people who make decisions about our staffing.  Those folks never darken my door and they miss these miraculous victories.  Having key people in the key spots matters, but I don’t get to choose who is in my room with my kids.  Sometimes I am very fortunate.  Sometimes, less so.

Anyway, I simply had to blog it and make whatever political hay I can out of it.  Unfortunately, these things do not happen every day and few times do they happen in such short amounts of time.  It’s also good for a new teacher to get this boost very early in her career as  those are the memories that sustain us over the longer and leaner times.

Some Positives

16 Nov

One good piece of news is that I think I have GAA collection #1 finished! WooHoo! Or at least that’s what I think. Now I have to compile it and organize it and get it all onto a recognizable portfolio from the formless mass of files and pictures I currently have. That will take a lot of work, and I may have to go back and pick up a couple of things, but other than a few pick-ups, I feel like I got it. I actually had to totally redo the science from the planned experiment since the early freeze and heavy rains killed most of the plants I had going. Another advantage of pushing strong early is that I had (and still have) options for revision and improvement without crashing the deadline. This is good, because I have a few other deadlines that will get me.

A couple weeks ago, our dept. head sent out an email asking if anyone would want to host a student teacher. One would think I might jump all over that, and just a year or two earlier I would have. But many of the feelings that generated the earlier whine posts have dampened my enthusiasm for bringing someone new into the business. I’ve worked with a few paras and other people who are somewhere in the pipeline toward becoming a special educator, but my recent state of mind has put a dark cloud over whatever recruitment efforts I might engage in. In years past, the hope was to bring other competent and passionate people in, in order to raise the bar of professionalism and minimize the sort of shock many new SID/PID teachers encounter when they are hired off the street from another field or with NO teaching experience. They have no idea what to do with these students. Recruitment got more serious as I was wanting to move on and find a replacement so that I could. Then despair set in as I realized there was no replacement and that those who make such decisions have never had any intentions of letting me teach anything else, anywhere else, no matter what I did.

So the idea of infecting someone brand new with that sort of cynicism wouldn’t be my first choice. Plus, what are the odds that someone who was student teaching would even want to be in this setting with these students? Last job fair I attended, I informally polled the job applicants who were standing in my vicinity. Guess how many had any interest at all in SID/PID at the high school level? How about NONE – Zero. In fact, several were trying to escape self-contained settings. So imagine my shock and awe when I learned that the student teacher was very interested in this population! And so, she’ll be spending most of here time here with us.

I’m not going to blog her, but I immediately think of Ms. Ris, who often blogs about mentoring student teachers. I can not even remember the last time I encountered a special education student teacher as they are often hired first, before they even finish a master’s program. That’s essentially what happened to me almost 20 years ago.

What I will blog, tho, is that having someone new in the room can have collateral effects all around. For my part, it does give me more of a purpose in life beyond my own fuzzy, murky, smokey uncertain future. Here’s someone interesting in learning the craft, and I find I do have a thing or two to teach. And the act of passing it on also helps me reflect and learn myself. A body naturally processes and thinks more about the content when they are teaching it, and in this case the content is teaching! This blog provides a great deal of reflective space for me, but this is a different level. Even my video channel was an effort to pass my ideas and knowledge on. I think it is just part of every teacher’s DNA to want to pass on what they know.

But it isn’t just me. The paras also can feel that sense, because they also have a chance to share what they know. And it goes without saying that I could never do what I do without them. So there’s this building dynamic going on, which puts us less at a defensive posture and back on the initiative. And that is exactly where we needed to be after being swamped and feeling overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control while it seemed no one was hearing us or cared. In the final analysis, it’s the students who ultimately benefit from the newer and more positive energy. Part of the reason for the earlier posts was to just get some stuff off of me and out into the air as well as just process it and noodle it out. Plus I know several other folks who could relate.

In the interest of fairness, I also need to mention a couple of gains this year that some folks have kindly pointed out to me:

– The paras and I have a duty-free lunch for the first time in 10 years.  That is a big miracle.  Of course, stuff still happens with the kids I teach, but it is still a milestone, similar to the planning period that I acquired a few years ago.  Speaking of which….

– I do have a planning period.  It is only fair to mention it so it doesn’t sound like I’m totally trapped all day long.  Just most of the day;-)  Lunch time isn’t the most convenient time, and I do help get the kids through the line and help all those involved in the feeding.

– Other helpers are around.  Other teachers and paras have pitched in and supported us through some of the toughest and stickiest times.  Feeding time is HUGE and a lot of other teachers and paras outside of my own private little band are involved in this effort.

As far as the battle for trying to get more help in the form of another para or another teacher in the room, it is pretty much over.  No relief is coming in the foreseeable future, so it’s time to move off of that.  Generally, when I fight I try to make my first blow the strongest and most direct possible.  I am not a fan of long protracted struggles especially when I am on the losing end.  So I do what I can with whatever resources I have remaining instead of wasting time and effort battling a brick wall.  I’m going to need all the energy I have to do what needs to be done.

And I’m going to have to dig deeper than ever before.  So perhaps now is a good time to channel a couple of my favorite movie scenes:

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.

A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day.

An hour of wolfes and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crushing down! But it is not this day!


By all that you hold dear on this good Earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!”

The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King

Teachers with Disabilities

20 Jul

I was asked by another blogger about my thoughts concerning being a special educator with disabilities. At first, I didn’t think I’d have anything to say about the subject since I don’t don’t have any identified disabilities. At least not a physical disability beyond severe myopia although some might argue that I have some sort of emotional or behavior disorder! But over the years, I have known various teachers who had disabilities of various sorts and most had gotten along pretty well.

One of the earliest persons I met in the business was a para who had a visual impairment. He was quite successful at his job, working with students with moderate and severe disabilities in an elementary school. While I only briefly met him, he was highly thought of by his fellow teachers and paras and was well-liked by the kids.

I also knew a teacher who slipped and fell and broke his hip. He had several complications which put him in a wheelchair (and several medications) for over a year. He got pretty good at getting around in the wheelchair. He taught students with mild disabilities in co-teaching and resource settings in the high school so his capacity to teach was less severely impacted. However, before the end of his second year in the wheelchair, he did resign because the medications he was on were having an impact on his overall health.

Something we don’t often think about is short-term disabilities, when a teacher becomes injured. In fact this happened to me way back when I was a para, and I twisted up my knee while chasing a kid. I was on crutches for several weeks, and so was limited in the things I could do. But since this was toward the end of the year, we had the kids pretty much into a routine. So while it was a royal pain trying to get around, I was still able to work with the middle school students at the psychoed center albeit in a more limited capacity. I learned how much more work is involved doing simple things with a physical disability. I was going to grad school at the time at Georgia State, and it was a lot of work just getting from the subway to class! By the time I got there in the heat of May, I was drenched in sweat. Any one of us could become disabled through accident or illness at anytime so it just makes good sense being compassionate toward those with differing abilities and exceptionalities.  We’re almost all destined to be on that list at least once.

And then there is a teacher who I’ve known for a few years who has mild CP. She went to college and became certified as an elementary teacher. Just getting through college was a victory, but once out, she discovered that getting a job would be more difficult. There was a lot of prejudice against her as a teacher because of her disability. In fact one administrator she interviewed with told her that she had no business teaching or even being around children. I can only imagine how hurtful that must have been. However, this lady had the pluck to continue trying to find a job and landed in our county where a principal gave her a chance. And she was successful. The obstacles she encountered, as well as a lot of the prejudice and discrimination just made her more determined to prove her detractors wrong and be more successful. She is now a media specialist at one of the elementary schools in our county. She is married and has a son about the same age as my youngest. Her CP presented challenges to her all along the way, but she persevered and met all of them. Things we take for granted like driving or even changing a diaper were things she had to deal with and learn how to do. She is respected and admired by everyone who knows her, not just on account of having such an indomitable spirit, but also on account of her kindness and bigheartedness.

So for people with disabilities who are considering teaching as a career, I would encourage it for several reasons. First of all, we really do need more diversity in teaching all around. While there are many groups under represented on the faculty of any school, those who have disabilities have to be the most underrepresented group of all. Is it because teaching is so demanding? That’s possible, as it can be physically and emotionally taxing. However I think a lot of it is simply part of a larger culture of discrimination against people with disabilities. Just because a person has limitations, we often think of them being less than a whole or capable person. This is a tragedy, I think, because we can learn a lot by being around people who have overcome their limitations in order to improve themselves and the rest of us.

As far as my particular position, it would be very difficult or impossible to do if I had to be in a wheelchair. There is a great deal of lifting involved and while I have capable paras, it would be tremendously unfair to ask them to do all the grunt work that I was unable to do. I do believe there needs to be a certain level of physical fitness required to be in a SID/PID room, but that threshold is relatively low. One needs to be able to lift at least 50 pounds, be able to get on the floor and get up again with relative ease. Other than that, it is mostly mental/emotional. Basically, if a body is able and willing to change the poopy diapers of a young adult, everything else is gravy. The biggest obstacle, in my experience, is a willingness to do it more than ability for most otherwise capable people. I see this especially with guys who were first hired to coach football. If I had to chose between the young guy who coaches football and the young lady who wasn’t as physically strong, I’d pick the lady every time. Someone, no matter how physically fit, who has a poor attitude is all but worthless.

And that’s the take-home message here. Attitude is much more important and critical to success than any physical characteristic and limitation, no matter what field you get into. One can often deal learn to compensate for a physical disability but compensation for a poor attitude just means everyone else has to do more work and put up with it.

Revisiting The Sp. Ed. Teacher Shortage

12 Apr

This post brings together a few things I’ve been reading and thinking about lately as I contemplate what I want to do when I grow up.  As much as I want to get out of the business of self-contained teaching, my current position is the one single position that is clearly the most secure and recession proof of any other position in the building with the possible exception of the SLP.  And mine (blogname Ms. Cleo) is retiring at the end of the year.

I’ve been reading Disrupting Class by Clayton Christian and it has been an eye-opening read as I see many of the things he discusses in this book.  Georgia Virtual Academy/Georgia Virtual School anyone?  You can visit Christian’s blog here. Here’s an interview:

Basically, if you follow his reasoning and his predictions, most course work will be offered online by 2020, and it will be a lot more student centric.  The technology will enable more differentiation and learner flexibility.  Many rural districts in the country are already utilizing the new technologies for AP courses or those courses that can not be offered because there are no HQ teachers around.  Imagine being able to take an exotic foreign language or a high level math or science course and not having to worry about there not being a teacher around to teach it.  Basically, most core courses can be taught (to the test) in this fashion.  This modality would enable a teacher to actually teacher more students and give them more individual attention as needed because they wouldn’t have to do all the work involved with planning content delivery or assessment.  That means a need for less teachers, which means less of a shortage.

Except for that one area.  You know the one.  I’ve already talked about how forces are conspiring to make it even more of a shortage area.  You can see Georgia shortage areas here.  It’s a bit dated, but most of those still apply.  Interestingly, as the Georgia Legislature is set to pass the legislation offering a raise for math and science teachers, the answer is right there in front of those folks.  This article puts it right there in the last sentence:

Tofig said a rising number of students are taking advanced math and science classes through Georgia Virtual Schools, which offers classes online.

But what bout those needing more help and assistance?  What about those who can not learn as well independently?  What about those who need specialized instruction based on diagnostic assessments?  That requires a higher level of expertise and a more personal level of interaction akin to what you might get from a doctor or mechanic.  Or one would hope.  Special education teachers, in addition to getting a short shrift from our governor and legislature are also getting it from another direction.  Districts, who are trying to staff their special education positions in the face of the shortage are grabbing people off the street and issuing provisional certificates good for 5 years.   So kids who need the most expert help will be getting services by the least qualified people.  This is the sad state of special education in Georgia.

Of course, the virtual school option is totally unavailable to the kids I teach.  My kids and I may be the very last holdouts when the last of the factory-style schools close their doors.  Nothing like job security!  And yet there will always be a shortage for SID/PID self-contained.  Even when they pull people off the street.

You can also feel free to tell Ms. Jenny what you think.  She’s a fellow GA Sp.Ed. teacher who has a poll up about the requirements to teach special education in Georgia.  She also has material available for those of you teaching students with more moderate disabilities.

Okay, enough ranting for awhile.  Hope everyone had a happy Spring Break/Easter!  Back at it tomorrow!


Teacher Job Fair!

12 Mar

My district is on the hunt for special educators who are fully certified as well as high school science and math teachers.  This Saturday, March 14th from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. they will have folks on hand to interview and possibly hire.  If you live in or near the metro Atlanta area, email me if you’re interest and I’ll give you details.  Tell ’em I sent you and perhaps they might see the light in supporting this blogging lark without being afraid!

I am planning on being there to talk to a few people so go ahead and let me you know you saw me on the internet!

Para(pro) Olympics

17 Oct

This year, I have probably the best para team that I’ve ever had.  I’ve had many good paras, but the ones this year are 100% competent, educated and looking forward to becoming teachers on their own.  The trouble has been that I haven’t truly been utilizing them to their fullest potential and have not really challenged them enough.  This is a real common weakness among teachers who would rather work together as colleagues (or even work alone) rather than supervise and evaluate.  As teachers, we would just as soon have our paras just know what to do and do it without having to be told.  Telling someone who we regard as a colleague what to do is an awkward thing.  But from a para perspective, the situation is even more awkward.

On one hand, we like our paras to take initiative.  But on the other hand, we like them to have good judgement.  “Good Judgement” means doing things the way WE would do them, which involves a higher degree of mind reading than you might think.  Mind reading is definitely on a higher pay grade than that of most paras.  Sometimes you can click just right, which I’ve been able to do with some over the years, or at least come close to it.  Other times, it can be a long battle which neither the para nor  the teacher really want to fight.  I see more passive-aggressive battles between teachers and paras than anywhere else. 

These three people that I have are pretty good but vastly underutilized.  I needed to find some why to see if I could better utilize them and take advantage of their abilities.  I also wanted to see what those abilities were.  I also wondered how possible it would be to assess thei competentce. So, I designed a bit of a competition between them.

At first, it seemed like a good idea.  But then after I had mapped it out, it seemed a bit crazy and stupid.  so I just threw it out to them to see what they thought.  To my surprise they bought into it.  Or at least they seemed to.  I have two paras who are pretty competetive.  Coach#3 (no surprise there) and my other new para who I’ll just call Georgianne.  I’d call her Georgia, but that might get too confusing since that’s the state we live in.  And she is a Bulldog fan, so it fits.  Georgianne is VERY competitive and seems pretty driven.  The other two will not be given any slack.  The third, Patience, has been with me for a few years and is the most experienced.  She’s also not as competetive but is up for the challenge if she’ll take it on.

Basically, each pra has a student they work with independently, while I work with another small group.  I outlined 5 basic skills on which I would assess each of those students.

1. Tell me “how many” using a Gotalk if I show them a certain number of objects (1-4)

2.  Point to a number 1-9

3. Correctly answer “What is your name” by pointing to their own face on a Gotalk.

4. Point to a correct shape (circle, square, triangle, star).

5. Draw a circle, square or circle.

 Plus they each would have to be able to answer 5 yes-no questions.   I already told them the questions, so it’s no secret.  No need to make this harder than it already is. 

The students really are pretty evenly matched.  However, in order to compensate for this, each para will be trying to teach a set of three pictures/words to 2 of my other students.  Each para has three pictures, so if I say “point to the kite” the student will point to the correct picture from an array of three.  So I’ll see if any of the paras succeed in teaching either or both of these students how to identify their pictures.

Part of the design of this is to stretch the paras but it also hopefully will get them to interact with two students they are less likely to engage with on a more regular basis in instructional tasks.   It gives them a challenge to shoot for, and it is pretty easily measured.  These are pretty much all discrete trial tasks.  The fact of the matter is that my time for interacting with each of these students seems really limited and so I’m expanding their instructional time by giving the paras a more explicit direction in which to travel.

I haven’t promised the winner anything except bragging rights, as of yet.  I think I could manage to put $20 on the line easily enough, tho.  Any ideas what else would be a worthwhile thing to offer the winner of such a contest?

It’s as much of a study as a contest, and I’ll be there to help each of them however I can.  Getting them to more fully committ to the outcome might help shake loose some additional questions and issues.  I primarily do group work, plus deal with the most profound students plus all the other things we have to do with toiletting and feeding.


It will be interesting to see how this thing works.  Is it crazy?  Too compettitive?  It does have the virtue of being novel, and I’m not sure I would have tried it with a different group of paras than the ones I have this year.  It just so happens that I have 3 who I think can handle it and they think they can handle it.  We’ll just have to see.

New Special Ed. Teacher Blues

23 Nov

It’s been awhile since I reached out and touched another blogger, despite a number of you good folks stopping in and commenting.  One of those is named Leila, writer of Special 2 Me, which is a good read for anybody who is in special education, has ever had anything to do with it or who might be considering the possibility of having something to do with special education.

She has been teaching less than a month, and her blog really does capture a lot of the grit, determination and frustrations involved when someone is grabbed off the street, run through a bit of a boot camp and then plopped in the middle of a classroom filled with students who are not necessarily the most or best socialized.   In a recent post she wrote, she opines about the lack of resources, material and support compared to what she had been sold prior to taking the job.  Special educators the world over will recognize that little song and dance.  In many ways, school recruiters are a lot like military recruiters, especially when it comes to getting special education teachers.  They offer up all sorts of things, trying to get a body to sign up.  However, once you’re in, it becomes totally different.

Welcome to the ‘Nam!

When reading that post by Leila, I was reminded by a statement made by the main character in Platoon played by Charlie Sheen.  He comments how the veterans don’t even want to know a new guy’s name because he’s probably not going to make it.  They also figure that if you’re going to not make it, it’s best to be picked off in the first few weeks so that you don’t suffer as much.  It’s a lot like with new special education teachers sometimes.  We don’t do it on purpose, but there is a niggling suspicion the perhaps the newbie might not make it.  Those of us who have been in awhile have seen it happen.

One reason why I’m not venturing out and helping the new folks as much as I ought is probably more to do with my own chaotic environment.  I can look pretty competent, especially next to the new folks, but the truth is I am perpetually and woefully behind.  I always have been.  Even when it looks like I’m way ahead of everyone else in my paperwork, I am still behind in other areas.  I’ve just learned when and where I can compromise and cut corners to make it look better.

The primary bullets a special education teacher has to dodge consist of students who draw blood from other students (or themselves), angry parents, lawsuits, administrative paperwork deadlines, and most of all; the teacher’s own emotional/mental baggage.  If you have any sort of emotional or character weakness, the kids will find it and root it to the surface in a big hurry.   Might as well be honest with them and then move on.

Someone asked me if I feel effective as an educator.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.  I think we are most often our own worst critics, and I do fall into that category.  I am getting to a point sometimes where I’m wondering if what I’m doing is making a significant difference.  Does it matter?  I’m not to a point where I’m content to just draw a paycheck and hold out for retirement.  I want to be better than I am.  I feel good about what I do, but many of the things that have been highlights have little to do with my job description!  For instance, so much of what I was NOT prepared for or taught was dealing with the parents.  Most teachers come off as judgmental pricks when it comes to dealing with parents.  Sometimes I still do.  But I have learned that when that happens, I really, really need to get in a lot closer to that parent, even if it means going to their house (with permission, of course).  Many of my parents are dealing with issues beyond anything I’ll ever see in the classroom with their own family disruptions.  Much of what I’ve been doing is putting the parent at ease about how they are doing as parents.  They are doing the best they can with the hand they have been dealt.  Even if a parent is seemingly unsupportive, I’ll still do my best to keep the communication lines open without forcing myself on them.

And no one ever told me about all the mucous and bodily fluids I would be dealing with.  But that is the biggest part of my day!  And I do it better than anyone else.

My effectiveness right now is less about being an educator and more about being a compassionate and diligent human being.   And that was taught to me more by the kids themselves than anyone else!  I think much of the teething that we go through early on is simply finding our place and our own style.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing some other teachers come into their own, and it was not without a considerable amount of pain and hardship.

So I feel for all the new teachers, but especially those dropped in the middle of the year.  No one can tell you what to expect because most of the ones doing the interviewing and hiring have no idea!  But think if it like that reality show, Survivor, where the object is to outplay, outwit and outlast.

And if things really drag you down, look at my countdown category to see how long until Christmas break!


Testing. Testing, testing….

5 Aug

Holy crap.  Four freaking hours of testing!


In the state of Georgia, a whole butt-load of teachers joined me in jumping through the certification hoop of GACE testing.  A lot, lot, lot of very young teachers were at my site, which happened to be waaay out in the boondocks, at least by the route Mapquest took me.  I expected those guys from Deliverance to come out of the woods at any second!  I was there around 7:45 a.m. and we were eventually let in to find our hall, room and seat. Our test proctor was a bit of a test Nazi, and clamped down on our pre-test chatter.  But before the gag order, I was able to learn that some of my fellow teachers from Magnolia County were there, mostly Special education and Early Childhood teachers. 


I was taking Science I and Science II tests.  Science I is life and earth science content areas, while science II is the chemistry/physics stuff.  I have a decent background in all areas except the earth science where I’ve just managed to pick up things from my other science courses.  All in all it wasn’t too bad, except the two written response questions at the end of each test.  That was an effort for me, not because I can’t write (I have a blog, hello?!) but because my penmanship is so sorry that it alone would probably qualify me for any medical school.  So I had to try to take my time to be neat.  I still wonder about that.  At least the GRE was computerized and I could type it so it felt more like blogging than a test!


The early childhood folks were the first ones to escape our overheated classroom.  Those of us taking tests requiring calculators were the last ones sweating it out.  By the end of the thing, I was pretty much spent.


Aside from the youngerness of the other test takers, there was one another feature that made me stick out.  I was the only guy in the room.  The male-female ratio in education has always been lopsided, but 25:1?  Too bad I’m no longer single, because these tests would be a great place to meet women!  Oh well, if Jane kicks me out, I’ll know what to do.


For all of my fellow teachers who took the GACE this last time out, relax.  I know you’ll pass because the tests are only designed to determine a minimum level of competency.  The fact that you’ve been able to suffer through my blog indicates that you’re already exceptional!


In other news, I did spend Sonny’s Funny Money.  I was in the local Big-Store and I had more than one person ask me which school I taught at or if I was a teacher.  No, I was not wearing a name tag or badge or anything, and I was just buying office supplies.  One was a girl who couldn’t have been more that 11 or 12 and I’d never seen before.  Another was the checkout lady in electronics.  She said I just looked like a teacher.  “If you said you weren’t a teacher, I was going to say you should be one because you just look like a teacher.”


So if you’re curious as to what I look like, just picture in your mind a male teacher in his 40’s.  Apparently I match the archtype.  Perhaps when a body is in a profession long enough they begin looking the part.  I don’t mind looking like a teacher as there are many worse things a person could look like.  “Hey, you look like arsonist!” or “Hey, you like you should be a politician!”  Or perhaps “You look like you should be an educational lobbyist/consultant in Washington!”  Now that would just be plain rude.