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What is a Good Teacher Worth?

25 Mar

I have been up to my elbows and eyeballs in annual reviews. I’m doing a bunch of my own this week, as well as acting as LEA for several others. Some teachers have reviews that go smoothly and amazing well. Some need a bit of help. And some are absolute disasters. It is this last category that results in headaches for everyone and unfortunately it happens all too often. There are many reasons why an annual review can go poorly, but I find the single biggest factor is in preparation. The more preparation, the better the meeting goes. The less preparation, the worse it goes.

The most hideous meetings I ever attended was at a middle school. I was the high school representative and drove half way across the county to get there. Once I got there, I had to wait nearly an hour because other meetings were running late. Fortunately the parent was not there, as the teacher was anxious to postpone which I thumbed down. I made her call the parent and get permission to hold it, which the parent was happy to do. Then the IEP was not filled out. We had to bang it all out there. Oy. Or another middle school meeting where I arrived, and the parent and itinerants and everyone was there except the caseload teacher. Where was she? In her classroom trying to type the goals and other parts, thus making us all wait. Or, yet another middle school meeting where I was late because the one I was attending across the hall ran late. When I walked into the crowded room, the parents were visibly fuming and the tension was so thick everyone was about ready to suffocate. This was because the teacher had made some careless comment and now the parents were loaded for bear.

In each of these situations, even though none of these were my students and this was not even my school or my meeting, I managed to help salvage the situation from potential disaster. Even the middle school LEAs and graduation coaches seemed at a loss as to how to handle these situations. In the first case, we were able to bang out the IEP in about an hour once I overcame the team’s reluctance. It was the last meeting of the day and everyone wanted to go home. But my general rule is the death is about the only reason to postpone…or an attorney, which is practically the same as death. It takes an enormous amount of coordination to get all the players in the same room at the same time. Don’t blow it. In the second instance, I got the teacher to just print out what she had plus the previous year’s IEP….after problems with the printer. This is why waiting until the last minute courts disaster, and Murphy WILL move in and take up residence. In the final case, I discovered there were things in the IEP that were negotiable enough for the parents that they could walk out less mad. They still did not like that teacher, but at least felt better about high school transition.

An IEP is often treated like a court case just waiting to happen. And it is not a bad idea to view it as such when writing one. But you can not become so paralyzed with fear that you end up avoiding it. It must be done, so you might as well grab it and run with vigor to get it done. It is daunting but not impossible to write a decent IEP that will serve the student well without causing either the school or the parents to feel like they have been robbed. I have suggestions right here in my blog that might be useful for both parents and teachers.

This is one field where experience really does count as long as it is good experience. Someone who can write a proper, legal IEP can save the school thousands in litigation costs. A teacher who knows how to talk to parents without ticking them off can save an administrator countless headaches. A competent teacher who can actually teach the students can help the school meet its goals and the all important AYP. I have seen all too often what happens when a teacher is incompetent. People get frustrated, corners are cut and then parents are ready to go to an attorney.

An experienced, competent teacher is also more likely to stick around, as long as minimum efforts are made to retain him/her. I’ll talk about retention in a future post, but experience does help endure future obstacles and deteriorating conditions at least up to a point. I was able to handle a caseload larger than any other SID/PID teacher in the county with less help than any other teacher by virtue of my experience and tenacious commitment to NOT allow anything to happen that would endanger the students. Over time I developed experience enough to keep little things from turning into big things and when a big problem came along I learned how to handle a fair number of those. And finally, I learned to recognize when something was too big for me to handle and that I needed to ask for assistance fro m people paid to handle the bigger problems. Those are all skills that you can learn only through experience. In special education, there are a ton of judgment calls that we are called on to make because there is not a set textbook way of handling our students. That is what makes it “special!”

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.

Assessing Students with Disabilities: Some Answers to Interview Questions

16 Jan

I have on several occasions gotten questions from graduate students who are taking classes for which they have to interview a special education teacher. The questions are rarely simple or at least I have problem answering them simply. So the price for answering graduate level essay questions on a Friday afternoon is that I blog them! So guess what Ms. M – consider yourself officially blogged! Hehehe!

These are questions about cognative impairments and assessment.  The school she is getting her degree from uses the term “Mental Retardation” or MR in the questions, but you’ll note that I generally avoid the “R” word in my answers in deference to those who are sensitive to that term.  We do use it as professionals among ourselves, but not as a pejorative as much as well-recognized descriptor and is shorter and easier to write than “Cognative impairment” or “Intellectual disability.”  Not everyone knows what “ID” means.
Keep in mind I’m doing this cold and flying without the net, a textbook or Wikipedia because that is how a face-to-face interview would be conducted. So if I’m wrong, feel free to correct me but no whinging on about it.  I’m not going anywhere to look this up, I’m just answering it as I see fit.  Your fitness will vary.  All other standard disclaimers apply….

#1 What in your professional opinion are the meanings of intelligence and adaptive behavior

Intelligence, to me, is indicated by a person’s ability to solve novel problems and navigate novel situations. While you cannot teach intelligence, you can help it grow by requiring its regular use. Intelligence is the ability to figure things out by pulling together reasoning, experience and observation.

Adaptive behavior is the application of more specific skills in navigating through daily life requirements. There are people with lower intelligence who can survive very well on the street, while your college professor would probably perish if he or she were require to live a week on the street. Adaptive behaviors can be learned and taught and that is a large part of what we do when teaching students with MR.  We can navigate many adaptive behaviors by following a script or series of steps.

#2 What problems are associated with assessing students with MR?

At my level, the problems are legion. This is why “pay for performance” and “accountability” break down so profoundly when we discuss teaching the population of students that I serve. First of all, my students do not produce anything. They are nonverbal and cannot read or write. So right off, that eliminates 99% of all the assessment tools currently used for high school students. Also keep in mind that my students have multiple impairments so they may be visually or hearing impaired. My students are decidedly nonstandard, so there are few if any standardized measures that would work. But even those with less severe impairments will work more slowly, require more support and generally do poorly under standard conditions.

Under any objective standardized scale of performance, my students regularly floor out. There are no high school assessments that give a score at an 11 month-old instructional level. Most simply don’t bother with a percentile less than 20%.

Finally, the fact is due to cognitive and sensory impairments, my students require thousands of trials to learn a single simple task. In one academic year, they MIGHT gain 1 month of learning in some area. I do not know of any initiative by any politician where this would be an acceptable gain. So the politics that drive current assessment practice further discriminate against the most severe students.

#3.What are the characteristics of the students with MR that result in eligibility for special education?

To simplify this, it is a combination of intelligence and adaptive behavior that causes them fall behind in their school achievement. This cannot be caused by a sensory impairment, a specific learning disability or a behavioral disorder and the onset must be prior to being school aged. For those with milder cognitive impairment, this would look like a broad form of a learning disability that is not specific to any one area. Those with specific learning disabilities and many with autism will have performance valleys and spikes, where they may be proficient in one area while being very weak in another. Cognitive impairment cuts across all learning, which is intelligence and adaptive behavior together, are important.

So how would one assess a student with a cognitive disability fairly and accurately? The answer to that is that it will take more than one tool to do it and over some span of time. It will not be easy or cheap. First off, you can use standardized intelligence tests providing they don’t floor out. You can also use adaptive behavior assessments and questionnaires. The questionnaires should be given to parents as well as teachers. Next, do some real-time observations of the student in the actual environment. And then look at actual work products and compare them with same-aged peers. All of these last measures should be done in several settings and across time in order assess the rate of progress. Assessment should always inform instruction, but in practice most of what passes as “accountability” and “performance” nowadays does not.

This is just my quick and dirty take on assessment of students with cognitive impairments so hopefully it helps with the degree as well as gets my readers thinking about assessment beyond the graduation test or CRCT.

Pay for Performance

16 Jan

And other disasters inaugurated by our beloved governor. The Atlanta Journal’s blog asked a question: did Governor Perdue leave education better off than he found it? In order to be fair we have to remember what it was like when he came into office. Governor Roy Barnes was often called “King Roy” because decisions were made without any input from educators. He came up with what he termed the “A+ Initiative” which did limit class sizes but was also a call for accountability. It was an early precursor to No Child Left Behind, and Barnes would go on to lead the Aspen Institute which called for a continuation and strengthening of NCLB. And anyone reading me for any length of time knows how I feel about NCLB. When Barnes left, Georgia was a state that was a bottom feeder in state rankings by almost any measure in education. So it is safe to say that the state of education in Georgia was pretty bad at the time Perdue took office. Personally, I did lose my job at the state hospital because of cuts made during the Barnes tenure, so no love was lost when he lost.

So now we have our current beloved governor. How has education fared under him? First off, Georgia is still a bottom feeder using any objective measure of educational level or achievement. He pushed for and got the legislature to stop funding pay supplements for teacher who were National Board certified. His response was to replace it with a master teacher program which tied the credential to student achievement i.e. test scores. He also succeeded in getting a measure passed that would help recruit science and math teachers by allowing them to start at a higher salary step. And now he has his pay for performance scheme. These final three initiatives; Master teacher certification, recruitment of shortage teachers and pay for performance all have one thing in common. They each and all explicitly exclude me and those who teach students with severe disabilities.

This is great for job security as there are so few incentives for coming into a field with such a massive shortage that opportunities should abound. Not so good if you are a parent of a child with a disability. The students and their parents are the biggest losers from the Perdue legacy. Teachers do fare worse than they may have otherwise. Choosing between our current governor and the one he replaced would be most difficult, but right now democrats have a golden opportunity.

Pay for performance is a total loser as far as what I currently teach. It is why the master teacher certificate is not accessible in my field. Daniel Willingham has an excellent video that explains why merit pay is such a difficult and tricky issue.

Teachers simply do not have enough control over all the contingencies that are involved in student outcomes. In my case, students progress so slowly as to defy any quick, cheap or reliable measure. Also they are all different. The idea is to reward the best teachers, but there is no standard of comparison between students in my classroom and any other students. Right now I have 9 students which is more than twice the size of any other comparable program in the district. How could there be a fair comparison? Secondly, my students are with me for the duration of the day for the duration of their school career. There is no standard of comparison there, either.

One provision the governor included was for classroom observation to be a part of the determining factor as far as whether a teacher would get performance-based pay. I have no problems being observed by an administrator, and showing them what I do any time. One problem is that not many administrators have any idea of what I do or even what I should be doing. They walk in once or twice a year for about 5-10 minutes and then leave. That’s if I’m lucky. For the past several years, observing me consisted of watching me feed one of the students during lunch! Again, I have no problems doing this and demonstrating it as it is an important part of what I do and crucial to the student. But it isn’t part of the Georgia Standards and is not going to apply toward ANY of the school’s stated improvement goals.  What I do is important, but it is not given value by any accountability scheme envisioned by any politician.

One more note about the pay for performance scheme outlined by the governor is that he references a survey taken by some 20,000 educators, 80% of which supposedly said they wanted to be evaluated and paid on the basis of student performance and observation.  I never saw any such survey, unless it was this one.  in Georgia.

Performance-based pay is a mine field. But if they people advocating this succeeded in designing something that was fair to me and the students I teach, I guarantee it would be fair for all. The reverse is decidedly not true as demonstrated by the Master Teacher debacle that leaves me behind.

Update Post Holiday Break Edition

6 Jan

We went back to school, the kids and I, for the first time in 2010 today (Jan 5th). Originally, yesterday was supposed to be a teacher workday, but the school board moved that workday to the end to try to make room for more furlough days should the state legislature decide that there is too much of a budget shortfall. I was totally fine with that move but I know a lot of teachers really needed and wanted that time to prepare their classes for the new semester. In my program, in matters less since we continue to do what we started last semester despite new course titles and course numbers. I’m the only one in the school with more separate classes than students!

My break was uneventful and calm…just the way I like it! I did my best not to get too entangled in the holiday madness even though some of it is unavoidable. I am dealing with a slight case of Second Life (SL) withdrawal, though. Of all the things I’m plugged into (blogging,youtube, Classroom 2.0, Teachertube, Facebook and the FB game Farmtown) SL has me the most hooked. It combines a lot of nerdiness, with heavy role play with social interaction and the only limit is imagination which is nearly limitless because other people are constantly creating things from their imaginations. I was in-world a lot over the break, up late at night. Back to work means getting to bed earlier which means less SL time.

My students who returned today all seemed glad to be here, albeit some were tired by the end of the day. I know I had a period right after lunch when I was sleepy! but I thinki the restoration of a consistent routine is good for me and most definitely good for my students and my own kids at home. We just do better with a regular schedule rather than too much unstructured time. But to be honest, my oldest did really well with all of the unstructured time. He loves the computer and TV, of course. but also likes doing imaginative play with his brother using Legos or stuffed animals. For the past 9 months his obsession has been the Titanic. When he gets on the web, he is reading all about the titanic. He watch YouTube about the Titanic. He wants to know everything there is to know about the Titanic. His interest does branch out a bit to other ships in the White Star line and other ships in general that sank and finally to just ships. So what to do with someone who has a seemingly narrow obsession?

I bought a book last fall by Paula Kluth called Just Give Him the Whale: 20 Ways to use Fascinations, Areas of Expertise and Strengths to Support Students with Autism. I have to admit that this is not a game changer, but then again I have not found many books about autism that really grab me anymore. I do like that these are simple and practical suggestions of how to incorporate a single fascination and use it to open new doors and expand personal interests in the process. So for those who have kids higher on the spectrum, it might be a handy book to have around.  It is a place I will go when puzzling about what to do with narrow interests areas of expertise of my oldest son.

And this blog is about to turn 4 years old! Whoo hoo! There have been some threats to it since I started and the present climate is every bit as threatening or more so than it was 4 years ago. School officials at every level (building, county, state, national) are simply not comfortable with some unauthorized teacher writing news and views without some explicit control or without their own front-person calling the shots and spinning things to make everyone look good. While I’m not out to make anyone look particularly bad, neither does it have to look good all the time. I think people will respect the honesty involved in saying “Hey, we screwed up! We’re willing to admit it, fix it and move on!”

2010 is going to be a wild and woolly year, I have no doubt about it!

I wonder if I’m the only one who would like a snow day later this week?

Last Day Before Break Edition

18 Dec

Well guess what? My GAA is NOT totally finished! In fact, I haven’t started on #2 at all! So, there you go, I can be as much of a procrastinator as anyone else. And the holiday mindset has been long set around these parts.

Here at the high school, Wednesday and Thursday were days of final exams. And last week was end of course tests (EOCT). So the schedule has been altered for quite some time. For my students, only the last couple of days have been more difficult. They simply do not do well when the schedule is severely altered. They get cranky, they get irritable, loud and sometimes even aggressive. The schedule and routine functions as a source of security for them (and the rest of us, too!) and they rely on that consistency to keep them oriented to time, since they can not really read a clock. So when the exam schedule calls for running the periods backwards or altering lunch time, it throws them and they let their displeasure and anxiety be known.

I wasn’t going to blog this next bit, but I think I will at the risk of offending some of the local folks. The topic is rather soft, but my treatment of it is not. The last couple of days of school, it is common for people to like to throw little parties and such. In elementary school, the teachers do manage to turn it into a theme day and that seems to work most of the time, but still runs the risk of upsetting the schedule for the students. I have no objections to the holiday-themed days with and for students. We did a great one in here last year when we studied Mexico and had a fiesta. No, my beef has been when the teachers decide to throw a potluck luncheon as a small group or department. For most departments, this is probably perfectly fine. And for most teachers, it is probably worry and drama-free.

But for me and my brave little band of paras and students, it represents yet another source of stress. My students need someone to feed them or at least help them feed themselves. They need someone to wipe their mouths, change them and wipe their bottoms. It’s just what we do. But when free food appears, a lot of that gets thrown out the window. We rely on a lot of outside help to feed during lunch and during every single potluck this year, much of that help has evaporated. The reason for this is that it is a potluck and not everyone brings food or enough of it. So there is a rush at the beginning of the lunch period when people are knocking down the proverbial barnyard gate, trying to waddle up to the trough in order to get their fair share. Which means 2 things: 1.) my kids are short changed 2.) My staff is short-changed.

During the feeding frenzy there is much gobbling, grunting and chomping in some nice quiet room whilst the 3 or 4 of us try to feed the 9 kids who are all STARVING – or at least they act like it. And this gets my mood seething and dark, as ?I feel like we are abandoned. By the the time we are finished feeding all the kids, the lunch period is nearly over. And my paras can forget about getting much to eat as the bones tend to be picked clean across the building or wherever the potluck is. There is no way to even participate without leaving the kids with someone…and those people are already at the trough. This is why I am coming to despise the potluck parties in our department. We’ve tried to have them in our kitchen, but the same problems are still there and exacerbated by the traffic and disruption as people are tending their food, heating, stirring, mixing, and serving. Since we somehow end up eating with the kids during these things, it sort of sucks a lot of the fellowship out of it. I have students who have issues with adults talking among themselves and ignoring them which isn’t uncommon among any students/children. Mine just get more active and vocal about it. But we are a very small part of the department, so I would not deprive others of the joy they get out of it. I’m just pointing out that it isn’t the greatest deal for us. The department party this evening, though, should be a better occasion to relax.

So, I probably come off as a bit of a scrooge about a lot of the holiday hoopla but it’s because my kids left behind in so many of the cases. That’s not to say that people do not do extra ordinary things. Yesterday, some of my students were able to watch a show put on by the drama students as part of their final exam. Of course some of my kids wanted to take to the stage themselves! I kept a few of those students out so the actors would at least have a shot at hearing their own cues and passing their finals. But it was nice that we were thought of, and I hope the drama students enjoyed having us as an audience. And the teacher who volunteered to host us for Christmas activities kept the invitation open but I wasn’t able to make it work out. But it was a nice invitation, nonetheless.

As the day wore on (and it wore on forever!) I pulled a page from Erin’s book and got out my Qchord and we played some Christmas songs. I had a few bells and tambourines and had a few of the kids joined in the playing of the music while one of them just danced to it. This got everyone in the mood for lunch, which was a bit of a mess since the cafeteria was in shut-down mode. even the custodians were coming through early, trying to get all the trash cans done. I mentioned to the one in our room that she might want to wait on us until the very last. We still had a mitt ful of students and they all had to have their diapers changed one last time before going home. And having a pile of poopy diapers sitting around for 2 weeks is not something I would like to contemplate.

But I think I got all the required tasks completed, and although tired I am feeling okay with where we’ll pick up next semester.

As for my two boys, they are both handling the holidays extremely well. Of course, Thomas is totally ready for school to be finished but is really doing well during these last few weeks. Not having to fight over the homework is the biggest and most welcome improvement. Percy has always done well, but the stress has gotten to him just a bit and he has had problems with strep and asthmatic conditions. But overall, we’re doing pretty well with the holiday stress and basically trying to avoid it as much as possible. As Thomas would say, We’re “looking forward to some luxurious R & R!”

Grappling the GAA

5 Dec

And yet again, another reason to knock this bugger off as soon as possible: I caught some sort of bug and missed a day right on the home stretch of collection period #1. While I have had most of it collected for weeks, I still need to assemble all of the pieces and fill out the entry sheets. Honestly, annual reviews are a lot easier than this bugger!

One of the things that make this particularly onerous is that at the end of each year, everything that was done is supposed to be destroyed and gotten rid of. Which means reinventing and retyping things over and over again redundantly and repeatedly each year. Yes, I know; that’s the point. If the students were actually doing it and it was actually based on student achievement, this would not be an issue at all. But since it has nothing to do with actual student achievement, it has to be treated as a yearly teacher assessment. Which means we have to destroy the previous year’s work so that it doesn’t skew the results of the current year. Given that the students and tasks change from year-to-year but the teacher doesn’t (well sometimes), there is only one reason to destroy all the material from previous years: it isn’t the student who is being evaluated and assessed.

So I’m sifting through several thousand pictures using Picasa. It is a great (free) program for going through large batches of photos. I then assemble 4-6 pictures on a single power point slide for each piece of evidence and then fill in captions off to the side in a narrative form, addressing all of the things that we’re supposed to address on each piece of evidence. Portions of this text will also used on the entry sheets. I’m trying to minimize the repeated redundancy as much as possible.

Invariably, I find holes where I need a bit more evidence. I really prefer that most tasks are done across a number of days so I can have photos showing progression (or no progression) and differing settings. Some parts of a task, such as watching a movie, are only just so exciting. Having multiple viewings or multiple dimensions of a task can help ad a bit of variety to the photo spread. So I’ve had to pick up a few pieces here and there.

At present I also have a conundrum on a couple of areas. My two hardest are algebra and social studies. Algebra is difficult to make relevant in any capacity for my students. I understand that jobs and college require it. Got it. But my students are not going to either, and have little concept of quantity, numbers and one-to-one correspondence let alone the symbolic and abstract concepts in algebra. And I know what some apologists are thinking: we can do the prereqisites as long as we can link to the standards and that is what we do. But it still isn’t relevant.

With social studies, it’s a different dilemma. We have a lot of good choices in that subject area, provided a body is really creative. Last year, I had a para who was marvelously crafty and creative and helped kick that whole subject up a notch for the students. You would think it would be easy to replicate that same thing, even if she isn’t here. But it isn’t, given the numbers and students that I have this year. I’ve never been that craftsy, and prefer to cede a lot of that to the paras and I’ve always had at least one who would and could do it. But not so much this year. The student teacher brings in good energy and vibes, but she is only here 3 days a week for a few weeks. So I’m going back to the old standby, which is under economics: money identification and properties. I’m still going to try to finish Mexico, just so I have the option of using it if I like it better.

OH! But one thing did kind of fall into my lap. I had used some Halloween activities and materials for the listening/speaking/viewing tasks and was wondering what collection #2’s activities were going to be. I really needed some Christmas theme but going out to the community, which is my normal home run generalization activity, simply can not take place with the numbers we have. However the interior design teacher next door is doing holiday-related decorations and invited us over. WooHoo! I’m saved! I hope. We’ll see.

But I am spending a lot of late nights at the school trying to hammer this thing out and get collection #1 finished before my Wednesday Tuesday deadline. It’s just one more stupid stressor among many that we all have to deal with and somehow we manage to pull it off each and every year. I’ll do it again this year and wonder how the heck I ever managed to do it. By the time the break comes, I am totally spent and ready for it! I got spoiled last year with only the one student, but this year I have 2. And middle school teachers who have ALL of your students to do, I feel your pain! I was sitting there last night at 7:30 wondering how you guys manage this every year.

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!

THIS DAY WE FIGHT!

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

Aragorn
The Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King

Bricks Without Straw

9 Nov

I always intended this blog to be mostly informative and supportive for parents and other teachers that do what I do.  In the earliest days, it was also a place to vent my spleen mostly about NCLB and the GAA.  Those things are still vent worthy and I’m overdue for a vent.  But today I’m throwing up yet another lament.

The “Whining”‘ post resonated with many readers, probably because there is an epidemic of this sort of pain running through the field.  To be honest, I hated that post, which is why I tried to bury it immediately behind a more informative (and longer) post.  But I needed to write it and needed to post it.  Just this one needs to be written and posted.

Perhaps I have a “fan” at the central office or in administration who read my post and decided that perhaps I needed to have something to really whine about.  Perhaps the Almighty, in His great wisdom is making sure I don’t miss the signs.  I’ve been known to be a bit slow on the uptake.  Before relating the present woes, indulge me in a story from my past…

I was teaching science at a private boarding school in the early ’90’s, teaching science.  I lived at the school, which was handy since I went over a year without a car.  The hours were long, as we had duties at night and on some weekends in addition to teaching.  And the pay was less than what paras make in public schools.  But it was a good place to start out.  But during my 3rd year, as I was working on my Master’s I was deciding whether or not I should leave and look for something else.  That summer, we had torrential rains which flooded the apartments where I was staying.  Natural disaster, right?  4 months later, in a totally different dorm, a pipe broke and the place flooded again. A few months later, lightening struck and destroyed a bunch of my electronics.  It, along with deteriorating politics there, was a neon sing to me that read “GET OUT!”

So now, I begin to tally the score for this year.  Three years ago, I aksed to move into co-teaching.  I was denied.  Two years ago, I asked again, even taking and passing the science test to be certified and HQ so I could coteach.  Again denied.  Last year, I asked to transfer within the district.  Denied AGAIN.  Apparently I’m meant to stay.  Right?  As we began the year, one of my best paras was moved off and replaced against both of our wishes.  That cost me as well as the students she bonded with.  Then I was hit by the numbers while being understaffed, hence the “whining” post.

Today, I learned that there was a reduction in force, a RIF.  Our school lost two para positions.  Two paras were transferred to a middle school.  And they took one of mine to replace one of those that were transferred.  They picked one of my best, and put her in with less disabled kids and informed me I would be doing what I was struggling to do before with substantially less help.  We are now an accident or an incident waiting to happen.

Now I have to finish letters drafted a few months ago and at least document the peril we now face so whenever whatever happens, does, no one can say they were not warned.  Meanwhile, me and my ever-decreasing brave band of paras will hunker down and attempt to hold an ever-expanding line.