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Countering a Culture of Abuse

15 Dec

I said last time that I would give some ideas on how to prevent or avoid the pitfalls that I listed and detailed in my previous post. It’s one thing to criticize, but another to propose concrete steps to right the wrongs and prevent things from getting so bad as they did in Fulton County. So I’ll take it point-by-point:

  1. Open up the classroom, at least to the parents but also to others: Transparency. Make the place visible! This addresses the problems of isolation and powerlessness. The tendency to isolate this population is exactly the opposite of what should be done. Being visible will minimize the risks of abuse because everyone will see. It also helps educate everyone else about this population. And if there are problems, it will be more difficult to sweep them under the rug. The privacy concerns for these students are secondary to the safety concerns and that needs to be looked at. The privacy and confidentiality provisions of the law have been used to keep things out of the light that would have prevented abuse had they been known in the Fulton County case. Parents did not know their children had been abused until almost 2 years after the final report was released! Keeping secrets never benefits the students.
  2. Get them out of the single room and enforce LRE. Least Restrictive Environment is built into the law, but with the most severe group, it is the least enforced. Community-based outings should count toward LRE as they are in the community with nondisabled community members. Also more than one teacher should be involved with these students in a given day. That means they need to move around within the building and spend some part of their day, even a short time, with nondisabled peers. This is a VERY inconvenient thing, but it is part of the law and it is part of the solution that can keep classrooms for the students with the most complicated disabilities from becoming incubators of abuse and neglect.
  3. Hire people that are the most qualified and experienced possible. And some schools are not doing that because they need a coach or because there is a relative of someone who needs a job, or because there is a teacher they know of who needs a job but can’t teach in another area. For whatever reason, some administrators are NOT hiring the most qualified and experienced people. This alone might have saved years of abuse, if the recommendation that the existing teacher not have her contract be renewed would have been followed. But that did not happen in the Fulton Middle School. And it does not happen in many other counties. The nepotism and corruption will eventually find your district and be costly. And this goes also for the paras and assistants. The most needy students need the most competent people. But they tend to be staffed in the reverse fashion.
  4. Make sure that those who need the most training have some good models. One of the most beneficial things I ever did my first year was visit the classroom of someone who was experienced and qualified. That totally helped change and shape the way I would teach this population. So even if you can’t find someone who is experienced, the chances are there is SOMEONE in the district who is. In my case, that first year it was a middle school teacher. In later years, I was allowed to travel and visit the classrooms of new teachers to help model and demonstrate things to do with them. And sometimes they came and visited me. One of the biggest breakdowns I had was when I asked to visit any other school that had a program the size and scope of the one I had. Sometimes just seeing is believing and if I could have connected with other teachers who were coping with similar challenges I think it would have made life more bearable.
  5. Keep the class size manageable. Doubling the size literally triples the problems in this sort of classroom. The logistcs of having enough floor space for wheelchairs, adaptive positioning equipment and just space for the students to be able to move becomes a serious issue. We ended up stacking a lot of the chairs outside when we had the students positioned in other devices, which also had the benefit of letting the chairs air out. Class size is always an issue for all classrooms, but for students with multiple needs, there is always a safety concern as there needs to be enough people t move students efficiently and safely.
  6. Connect with others who are in the same business. This is something that does not have to be very costly at all, but can pay dividends in professional growth. In a lot of ways, this blog has functioned that way for me. A lot of special education teachers have found their way here, and have gotten some degree of affirmation knowing they were not alone in their struggles and feelings. Other teachers take this somewhat for granted as there is almost always another math, science or English teacher around with whom to swap ideas and commiserate. It is almost never true for those who teach students with multiple needs that there is someone down the hall to talk to. BUT even having someone across the county can be a source of strength and comfort. Let these folks get together on professional learning days, where they can tackle issues and swap ideas.
  7. Let the teacher who is going to supervise and train them help hire new parapros. Imagine if the superintendent did the hiring of everyone from the central office who was going to be in the building. The principal or a committee designated does this for a very important reason, as they know their own culture and their own needs. The same should be true of the classroom serving students with severe disabilities. I actually had the privilege of doing this for a couple of years when we had an administrator who admitted he was less familiar with my classroom and allowed me to sit on on the interviews. I was able to explain what we we did and what the requirements of the job were upfront. It saved a ton of grief down the line when they knew ahead of time that diapers and feeding tubes were involved. As a side benefit, this can also help groom teachers for leadership, helps the administrator know what the teacher needs and expects as well as helps the administrator become more familiar with what is happening in that classroom.
  8. Keep the lines of communication open. And this is between everyone, including the families and the administration. This particular population requires more collaboration and communication than any other teaching I have seen or done. NOT having open lines causes more problems when things eventually come to light. I am basically reiterating the call for transparency in point #1. I always wrte something to each parent, each day, about their son or daughter. Most parents were fairly decent about keeping up with my notes and responding to any questions that I had. I tried to make sure that parents especially had as much access to my classroom and had as much awareness as to what was going on as possible. The most uncomfortable position in the world is when a body feels like they have to hide something. Whenever we had staffing cuts and reductions mid year, I always struggled on how to inform parents.
  9. Require high standards in regards to student welfare as well as professional and personal integrity and ethics. It’s hard to put a price on such a thing, but this is probably THE biggest thing that could prevent abuse and neglect. It means being conscientious, striving for excellence in all things. “Excellence” with this population is measured differently than in most, as they don’t produce test results. But steady improvement is always something to strive for, as well as fighting against stagnation and regression. This was something that I was never willing to compromise on, even though it became harder and more challenging at times. Mediocrity was simply not acceptable to me. One does need to pick their battles, but in all things I wanted to get the best from my students and then stretch them even more. And I did it. In many ways this has driven my desire to work with a slightly younger population in order to see if I might be able to coax a bit more earlier on. Perhaps we can make that next transition easier for them. But a large part of this involves personal accountability, and doing the right thing even when no one else is looking. It’s one reason why I don’t mind anyone else looking in. I always knew we were doing right by the kids.
  10. Everyone needs to be an advocate. It sure would be nice if there were not a need for advocates. But unfortunately there does seem to be a need as I see story after story of teachers abusing students, or of students not getting needed services. I honestly believe that a society will be judged mostly on how it treats its most vulnerable population. It has been my privilege to have been on the front lines of that effort and I would hope that I am on the same side as the family in regards to wanting what is best for that student. I understand the struggles of families who are doing the best they can with the limited resources that they have. I’ve been there and I still am. I am also aware of the realities of the modern school climate with the emphasis on test scores and budgetary constraints. We need to make sure we get the biggest bang for every dollar spent. This is one population where the “free market” currently has no model of service. We ARE the front line in the battle for justice and equality. The arena of disability advocacy is the last and greatest civil rights cause that we face in the U.S. The current economic climate is going to sorely test our society’s moral and ethical resolve to do what is right for those least able to advocate for themselves.

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:

 

 

 

Interview Questions : Issues of Prejudice for Children with Disabilities

29 Sep

Every so often a student comes and needs to do an interview and for the most part I like doing them.  My only condition is that I am able to post the questions and answers on my blog, and I’ve yet to have anyone object to that.  So I recently got one about prejudices against students with disabilities.  I have written about these before, but maybe not quite this explicitly, so this gives me a chance to think about prejudice, discrimination and students with disabilities.

Thank you so much again for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions, and it would actually mean a lot to me if they were posted on your blog.

1. What are the challenges and difficulties that you experience and encounter when parenting children with mental disabilities?

Hmm…this is actually a harder question for me, because I don’t think of my oldest as having a mental disability as much as a behavioral disability with mental issues, namely as it relates to autism.  But that actually highlights the most pervasive problem which is the stigma attached to mental disabilities in general.  It doesn’t matter what term is used, sooner or later it will be used in a pejorative way.  “moron,” “idiot” and “imbecile” used to be clinical terms!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_retardation

The challenges vary depending on the severity and pervasiveness of the disability.  It would be difficult to list all difficulties, whether it be accessibility issues to having to endure the abuses of a society that devalues people with disabilities to the day-to-day challenges of trying to do “normal” things that most people take for granted, like tying shoes or riding a bike.

2. What are the struggles, if any, that a child with a disability experiences on a daily basis?

The struggles that children with disabilities encounter on a daily basis varies of course, depending on what the disability is.  Some universal issues might deal with self-advocacy, where the person may need extra assistance or an accommodation.  If they assert themselves by asking for it, they are often labeled as a trouble maker or censored for asking for special treatment.  So many people often suffer with their disabilities in relative silence.  This is assuming the person even has the skills to advocate.  Communication is one of the most fundamental skills a person can have, and yet most disabilities have some sort of impact on communication either directly or indirectly.  Disabilities also have social consequences when it comes to making friends, being accepted and just being able to socialize in a way that others take for granted.

3. Have you ever prevented any prejudices from occurring against children with special needs?

Oh I wish I could!  The best I can do is to educate others about students with disabilities and point out that they are people, too.  They have things they like and dislike and may express their feelings in different ways.  And deep down, I think most people *want* to be seen as compassionate and caring people.  I think if one sees that as a basic truth “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” then giving people a chance to express that can help against mistreatment and abuse.  Prejudice is basically a symptom of intellectual laziness, so the task is to get people to think a bit deeper about whom they are judging against.  Not being prejudice requires a great deal of self reflection especially when it is deeply rooted in our own experiences and culture.  The biggest challenge for me and other advocates, is being prejudice against those whose primary disability is ignorance!  I would rather educate than have to confront.

4. If children do experience some sort of injustice against them, how do they usually react? Are they greatly affected by it?

A lot of children who suffer injustices tend to suffer in silence.  Sometimes being too outspoken can create a backlash and bring about even more injustice!  Those who choose to confront have to be willing to go all the way to the mat, and persevere in spite of that backlash.  So many behavioral problems we see in children with disabilities are a response to perceived injustices.  The level of effect varies of course depending on how well a child understands what is happening.  Children with milder disabilities who have a greater mental capacity do often suffer from depression and anxiety caused by the social consequences of their disability.  For for students that I teach, it is more subtle.  All my kids can tell who does and who does not like them, and they somehow gravitate toward those people and avoid the people who are afraid or indifferent.

5. Do children with special needs ever receive or get peculiar responses from other children?

Responses range from indifference to being compassionate to feeling sorry for the child with disabilities.  Much of it depends on how severe the disability is.  As a society, I think we’ve gotten better about how people with physical disabilities are treated.  Behavioral disabilities are a whole different matter, and reactions to students who scream, yell, holler,  bite themselves and hit themselves is mostly along some continuum of fear. BUT having said that, children are often better about dealing with it than the adults.  When I talk to students, they often simply want to have their questions answered about the disability and then they are mostly fine.  The adults take more convincing and I think it is because adults have their own schedules and agendas compared to students.  Those schedules and agendas are more easily disrupted by students with disabilities, hence more hostility and prejudice.

6. How can a person, like myself, make sure not to commit any prejudices accidentally against people with disabilities?

Don’t shrink.  By that, I mean don’t be so afraid of committing an act of prejudice that you avoid contact with people with disabilities altogether.  And remember that “all people would like to be seen as compassionate and caring” applies to you too!  I make mistakes all the time and sometimes readers are good about pointing them out.  I take it, process and try to do better next time.  And those of us who are dealing with disabilities everyday probably have to be even more mindful of our thinking as it is sometimes more difficult to think of people as people rather than commodities or products.  There is a lot of cultural pressure to standardize our education system, and standardization and homogenization encourage prejudice by demanding everyone be the same.  Our kids are different by definition, so every attempt to make everyone the same automatically puts them at a disadvantage.

7. Finally, what. In your opinion, is the best way to spread disability awareness? What have you tried, besides writing in your blog?

The best way to spread disability awareness is the same way as spreading awareness of any other cause.  And that is to limit segregation and isolation.  One of the biggest challenges that we have had to face is the idea of inclusion and what it means.  Generally, including people with disabilities in the larger community is the best and most effective way to promote awareness and acceptance.  When we were out in the community for instruction, we were serving the students but we were also serving the good of the greater community by helping people be aware of these exceptional individuals.  It is very difficult to be seen as compassionate and caring when you don’t have anyone to be seen as compassionate and caring toward!  My blog provides me with a vehicle to talk about some of these issues, but I’m mostly preaching to the choir.  Most of you already are part of the disability community in some sense.   While I’m imparting a little knowledge I’m not doing as much for disability awareness as when I answer the questions people might have when they see my students.  People do watch me and those of us in the business, and I do have to be more mindful of that.  Other people will often take their cues as to how to respond to those with disabilities from those of us who do it everyday.  If we can remember to be caring and humane in our everyday dealings, that helps everyone else who is less familiar as well as makes life better for the students themselves.

Those are the questions, and if you feel like you want to add anything, of course feel free to do so. Once again thank you for giving me this opportunity!

Thanks for giving me the opportunity!  Doing interviews like this helps me think about what I’m doing in different ways as it provokes some thought and reflections on my own practice.  It also helps encourage me in that people actually care about what I’m saying here!

Sometimes It’s Fun

30 Aug

I know in the last post I made coming back sound pretty bad. And it was very seriously difficult coming back after having tried the most radical move I could to escape. The first couple of days, I did have a familiar dizziness and anxiety left over from last year. However, that has really dialed down as I get back into things. But I have made some changes in my approach and attitude that make a world of difference. It will all be good, no matter what the future.

When the new teacher came, she was not sure what to do so she let the paras take a lead. This is actually a good thing, because it helped the paraprofessionals form a more cohesive and competent team. When I walked in, they already had several things underway, and were doing all of the changing, positioning and feeding. It made me realize how much I needed to delegate down that I did not do last year. I tried to do everything last year, and it was frustrating me.

I also started the year last year loaded for bear even before the first student walked in. And then got more angry as the year went on! I’m not doing that this year. Yes, there are a lot of things to be angry and insulted about. But I can’t do anything about the caseload or class size. So, I just do what I can as I go along, one day, one student, one task at a time.

A saying I hear a lot is “Failure is not an option.” Interesting history behind that quote. It popped into my mind as I was working with a student on trying to see if he could read some words or be taught to read words. I was asked ab out what I was doing and why. He already did his GAA last year, so as far as accountability and academic standards, he could be counted as done. However, I simply had an innate desire to see what I could do with this student. I did it for the fun of it. A truly astounding concept in today’s educational climate, isn’t it? What sort of teacher does anything in the classroom for the fun of it, if it is not going to be on the almighty test? Especially when the likelihood of failure is pretty high.

Me.

I figured I had little to lose by working with this student, who enjoyed what I was doing with him, and it was worth a shot. The results are still inconclusive as to whether he was reading any of the words, such is the nature of working with nonverbal students. I’m talking words like go, up, more, down, come, and get. He can understand somewhat if you tell him to ‘get down’ from his chair, so these should not be too far out of reach if he is able to discriminate between the words. Anyway, failure is a total option in this exercise, but it is still worth doing. I can still learn a thing or two by doing it, which makes it only a failure in a conventional sense.

These are just the rambles of a teacher who is messing around and teaching…sometimes just for the fun of it!

Divine Humor

22 Aug

There is a very real reason why this blog has the name that it does.  There is the life that we think we choose for ourselves and then there is the life that seems to choose us.  And there are things that happen that we could not possibly make up.  And this is one of those.

A week ago, I got a call from one of my paras….one of my former paras…saying that they could not find the switches and AAC devices.  This is a very big deal since ALL of those students are nonverbal and all acces to any curriculum relies on switches and devices and such.  I remembered packing them up but not exactly where I had put them. They said they would keep looking.  2 days ago, they called again, saying they still had no idea where they were. I made trek in and sure enough, the devices were in the storage closet where I left them.  The kids were all there and some sort of seemed to recognize me.  It was a bit weird being there everyone was okay, and I began the process of trying to help a rather shell shocked and overwhelmed teacher what there was there for the each student.  This was not a new teacher, she is a veteran, but very new to this particular population.  No one walks in knowing just what to do.  And then the new speech teacher, who did look young and new, walked in and I began talking to her a bit about the kids and how speech had worked in the past.  All in all, it was me simply slipping into the old familiar role.  But after an hour, I was able to walk out and go home to wrestle with ideas on how to market myself better.

The next afternoon, the call came.  I finally got an offer for a job.  Not just an offer, but it would be fair to say that I was cajoled and woo’ed.  I don’t know if “beg” would be too strong of a word or not.  But I was asked to come in.  Real soon.  And so, tomorrow is my first day of work in my new job!  Actually it is only a temporary longterm sub job.   But it is a job, right?  Got my foot in the door!

Thing is….this is the same exact door I walked out of just 3 months ago.  Yes, meet the new boss!  Same as the old boss!  I have my old job back.  It would not be an understatement for me to say I have VERY mixed feelings about this.  I left to find something else.  And I am still searching.  Suffice it to say that God obviously thinks I have something yet to discover in this particular spot, with these particular students.  It looks like we will be together again, for good or ill.  So let’s see what we can do.

The odds are the same as last year…in fact the job is even more daunting if that is even even possible, than when I left.  So, I’m rolling up the sleeves and working on getting psyched to go in show ’em how it’s done.

Again.

Saying Goodbye

26 May

When writing the following goodbye letter, I was totally and unexpectedly ambushed by the emotion that bubbled through.  It is just now, during the final days and hours of school that it has started to hit me that I will not be coming back her with these kids.  And I have spent a lot of time in this room with these kids.  I am still busy and still working to get all the end-of-year stuff done, but it is creeping in…it’s almost over.

I’ve been ready for the end for so long, I did not expect the leaving to reach out and snag my emotions like that.  But it did and it might yet get me some more before it’s all over.

But here it is…me saying good bye:

 

Dear Parents of  My Students,

There is this rumor going around that I will not return to Newton High School next school year.  In fact it is not a rumor at all, but it is true.   I resigned my position effective the end of the year and am applying for other positions both inside and outside of the county for next year.

The last 10 years have been a wonderful adventure and journey of learning about your children and your families and working together to meet the needs of this unique population.  I have professionally and personally grown so much and have been taught so much by these students.  In many ways, the students here teach everyone else the true meaning of compassion, caring, understanding, cooperation, patience, perseverance and integrity because they demand so much more than any other students. 

During the past year, despite many challenges, each and every student in my program made progress and improved from where they started.  It has been an honor and privilege to be a small part of that. 

No matter where I end up, I will continue to be an advocate for all of our children, regardless of disability.  I have to admit the emotional aspect of leaving comes as a bit of a surprise to me. There is a bond with each student that has passed through this room and for the first time in 10 years, I won’t be back to carry on.

I want to thank you all for your support over the past years as it does take a full team working together.  I know a little about the challenges of raising a child with exceptional needs as my own son has a diagnosis of autism.  I have looked upon each of you with so much admiration and respect for what you do each and every day.  I get paid for it, you do not.  I wish everyone well and really am praying, as you are, that the district finds a good teacher to improve on the work we’ve already started.

Thank you and God bless,

Daniel Dage

Serving Students with severe disabilities

specialed.wordpress.com

“Inspire Greatness”

10 Years By the Numbers

24 May

I have been teaching individuals with severe disabilities in this school for the past 10 years. So just what does 10 years look like? Well, here is is, by the numbers….

0 – (as in zero) = number of times all of my paras have shown up on time. It is also the number of times all of my students have chosen to take advantage of their exam exemption and not come the last day of school. It is also the number of times I have eaten with other teachers in the faculty eating area because I had a duty-free lunch. This is also the number of other teachers in my system who have taught this population for 10 consecutive years. And finally, this is the number of times I arrived late to school this year. I am usually here 30-45 minutes before start time.

1- This is the number of students I have seen go the whole distance from grade 9 until they aged out. Several have transferred, and a few have died before finishing. I have also had one student who needed to be catheterized 2x daily. This is also the number of days I have missed school this year.

2 – The number of administrators who have actually come in to my room and watched me teach in the classroom in 10 years. Most observations took place in the lunch room while feeding. And some…I have no idea when they occurred!

3 – This is the number of students who have come through who have had to be tube fed in 10 years. It is also the number of SID/PID teachers we had here during my first 3 years here. 3 teachers and 7 paras at one point (year 3 , I think).

4 – Number of principals I have seen come and go in 10 years. They don’t seem to stick around very long here! This is also the number of times I have had to take a test in order to be highly qualified either in my subject or a new one.

5 – Number of times I have been absent in the last 10 years. My youngest was born over a Christmas break! The credit for this goes mostly to Jane who tends the boys when they are sick. This is also the smallest caseload I have ever had in 10 years.

6 – This is the number of times the bus broke down during CBI trips and left us stranded on the side of a road or parking lot somewhere. This is also the legal class size limit in Georgia for a class serving students with profound disabilities.

7 – This is the largest number of paras I have had to supervise in a single year. It is also the number of years I drove a bus for community-based trips.

8 – This is the number of years I was under or at the legal class size limit. Last year I had 7.

9 – My largest class/caseload size which is this year with the addition of 2 more PID students.

10- The largest number of adults serving this program at this school. We had maybe 16 students and only 3 wheelchairs back then, but several behavior/medical issues. 7 paras and 3 teachers.

Okay, maybe next time I’ll go into higher numbers when exploring the last 10 years in this setting with these students.

I may have waited too long…

1 May

Perhaps  10 years is too long in this particular setting.

It has been awhile since I updated this blog. I have been busy, and the business is reaching a feverish pitch as annual reviews blend in with end of year checklists and tasks and re-evaluations and on top of that, my own campaign to find another job.

All of this adds up to more stress on top of a job that has been stressful all year long with all sorts of issues. But I have always met all of the challenges and dealt with them. Every year, I somehow make it through and marvel at how I ever did it.

Not everyone can handle the stress that is involved with serving individuals with severe disabilities. But most teachers I know do not cite the students as the biggest stressors. Lack of administrative support and the huge burden of paperwork rank among the top reasons educators leave the field of special education.

I have not talked about a former colleague of mine lately, although he does occasionally keep in touch. The stress on him was so heavy that he had a nervous breakdown and was carried out on a stretcher…more than once. I remember thinking those few years ago that I did not want things to get that bad. And maybe then it was that I began to look around at other options.

My first 6 years of teaching here, I drove the bus for our community outings, and so each year I had to get a bus physical. It wasn’t much of a physical, but it was at least blood pressure, pulse and weight. And none of those numbers fluctuated very much. I was generally healthy. However I did smoke. Smoking, besides all the health and social costs is also expensive and addicting. It was the fact that I was tired of being an addict that I finally quit a couple years ago. And then my weight ballooned so badly it was impacting my knees. So I began a diet and exercise program and managed to get the weight under control. All of these measures helped buy me more time and hopefully extended my shelf life.

But the load and stress this year has finally taken its toll. I was feeling a bit dizzy the last couple of days and had the school nurse take my blood pressure. And sure enough it was high. Not ER high, but a source of major concern nonetheless.  The paras got a bit worried and called the nurse to check me again in the afternoon, and by then I was back in my normal range.  I half-joked that they were overly concerned because if something happened to me, they might actually have to do some work!  Ha ha!

So I am wondering: Are there a number of other teachers out there stressing more than usual this year? Has it taken a toll health-wise? I know I have a number of areas where I can improve my life style, mainly getting more sleep and laying off the caffeine. Those two alone can probably get me back in the normal range if I can also reduce some stress. Hopefully I can survive the next couple of weeks when all my annual reviews are done and I have less overhead….hopefully. They always like to pile on more and more at the end and so much of it seems needless.

I do want to write more, and that is one way to vent off a bit. And I also want to do a little series about the past ten years “by the numbers.”

But I need to make it through the next couple of weeks without having to be carted off in a gurney!

Book Review: Autism & Alleluias

8 Apr

A while back I got an email inviting me to review a book, and the publisher even offered to send me a free copy in exchange for doing a review.  This blog does often result in some interesting offers (no job offers tho, haha) but I do not do many of them.  I like blogging because I can do it in my own time, in my own way.  I also do not read a whole lot of books on autism much anymore.  I’ve been around the business enough that I know they generally follow a similar formula.  Basically they tend to follow the story of a couple who give birth to a seemingly normal child and then within 2-3 years discover their child has some sort of developmental delays.  They are thrown into fits of grief, rage and searching.  Then the reader is led through a myriad of treatments and therapies, hoping against hope trying to find a cure.  And each book author has found some sort of cure or recovery story.  Or so it seems.

Autism & Alleluias is not that sort of book at all.  In fact, it is more of a Bible inspirational devotional than a real story.  Kathleen Buldoc may have covered the autobiographical formula in an earlier work, but this one is put together differently.  In 39 little chapters, she conveys a different lesson in each that her son has taught her even in the midst of being nearly overwhelmed by the trials and tribulations of raising a son on the autism spectrum.

Each chapter begins with a Bible scripture, then Buldoc shares a story of something that happened with her son.  It might be a call from the school, trying to sit in church, a vacation gone awry or any number of challenges that all of us parents are familiar with.  She will share her frustration and emotions before also sharing the lesson that each event teaches.  At the very end of each chapter, there is a prayer thanking God for the lessons learned.  It is basically about how she finds God expressed in raising a son with autism.

I found the stories encouraging as this was a good demonstration of the pluck and courage of one mother in spite of some very real and very large challenges.  Her son had many behavioral issues including some that seemed quite aggressive such as hair pulling and grabbing glasses.  It shed a light on how gratitude could be expressed even in some dark situations.

I did buy the book and once my wife reads it, I have no doubt is will be passed along to someone else.  In  fact, when it came in the mail I had to admonish Jane not to run off with it as she was REALLY interested it.  So it is safe to say that just about any christian mother of a child with autism would identify with, and like this book.  It is one of the few that lays out some comfort without a lot of guilt.  Many books that purport a cure,will leave a reader feeling very guilty for not trying it out or doing it, all in the name of finding a cure.  Kathleen does not do that in this book, but she does guide the way into finding more acceptance with her son and finding acceptance with God.

So all-in-all, I would say it was a worthwhile purchase, even though it is well outside of the genre of books that I normally read and buy.  I would be more apt to buy this for someone else rather than myself.  So I think this might make a good gift book for christian parents of children with disabilities, especially autism.

Achievements: Getting the Lame to Walk

19 Mar

I know I have sometimes gotten down and negative here, as I often use this as my own personal forum to vent various frustrations.  But this is also a good place to tell about stuff I’ve accomplished to any would-be future employers out there who are looking for a special education teacher.  Remember, I AM HQ!

I had a student who came to me in a wheelchair.  This is not unusual, since most of my students nowadays seem to be in wheelchairs.  However this little guy was different because he could, in fact, walk.  He had an irregular gait due to his particular syndrome, but he could walk and get around pretty well.  And that was kind of the problem.  He was getting around TOO well.  And he would get into everything and destroy whatever he got his hands on.  He was all hands and all active.  And he knew how to drive his chair probably better than he could walk.  So containing him and keeping him out of trouble involved finding some elaborate way of blocking the wheelchair up so he couldn’t move it.  This was easier said than done as he was also fairly clever and persistent.  The wheelchair was basically used by everyone as a restraint device.  Keep in mind, he was seen as unmanageable all the way through middle school.

And within 2 years, I got the boy to a place where he could be put just about anywhere and he would basically stay put.  He would still occasionally want to wander off, but he was easily redirected.  He went from being my most unmanageable challenge to being one of my best behaved students.  And he no longer needs or uses the wheelchair.  Not at school, not on the bus and not at home.

I’m not going to get into all the behavioral techniques used to getting him to that place.  I will just say that perseverance and determination were major factors toward getting him where he is today.  I’m not to proud to say that when he first came to me, I didn’t want him in my room.  I thought we were already overcrowded and understaffed.  Haha!  Little did I know what was to come!  But I had no choice but to bite the bullet and dig in and teach this student how to conduct himself in a classroom without wrecking the place.  He will still wreck things if he gets his hands on them, but I have little toys and things he can use to keep his hands busy.  He’s still very active, but he can be active in his own space.  While there are still a whole lot of things he can not do, he can now be maintained without his wheelchair.  This is a relief for his family who previously had to cart the thing around everywhere they took him.  It is less bother for the bus, as they no longer have to mess with the lift.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention that this accomplishment in no way affected the school’s test scores, graduation rate or AYP.   At no time did teaching him how to control himself address a state academic standard.   And there is no part of the Georgia High School Graduation Test that measures whether or not a student requires a wheelchair. None of this will appear on the Georgia Alternate Assessment.  I took time out from academic instruction in order to address this students needs, which pretty much violates whatever tenets are set by NCLB.  There is no way to align the goal of not needing a wheelchair to any state standard.  And it also was not explicitly stated as a goal in his IEP.  Our beloved governor has not offered any merit pay to teachers who can get a child to not need a wheelchair anymore.  There are no incentives offered by the state of Georgia to recruit or retain people that can do this.  There is nothing on any evaluation instrument for teachers that says this is even a worthwhile activity.

Despite several who told me this endeavor was a waste of time, I did it anyway.  And while I have no test scores, enhanced pay, accolades, awards, or anything from other people that says this is at all important, I do have an empty wheelchair in the corner that has not been used in a very, very long time, except to hold a coat or a bag.  And I have the audacity to feel pretty good about that!

Lots of my fellow teachers do stuff like this all the time and we don’t talk about, because it doesn’t address a state standard.  It isn’t recognized or rewarded because it doesn’t result in a college scholarship.  And this student can’t give me a recommendation to an employer because he can not read, write or talk.  But he can walk, which is how he gets around now because he does not need a chair to restrain him.  He has learned to control himself to some degree.

The story of this student is not over, as he continues to progress.  He has a long way to go, and I hope he continues to progress.  But it will have to be with someone else.  Perhaps there are other students in other schools that need to learn self control.  It would save some poor high school teacher’s hair if more kids could learn that skill in middle school.  And that is sort of where I’m aiming at the moment.  I would like to get into a smaller community and with a younger set in order to see if I can apply some of this experience earlier on.