Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

Probably the most significant change that took place within the last year is that I changed schools, changed classrooms, changed students, and moved. So the past seven months or so have been spent getting to know an entirely new population of students: teaching years 1-3 were spent in an MD classroom with a variety of students—students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down syndrome, Cognitive disability, and one with a rare disorder called Smith-Magenis Syndrome. There were a few others students with varying disabilities too and the age range was vast: 2nd grade through 7th grade.

Then, on a whim, I applied to the Educational Service Center in my home county. I noticed an open position on their website and sent off a resume the next day. I was called back about a month later—at the last moment when I had already given up hope of being called—and the director conducted a pre-interview question and answer type conversation (i.e., a phone interview) and asked if I was interested in a high school position. It wasn’t my first choice, but I was interested in moving back near my family so I agreed. Then I waited…and waited…and waited. No call.

Then one day, in July 2014, I received a call from the director and was asked if I was still interested in a position with the county. Funnily enough, I was in my classroom tutoring a student when the call came because I had just told my principal a day or two before that I had given up hope and would be back next school year. She was gracious when I eventually broke the news of my impending departure.

Anyhow, I said I was still interested and I was told that an elementary position had become available and would I be available for an interview—in like two days! The rest is history. I scheduled my second interview. Passed. Then went on to a third interview with the building principal. Passed. Had a background check. Passed. Reference check. Passed. I was hired and within the next thirty days packed a house, rented another, resigned my position, rented and loaded a U-Haul, moved, and began the long process that moved me from a mixed age MD unit in a rural community to a strictly elementary (K-2) ED unit in an urban area near my hometown.

Moving from a solidly district school classroom to a county run classroom is a strange thing that required all sorts of adjustments both mentally and professionally. Although I am housed in a regular elementary school building, accountable to the building principal, and can fully participate in all building-wide activities I am not—nor are my students—officially attached to the school or the district itself. I work for the county (not the local school district), my students come from all over the county (I have eight students from five different school districts), and I see my official principal very infrequently (yet she’s always only a phone call away, so this is no criticism, and the building principal is always available to us also).

One of the great challenges I have had to master is the art of communication. Since my students are drawn from five different school districts, I have to communicate with no less than five different special education directors. I also have to communicate with several administrative people at the county level—for attendance, for classroom needs, for payroll, and much more besides. I had to learn how to negotiate scheduling issues when writing IEPs in order that all parents, therapists, district representatives, and ESC representatives can be present—people coming from all over the county. I also have to contend with five different bus schedules—no small feat when it comes to the writing of daily report cards, packing of backpacks, and actually getting children out the door.

Another significant change is that I also have three adults in my room besides myself. Thus I am also managing the work and break schedules of three other adults. Add into this mix managing the therapy schedules for eight different children who at varying times attend occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. Finally, throw into this dough the specials schedules also: art, physical education, library, and music and making certain that the paraprofessionals are where they are to be.  

Wow, that’s a lot to contend with now that I think about it. But let’s not stop there. Let’s also consider that I am still finishing my residency (I am a year three working on my Resident Educator Summative Assessment) and anyone from Ohio knows what a pain that is, that I am still required to go through the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (which requires 2 formal and 2 informal observations, the writing of Student Learning Objectives, and more), and that this year I had to learn a new aspect of education in Ohio (because my students are not cognitively disabled,  they are not eligible for the Alternate Assessment which means they must be prepared for regular state testing by third grade): RIMPs—Reading Improvement Monitoring Plans for the wonderful 3rd Grade Reading Guarantee.

Make it better: KRA—Kindergarten Readiness Assessment; First Grade Diagnostic Assessment; Second Grade Diagnostic Assessment. Parent-Teacher conferences.

Really, this year has been an amazing, whirlwind of adventure and learning because besides everything I have just mentioned, there is the daily pressure of patiently working with students who have an emotional and/or behavioral disability, writing lesson plans (for 8 different children in three different grade levels!), managing IEPs, communicating with parents (and home districts), breakfast, lunch, behavior intervention plans, math, language arts, science, social studies, data collection, progress reports, report cards…and we have three months left in the school year.

It never ends, and there’s never enough time.

I am not writing any of this because I am looking for sympathy or because I want anyone not to go into teaching. On the contrary, I think this is reality—not just for me, but for every single special education teacher who goes to work every single day and lives on the island I like to call ‘where is my professional support team here in the school?’ I was talking about this one day with the music teacher and the physical education teacher and we all agreed: if you teach specials or special education, you often teach on an island. Not many people understand what we do every single day in the special education classroom; specials teachers come close, but only to an extent. Being a special education teacher or an intervention specialist is a lot of work, and I think it might be easy for the young teacher to get overwhelmed in those early years if they do not have the proper supporting staff from administration all the way down to classroom paraprofessionals to mentor teacher during residency.

As I said, this is reality. We have to work very hard to participate with the general education teachers—they have their own unique problems to deal with so I’m not disparaging them—so that our students can be included as often as possible in school wide events and activities. I work with a great group of teachers who have graciously allowed me to integrate some of my students into their classrooms for short periods each week. This is reality: if you are preparing to be a special education teacher, these are the things you do each day—and let’s not even get started on supplies, funding (I recently learned of the joys of www.donorschoose.org; you can contribute to my current project by visiting www.donorschoose.org/jerry.hillyer), and simple things like printer ink, paper, glue sticks, and curriculum).

And there is the ongoing, constant need to create new learning tasks for your TEACCH bins or for IEP objectives, or for Dr. Seuss week. (Thank God for Teachers Pay Teachers and Teacher’s Notebook!!)

The reality is that in a sense special education teachers have to work hard(er) to make certain our students are getting everything they deserve each day. It’s not easy work, and we do it for reasons we often cannot define or place a finger upon. We do it because we look deep into our students and we see potential that might otherwise go unnoticed or be overlooked because of behaviors. We do what we do because we want our students to have hope and because we want our students to have the confidence they so obviously lack. We do so because our students are special and not typical. We do what we do because we often think to ourselves that we might have done better ourselves if these classes had existed when we were school children and struggled with large groups, not enough attention, and lack of confidence.

This is reality. I have quite a few teacher friends in other areas of life—church, acquaintances, and elsewhere—and sometimes they say things to me like, “I am thankful for you; for what you do. I could never do it. You must be special to work with those kids.” Sometimes it is kind of embarrassing when they say it because I think, “Nah, I was trained well. Anyone can do it if they are trained well.” Then other times I think, “You know what, maybe I am good at what I do. Maybe I do it because I can, because someone else cannot.”

It’s not a bragging thing, it’s a truth thing; a reality thing. You are in the place you are right now because you can do it, because someone else cannot do it. You have the gift(s) to help your students realize their potential every single day. Surround yourself with solid people, work hard every day, and most of all love your kiddos. Not everyone can do what you do; not everyone will.

 A long time ago, when I was studying Hebrews for the first or second time, I 'discovered' a way to understand the book that has stuck with me and continues to provide guidance. Now I don't know if the author was writing to answer questions posed to him or what the circumstances were, but this theological book–weighty as any in the New Testament–provides us with a healthy and robust portrait of Jesus, the Son of God, who is our salvation. 

So about this way of reading Hebrews. The pattern is very easy to see and very easy to understand:

  1. The author introduces a subject or a topic that he feels needs to be addressed. So, for example, 1:1-4 and the revelation of Jesus as God's son and his supremacy over the angels.
  2. The author continues by demonstrating from the Old Testament Scriptures the point he has just introduced. So, for example, 1:5-14 where he shows us that Jesus is far superior in every way imaginable to the angelic host.
  3. The author provides his readers with an application of a sort at the end of each section usually marked off by the word 'therefore.' So, for example, the 'end' of chapter 1:1-14 is actually chapter 2:1-4 where we see the 'therefore.'
  4. This pattern repeats itself over and over again in the book of Hebrews and helps make the boo much easier to understand.

Therefore, if 1:1-14 is about Jesus, about his perfect reflection of the invisible God, and his ultimate supremacy over the angelic beings then what is the conclusion the author comes to and wants us to understand? That is, what is the practical application of 1:1-14?

Therefore, we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard lest we drift away from it.

The practical application is that we need to pay attention to what we have heard–not to what Howard Marshall calls 'lesser messengers' whether those 'lesser messengers' are angelic beings or otherwise. Or maybe he's concerned about a 'lesser message.' I think the lesser message is easy to spot even if the lesser messengers are not–and believe me when I say that lesser messages abound in our culture. Jesus warned us that many would come claiming this or that or saying 'look there he is' when there he's not (Matthew 24-25). And interestingly enough, Jesus' message in Matthew 24-25 is just about the same as it is here in Hebrews 2:1-4: Pay attention or you will be deceived. It is possible, suggests the author, to 'drift' away and not even know it. We sit content in our boat and before long we are 100 yards from shore and we can't explain how it happened.

I think the real application here is this: if we are not diligent we will drift away from salvation. God has confirmed his message about Jesus through signs and wonders and miracles. This is how the message was confirmed to us. This is the message of the apostles, this is the message about Jesus. The point of the author of Hebrews is that there is one message about Jesus and if we are not diligent and careful to pay close attention to what 'God has spoken to us in these last days by his Son' we will most assuredly drift away from our salvation.

So what? I think this means that we need to constantly be evaluating what we hear. Too many Christians are content to take in everything they hear unfiltered. And what has happened is that the church ends up being led off in directions never intended and individual christians end up being led off in directions they aren't even aware are leading them further and further away from Jesus. So we must pay attention to what we heard lest we drift away. We must pay attention lest our salvation become tainted or corrupt or at least impotent.

And it seems to me that this Gospel message is found in these first 14 verses of the letter to the Hebrews–God spoke through Jesus, Jesus is the appointed heir of all things, Jesus is the Creator; Jesus is God's radiance and sustainer of the world; Jesus is the atonement for our sins; Jesus is the rightful king of the Majesty of heaven, the Kingdom of God, who will reign in righteousness.

And no one, not even an angel from heaven, can make those claims. Only Jesus.

_______________________

There's probably more to say about this than I am getting at right now and perhaps I will say more later. For introductory purposes, I hope this provides a good start.

I've been reading this book called The Myth of the Spoiled Child by Alfie Kohn. I'll be reviewing it on this blog soon so I won't spoil much with this post, except to say that if what Kohn is saying is true, and at this juncture of my reading I'm leaning towards that particular assessment, then I may well have to reinvent myself as a teacher of students with disabilities. If what he has written is true, maybe more parents, teachers, and administrative specialists in schools ought also to read it; slowly.

The thing about life is that we are always at a juncture of knowing and learning. There are many folks among us who stand at said junctures and say something ridiculous like, "Well, I know; therefore, I need not learn." They are making a commitment to stasis, to static. Everything is fixed, nothing will change. Everything is stable and there is no upsetting that balance.

Others stand at the same juncture and say something lucid like, "Well, here I am. I'm not sure. I'm uncertain. I do not know. Teach me." These folks are making a commitment to a certain level of functional chaos; to imbalance. Everything is fair game, there is no balance. These folks have made a lifelong commitment to learning which necessarily means they are willing to change–at any given moment, on any given subject.

It used to be said, it might still be said, that it is a woman's prerogative to change her mind. I think it is a human beings' obligation to change our minds, our hearts, our lives, our views, our entire being. What would the world be like if we were born with a set of beliefs or values or ideas and those were the only beliefs, values or ideas we ever had? What if we lived in a world where learning was nothing more than the compulsory memorization of meaningless points of historical trivia? What if criminals were sentenced to summary execution which was summarily carried out and were never, ever given the chance to change?

This leads me to question the very nature of education. Is education merely about learning facts and dates and numbers? Or is education about learning to think in such a way that our minds might actually be changed and our lives irrevocably altered? What is change? Who is to say what change is and what it means? Who is to say how much change is required or how much effort should be invested in making changes? Who is to say what standard should be applied to measure whether change has occurred or not? It's all very confusing and rather unpleasant to think about this late.

Yet, I am rethinking everything I have learned about what it means to educate and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to be a teacher; what it means to be a human; what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

Maybe I have those in the wrong order.

Today was a long day at school, hence the title of this post. It was a long day of teaching that began as most of my days do: waking up from a night of restlessness and nightmares. The day ended with me sitting here at my laptop writing about what a long day it was at school.

I made some new friends tonight and spent some time with other friends while playing a small part in  our school's 'spring' literacy night. I was privileged to stand behind a table and scoop hot nacho cheese into plastic bowls–a slight improvement over bus duty; at least no one cursed at me tonight.

Previous to that experience, I tutored a student for two hours. We spent the entire time struggling together through the Brigance Diagnostic Comprehensive Inventory of Basic Skills. It's startlingly good fun and if you've never administered such an inventory before, well I highly suggest that you get busy doing so.

In fact, I enjoyed Brigance so much today, that I pretty much did nothing else but Brigance with my students today.

That was my day.

I cannot merely assess a days' worth based upon whether or not I actually accomplished anything though. I mean, I'm sure I accomplished something, somehow, and in some way, for someone. I don't feel like I did, but I'm sure that somewhere along the way I was able to positively impact at least the chair I sat on most of the day. Although, since I left an impression, I probably had a negative impact on the chair; I'm just saying.

Being a teacher is demanding work at times.

Do you know what the best part of my long day was? It was not administering the Brigance. It was not serving nachos–as fun as that was. It was not my daily foray into the swarm of cars and buses I fought through in bus duty. It wasn't hearing from the high school principal that one of my own children was about to be suspended.

The best part was being around the people I am privileged to work with every day. I was able to spend time with my principal, fellow teachers, parents, children, custodians, and others. It was nice to hear the stories of their day, touch base with their lives, make a connection that might not have been there in the past, and in general just get to know them on a personal basis. It was fun to see them 'outside the classroom' during our evening Literacy Night (with a fiesta theme.)

What I have found is that teachers are humans. We have our flaws. We make our share of mistakes. We have some faulty idealistic dreams that are incompatible with the real world. Yet, what I saw tonight at Literacy Night was a wild pack of teachers, who had been teaching all day, giving more of their time to encourage literacy among our community.

And we would it all over again. And we will.

It probably sounds somehow wrong, but I am one of those sort of teachers who actually enjoys bus duty at school. I love it so much that I do it twice per day: once in the morning when all the little children are arriving at school full of joy and happiness and songs (0nly to later have it all sucked away by the Schoolmaster and Ohio Academic Assessments) and again in the afternoon when all the tired children are being hoarded into giant yellow super-marines–gone are the smiles, gone are the songs, and the skipping-hand-holding energetic future ballerinas.

The contrast is remarkable from morning to afternoon. It is amazing what 7 hours in school will do to a child's personality. And, interestingly enough, it could not be more different for teachers who arrive in the morning hunched over from all the bags of stuff being carried in, slurping coffee, and walking about as slow as a human can without actually falling over from lack of motion and are all smiles and joyful and full of energy come 3 o'clock.

Bus duty today was fantastic. In the morning, I saw no little commotion on one of the last arriving buses. Then I saw children begin to file out of the bus, mouths covered, noses pinched, and groaning of a rank smell on the bus. I assumed it was a bus, what could be wrong? Then I discovered that a small child had hurled, puked, vomited or maybe all three in the aisle. "It smells like rotten eggs," reported one little boy. "Oh, that is gross," observed an astute little girl to her friend. A few minutes later I was in the office when a small boy walked in literally, yes, literally, covered in puke, calm as the day is long. I was impressed.

Later on in the afternoon, I was back on duty standing at my designated spot where me and my masters degree, hand in hand, direct 15 buses onto the highway every afternoon. After the buses are safely on their way to the left and right and center, I hang around to usher out the three rivers of cars that arrive at a small confluence in the school parking lot that smashes perpendicular into the highway in front of the building where passing traffic carefully avoids reading the sign emblazoned with the words 'School Zone Speed Limit: 20 MPH'.

Good times.

Today, as I lifted lever on the last remaining foodgate and the pent up power of the last river of traffic began pouring into the confluence, I heard a parent shout out the window of his truck in my direction, "Screw you!" I guess he had to wait too long in the line to pick up his child and that the best way for him to express his angst at having to wait his turn.

In the morning, a kid vomits on the bus; in the afternoon an adult pukes on me.

Such is the life of a teacher on bus duty.

I read an article today that had something to do with Jerry Seinfeld. I'm a huge fan of Seinfeld to the extent that I still laugh out-loud when watching the reruns in syndication. The article had something to do with something called the 'Seinfeld Strategy.'

I haven't the slightest idea if there is any truth to this being something Jerry Seinfeld actually did/does, but it sounded worthwhile so I thought I would give it a whirl. The gist is that success is somewhat dependent upon consistency of practice. So, in Seinfeld's world, he would make the effort to write every day. The author of the article writes:

Top performers in every field — athletes, musicians, CEOs, artists — they are all more consistent than their peers. They show up and deliver day after day while everyone else gets bogged down with the urgencies of daily life and fights a constant battle between procrastination and motivation.

He also adds a simple caveat: the daily task has to be "meaningful enough to make a difference and simple enough that you can get it done." I think this is a solid plan.

My plan, therefore, is to make it my daily goal to blog 500 words. I have no particular agenda, but I'm thinking that I might blog about my Bible reading for the day or about something in education that happens to be irritating me at the moment. I'm sure of this: there will be no lack for things to blog.

For example, today I'm particularly irritated by the amount of tests that I have to administer to my students in order for them to be qualified as students. It's almost like the state and federal government doesn't trust teachers to teach so they mandate all sorts of tests just to make certain we are doing something in the classroom. I spent some time tonight reading through the 2nd grade Diagnostic Assessment manual which was enough to make me want to take a sick day. 

Where do people come up with all this stuff? Add on top of 2nd Grade Diagnostic Assessments the ten Alternate Assessments I have to administer and Brigance Comprehensive Assessments I have to administer before I can write IEPs and it's easy to see why my students are stressed out and why I am ready to shave the skin from my scalp (I have no hair to pull out).

Fact is, teaching ought to be exciting and thrilling and a daily adventure. Learning ought to be worse: a delightful and amazing journey into the unknown, where darkness is illuminated, ignorance replaced with wisdom, and grace heaved into our hearts in massive doses. We get to live on this earth for a very short period of time if we are lucky enough to live at all. We get to spend some of those years in formal educational settings. Why, oh why, would we want to steal all the joy that should be there and replace it with anxiety and stress?

The end.

 

I admite Matthew Lynch for having the courage to post his article: Is Teacher Education the Real Problem?

I think it takes real guts in today's world to actually get around to defending the work that teachers do in the classroom. We are not a perfect bunch of people, but I think we work a lot harder than the average parent or politician knows. For this I thank Lynch who utimately thinks there are better ways to bring about changes in education besides just body-slamming teachers (again).

A large part of the problem as I see it is that when little Johnny comes home from school with a sketchy grade, it must be because the teacher has done something wrong. It probably has nothing to do with little Johnny having been enrolled in school at too early an age and not properly developing social appropriate social skills which leads to behavior issues and so on. And so it goes, and I'm not going to dwell there right now.

Lynch hits hard on this idea that someone needs to make it 'harder to become a teacher.' I don't think we need to make it harder to become a teacher either. He writes:

Instead of making it harder to become a teacher, why not spend money on making classroom size smaller and more manageable when those teachers start their careers? Or on technology programs and training that give teachers an advantage when it comes to educational gaming?

He points out three areas in particular that we should think of investing in before we start investing in more difficult teacher preparation and retention programs. He writes that we need 1) more parental involvement (!!!! I agree wholeheartedly and written as much elsewhere); 2) smaller class sizes (I suppose I agree with this, but I'm not sure yet what this means); 3) technology in classrooms (Meh, I use a lot of tech; I don't think it makes much difference).

On the whole, Lynch makes a good point:

This pilot teacher-prep program seems like just another way to blame teachers for what they cannot control. More education can't hurt, but there are so many other issues that deserve this spotlight instead.

On the other hand, I want to note this. I am a relatively newly minted, second career teacher. I finished my graduate degree at the age of 41 and started full time about 2 months after my graduation and after receiving my credentials from the state. I am now nearing 44. Here's what I want to say: teacher preparation does need reformed on a couple of different levels.

First, what is generally referred to as 'student teaching' is more or less a waste of time. I endured student teaching and at the end I only wanted to quit teaching. There was too little coordination between coordinating school (university) and the public school teachers. Staff at the public school were generally indifferent and the mentor teachers were nearly wholly unprepared for my presence in their rooms–on top of profoundly reluctant to let me actually 'take control' of their classrooms and classroom agenda. Making matters worse, when I was hired by a local school I was informed that I would have to endure a four year (yes, 4 full school years) of residency (resident educator program). What the hell did I student teach for?

It might not be the 'sitting in the classroom' that needs reforming for teachers, but 'student teaching' does. It is a horrible and does nothing for the student teacher.

So, let's make it worse for new teachers. First, make them student teach (and pay for it on top of that). Second, let's let them be resident educators for four more years. Third, let's also hold them to the same standards as fully vetted teachers (so that they are being observed twice as many times by principals/mentors as regular teachers). Fourth, let's not explain to them the rather heinous nature of local school politics. Fifth, subject them to the rigors of state testing administration. And so on.  Now I can deal with all this because I am older and I really don't care, but imagine throwing a 20-something into all of this. Now wonder why teachers leave after 5 years or less.  (And let's not even get involved in a conversation about student load repayment.)

This, then, is where I would make a second reform. If new teachers (within the first 5 years) are going to be subjected to the rigors of Resident Educator status, then they should not be held to the typical standards all teachers are subjected to. In other words, resident educators (in Ohio, for example) should not be subject to OTES. It is simply too overwhelming to have to do both (on top of all the other work we have to do every day to simply educate students.) 

Lynch is correct: stricter teacher requirements will not necessarily make better students. However, improving the way teachers are made might just lead to retaining teachers for longer periods of time which might lead to better education for students.

At some point someone needs to look at these things because in my opinion it is wasting a lot of talent among those called to teach. It is not easy to become a licensed teacher–at least in the state of Ohio. It is rigorous and it costs a lot of money and time. But I believe strongly, and I will preach this as long as I teach, that student teaching and resident educator practices need to be challenged and changed. They do not make better teachers; they make bitter teachers.

 

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Loving my Students

There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about the work I do and how I do it. More than once I have heard from other staff, who have spent any time in my room, that all teachers ought to spend a day in my self-contained, multi-disability resource room. I think I probably agree…they should come in and see what we do because general education teachers, generally speaking, have little idea what we do in special education. I seriously believe that sometimes they think we are not even educating the students in our classrooms.

As a new special educator (but as a second career and, thus, older teacher), I have been writing down some thoughts and observations that have helped me, and continue to help me, become a better intervention specialist. Here are 9 tips that have helped me.

First, be prepared for a lot of ill health, absenteeism, late arrivals and early dismissals. It can be a blessing and it can be annoying, but whatever it is, on whatever day it is, you have to be prepared for it. There are doctor appointments, there is a higher susceptibility for illness, there are appointments with psychologists or social services workers, and a plethora of other places your students will have to be. And it’s not just at home either. At school, your students will have appointments with counselors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech pathologists. This means, in short, that you have to be prepared and flexible.

It means that you may have the most beautiful lesson plans ever written and have to put them on hold for another day or two or three or month. It means that some students will be perpetually behind in their work. I have had a student who was supposed to move out of state who actually never left town, was gone for two plus months, and is now returning to class. There’s a lot of work to do and there is no point in getting frustrated by the hecticity and chaos of the students’ schedule. Roll with it.

Second, be prepared to write an IEP, for a student you may have never met, on a moment’s notice. New students are arriving and new students are being identified for special education services all the time. You need to have a plan in place for how you will bridge that gap when it arrives. Often the ETR or IEP meetings are scheduled at a moment’s notice: be prepared. Gather as much information as you can, rely on state standards (or common core) for the language you will use in the IEP itself, and take a few minutes to talk to the student, if you can, beforehand. The key is to be ready–practice if you need to.

Third, be prepared to play ‘catch-down.’ This will tie in with another point I make later, but something I realized early on is that it is unreasonable to ask my students to move at my pace because then I’m always asking the students to play ‘catch-up.’ So, I took the initiative, placed the burden on my own shoulders, and decided to play ‘catch-down.’ I made mid-course adjustments so that I am moving at their pace. Now this is not to say that I never prod them to work harder or faster. I do. But it is to say that it’s OK if you do not finish a project in one day. I made a deliberate decision to simply slow down the pace.

Fourth, hurry is a choice. I was walking with my principal one day, talking about school stuff, and it was clear she was in a hurry. I get that. Principals have a lot of work to do. But it also occurred to me that being in a hurry is not something I have to do. I can choose to walk at a casual pace if I want to. Playing ‘catch-down’ is also a deliberate choice. It means that, even though it appears we have very little time, we actually have as much time as we decide we need. There is no point in getting overly stressed about time. Learn to manage it. Learn to make time your servant, and not the other way around. I heard someone say that ‘teachers do not get to choose when they go to the bathroom.’ I disagree. It seems to me that it makes better sense for a student to learn a few things thoroughly than a bunch of things poorly. Take your time.

Fifth, be prepared to write lesson plans for a variety of students who have a variety of abilities and a variety of interests and a variety of learning styles and a variety of skills. In the cross-categorical classroom, we have students with Downs Syndrome, Autism, emotional/behavioral disorders, and whatever else comes our way. And we do so happily and gladly. But we also know that no two of our students will learn the same way, at the same pace, and with the same methods. Lesson plans typically need to reflect this. Be ready to write plans that differentiate your instruction for your students. It is typically a lot of work; be ready. (Also, let's note that IEPs are individualized for a reason.)

Sixth, be prepared to communicate with parents often. I personally send home my own version of a daily-report card–daily. There is also email, phone calls, parent teacher conferences and the spur of the moment, unscheduled, my-kid-got-kicked-off-the-bus meetings. I tend to be pro-active about communication that way I am not caught off-guard. I try to communicate as often and as much as I can without interrupting the daily routine. It is not always possible, neither is it always easy (especially if you are communicating discipline issues or IEP issues), but it always necessary.

Seventh, be prepared to deal with the ignorance of general education teachers, but also be cooperative and helpful. (This is not an insult to gen-ed teachers. It is a reality. We all have our own specialty areas.) Generally speaking, regular education teachers are not trained to deal with an autistic student who is having a major meltdown. Generally speaking, regular education teachers have very little idea what we do in special education (which is, to be sure, teaching students just as they do, but differently). So when I say ‘ignorance’ I simply mean not specialized or unaware of what 'we' do. Therefore it is important for the special educator to be patient with other teachers (and they us), supportive, helpful, and deft in conveying information that will be helpful to them if they ask questions about their own students. In other words, be open; do not be a know-it-all. Help when asked, observe when not asked, and communicate clearly always.

Eighth, be prepared to spend a lot of time alone. Yes, teachers get lunch & prep time, but that does not mean that our students take a lunch and a prep time. They still have needs and they still could melt-down (sadly, I have seen it and it typically manifests itself in unstructured areas or when they are with inexperienced staff or paraprofessionals.) Again, the special education teacher needs to be flexible. On the other hand, special education is often a small and overlooked ‘department’ in the school. There’s not a lot of time for team meetings with other special educators and given the needs of our students, we must spend a lot of time with them. Be prepared to make some friends you can count on or be prepared to spend a lot of time alone.

Finally, ninth, work that your students do does not have to be perfect, it just has to be theirs. Bottom line is this: I want the parents of my students to be proud of their son or daughter’s work, not mine or the paraprofessional's. We could do the work for them, make it look pristine and wonderful. Or we could leave it to the students–there will be too much glue, wrinkled papers, sloppy writing, overworked crayons, and more. It won’t be perfect, but it will be theirs. And this is the most important thing I can say to new special education teachers. Let the students be proud of the work they accomplish on their own without your help. It’s important that we guide our students, not control them.

Special education can be tricky. We want our students to do and be and succeed, but we (at least I) want it to be their best effort not mine. I practice hands-off because the only way I know if a student can do something is if they do it. If they try and fail, that’s OK. We learn in failure too. But if they never try, and they never fail, then what has anyone learned?

So that's my 9 tips for new special educators. What are some of the tips you would offer to new special educators?

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Loving my Students

LogoA quick post to alert readers to a new resource (new to me that is). The website is called We Are Teachers and from a quick look, there is a lot to enjoy.

There is a brief registration one must follow in order to access all aspects of the website. It took me about 3 or 4 minutes. A profile page can also be edited in order to make connections with other teachers. 

There is a section containing blogs where teachers can find ideas and inspiration for the classroom. There is a section for lessons and resources for a variety of classroom subjects. Much more can be found at the website and I'll look forward to exploring it more deeply later. For now, I'm merely giving it some props without endorsing everything that is there. 

Finally, there is a section dedicated to special education–which makes me very happy. Complete with blogs, lesson ideas, and lesson plans specifically dedicated to the intervention specialist should prove useful and worthy of repeat visits.  

Other sections can be found for science, social studies, writing, technology, language arts and more. Check it out and see if it is helpful to you. 

Every time there is a presidential election we hear folks asking what the prospective candidates will do about ‘the problems with our educational system.’ It gets old very quickly; nevertheless, it has become a staple of presidential campaign platforms and so it is necessary to talk about education, sadly, from a political point of view.

In 2008, then Senator Barack Obama made a speech at a school in Colorado. He was, I suppose, in part laying out his agenda for how to ‘fix’ education. He spoke that day about No Child Left Behind which he simultaneously praised and condemned. Condemned might be too harsh a word, but since he was in large part appealing to his constituency, it is apropos. And then he hit the nail on the head: “We don't have to accept an America where we do nothing about six million students who are reading below their grade level.” That was probably a political dig, but I agree even if I disagree that we were ‘doing nothing about’ it. I think if we ask any teacher, they would disagree that ‘we’ were doing nothing about it.

Whatever else we might say about teachers, students, parents, politicians, or custodians, this is a problem: children cannot read.  As an educator, I am only too well aware of the struggles our children have when it comes to reading. Being a newer educator, I’m not exactly certain yet where or what that disconnect is, but there are reading issues prevailing in our classrooms.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of reading programs available and there are thousands of well-educated, dedicated, passionate teachers using them to help children read. I know that the teachers I work with would balk at the idea that they are doing ‘nothing about it.’

So, if that is true, and I think it is, how can someone start off a blog post, syndicated by Huffington Post, that starts this way: “The education reform movement is failing”? (Vicki Cobb) I’m not sure what education reform movement is being referred to because I thought our president had solved all those problems and had reformed NCLB; I guess I was wrong. People demand teachers be accountable; politicians act; people get frustrated when teachers do what politicians say. There is one disconnect. 

Personally, I do not happen to believe that education needs to be reformed. Maybe people's expectations need reformed. Maybe where we spend our dollars in education needs reformed. Maybe the way we teach each individual student needs to be reformed. At the end of the day there will always be problems until we address some seriously significant issues–simple issues–that will not be solved by merely throwing more money at the problems. We need to reform our mindset about how we adults are behaving when it comes to education. We don't need education reform; we need people reform. 

In part 1 of this 3 part series of posts,  I will begin laying out what I believe will help improve education and might bring about some of the reform that people are evidently clamoring for in the United States. Maybe if we practice some of these things we can help close the achievement gap that exists between the USA and, say, China. At minimum, I would like to see our children become better learners, better readers, and take a life-long joy in learning about this world in which we live.

First, I think we should de-emphasize athletics in schools (which is not to say eliminate). I’m sure this will rankle the hearts and minds parents whose children derive their self-worth from their ability to throw or catch a ball, but I think it is necessary. I do not even think it is enough to have eligibility tied academics. A Notre Dame football was recently suspended from the team for exercising ‘poor academic judgment.’ So of all the football programs that exist in the USA, we hear about one player being suspended for academics? Really? And this is supposed to teach us exactly what? Of all the programs that exist in the USA there is seriously only one athlete having academic issues? Really?

I think athletics are over-emphasized, over-valued, and an overall distraction to academics in our schools. What I mean is this: I’d like to see as much emphasis, enthusiasm, financial support, and volunteerism from parents for academics as there is for athletics. Why not have a booster club for academics? Why not have cheerleaders for ‘nerds’? Why not have book clubs? Writing clubs? Chess clubs? Math clubs? Cross-country reading groups? Academic baseball or golf? We should have art shows and talent shows. We should have drama clubs. 

It seems to me that we have no problem whatsoever raising thousands of dollars for new football stadiums in the USA—at the taxpayers expense!—but we have to beg, borrow and steal when it comes to a new playhouse or library levy (and I’ll have more to say about the arts later in this series). Author Anne Lamott has done significant work when it comes to libraries and I have appreciated reading about her passion for these ‘places of small miracles.’

If we want to help children keep reading, reading more, reading better then we should not have to worry about budget cuts affecting libraries or curriculum or the arts first. The majority of the population can live without school athletics, but you cannot even be an athlete without knowing how to read and think and comprehend.

I’m not opposed to athletics. I am opposed to the infatuation we seem to have with them and the lack of enthusiasm we have for reading or learning. I want to see academic competitions with parents lined up out the door. I want to see more things like Literacy Night that we host at my school a couple of times per year (in contrast to the hundreds of athletic events we host/participate in yearly). Maybe we could have teachers on the radio calling commentary on students while they are taking a test: “I see Johnny is erasing his answer on #3…what’s up with that Bill? Oh, I see…he wanted to add another paragraph and cite some references. Good for Johnny!”

I don’t know. All I’m saying is that maybe a switch of emphasis will help bring about the reform folks are looking for. Maybe it’s not reform of the same tired methods we need, as much as an utter revolution of ideas and emphasis?

One final thought. Why is it if you are an athlete your coach can demand that you spend x amount of hours working out, lifting, running, practicing, watching film (even in the summer!!) and getting your body in shape and building stamina and that if you do not meet x requirement, you don’t play. But if a teacher makes a similar requirement of a reading or math student it is an issue because ‘it might cut down on family time’ or some other such nonsense? Think about all the hours demanded by coaches all in the name of ‘being the best player’, but that backlash teachers receive if the same student has an equal amount of reading to do before the next day. Think about all the evenings and Saturdays parents give up for athletic competition, but how many parents show up to school on test day to cheer on their kids?

You want your student to do better on tests? Well have them read for an equal amount of time that they practice their football or basketball skills.

Reform or revolution? I think by and large we have our priorities way, way out of balance in America.

In part 2 of this post, I will discuss my second practical thought on how to improve education in America: Lessen government involvement. 

I am a special education teacher. I wouldn't have it any other way. I proudly love what I do. 

I recently began the initial steps of my Ohio Teacher Evaluation System procedures by sitting down with my principal and having my pre-observation interview. It was a lot of fun. 

Much of the interview was about the lesson my principal will be observing, but a good deal of it also revolved around my professional development, teaching style, and relationships with colleagues. I was also asked about my philosophy of education–which I interpret as, "What is your relationship with your students?" Here is what I had to say. 

I try to incorporate everything into my lessons. I think my age is one of my assets with my students. I am honest with them [my students] about what they have to face in life and how their education will aid them in future endeavors, and how a lack of it will hinder them. I encourage them to remember that they have something to contribute to this world. I encourage them to break the shackles of helplessness–which parents and otherwise well-meaning people impose upon them. I positively brow-beat [just a wee bit of hyperbole becaues I don't actually, literally brow-beat] them with the idea that they are responsible for themselves and their actions. I also remind them daily that they are loved and cared for. I try to be to them all the things that teachers and others have not been to me. 

In other words, I work very hard to love my students. I work very hard to make certain that they are achieving as much as they can daily. I do not wait for a principal to observe me. I do not wait for my students to take assessments. I do not wait for my yearly evaluation to be put into my hands. I don't wait for value-added data to be published. I take the responsibility of educating my students very seriously. Considering how much time I put in, maybe too seriously. 

What I do is go to my classroom everyday with the idea that I am never going to see my kiddos again and that I have a lot of work to do with them, for them, and on their behalf. I refuse to be lazy in my classroom; I refuse to produce lazy students. Furthermore, I refuse to allow my students to be lazy in my classroom. Just because a student has special needs or are differently-abled does not mean they are exempt from the rigors and challenges of this life. 

I do not want my students to find themselves at some point in life where they can not take care of themselves. In other words, I think about the what-ifs of life each day. I am especially honest with parents about this too. 

Special Education is not about hiding students in a closet and getting them through year to year with the least expenditure of energy possible. It's not, to be sure, even about getting them to pass Alternate Assessment or other tests the state and federal government impose upon them. (It's an obscene amount of pressure put upon students so that my job will be safe.) Special Education is, on the contrary, about helping the students to function in the real world as freely, as fluently, and as and as frequently as possible.

I despise people who take the path of least resistance when it comes to education, even more those who do that in special education. Our students deserve our 100% effort every single minute of the day. Am I really loving my students if I do nothing but perpetuate helplessness? If my students think I am lazy then what will think I expect of them? Or, how can I expect my students to put forth effort when the example I set for them is one of laziness and indifference? 

It may sound mean, but I give my students as little help as possible in the classroom. Sometimes they need my hands; sometimes my feet. But for the most part, the students need my encouragement to do for themselves. This is how I best love my kiddos.

I am a special education teacher. It's a calling I heard late in life so I am only now, at the age of 43, learning the joys of creating curriculum and finding ways to recycle stuff that others think is junk. I love what I do: I get the educate those who have the most powerful and fragile minds all in the same body.

This means I have to be creative and energetic. I have to think as I have never thought before; quickly and while on the move. There is no time for the special education teacher to sit in his chair behind his desk. (Frankly, there's not much time for any teacher to do so, but that's another post entirely.) Worse, now that the so-called Affordable Health Care Act is beginning to affect even schools, teachers are going to be faced with less help from aids, paraprofessionals, and others in the school building. We are going to have to be creative and we are going to have to find ways to use, reuse, and recycle stuff.

So I had an old shoebox. And last year someone gave me a giant bag full of brand-new, empty, unlabeled prescription pill bottles. I knew I could use them for something, but what? Then it came to me about a week and a half ago. Below you will find several pictures of the new creation I have built for ordering numbers and also developing fine and gross motor skills for students with developmental disabilities.

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My first incarnation of this game involved the use of a $6 fishing tackle box from the local Wal Mart. The box is about 1.5 to 2 inches deep and the dividers are easily moved to accomdate different configurations and/or amounts of pill containers.

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I thought the number 24 would be a bit random, so I stopped at the number 20 (you can still use the other four spaces or simply remove the dividers to create a definitive stopping place). This easily fits into the domain: mathematics: operations and algebraic thinking; counting and cardinality (common core/extended standards) in the K-2 grade band.

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The numbers I got at a yard sale a long time ago, the pill bottles were free, and the tackle box cost $6. But I was not entirely satisfied. This version of the task does require some fine-motor skills, believe me it is not as easy as it looks to get those bottles standing straight or putting in more bottles without knocking others over, but I was hopeful to do more with it. So I developed the next version of the task.

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In this version, I have used an old shoe-box as a container for the pill bottles. The next picture gives a better idea:

1375281255524Using my X-acto knife, I carefully cut 20 holes in the lid of the shoe-box–just a little smaller than the diameter of the pill bottles. This intentionally limits the task to twenty numbers. The difference here is that students will have to exert effort in order for the pill bottles to fit into the holes. Furthermore, the shoe-box was deep enough for the pill bottles to fit all the way to the bottom. You can see this in the picture below.

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1375281265759This is a simple task at some levels. And, to be sure, after a while the holes will have to be re-cut in another shoe-box or reinforced in some way or other. Furthermore, after a while the students may well memorize the order of the numbers–GOOD!–and the job/task may become a little dated. Still, we can always use this job for skip counting, filling in the missing number, or we can add new numbers for higher counting. The best part, though, might be that we have done a small part to keep usable resources out of the local landfills.

I have field-tested this task and it works well with students who have an ASD.

PS–one other alternative use for this task is that the lids could be removed and the student could be asked to put into the containers the amount of objects to match the number on top. One could use small objects like paper clips or even Skittles.

My latest post at Reality101 deals with the important issue of Data collection and use. You can read the post by following the link below or by following the Twitter link in the feed to the right. Here is an excerpt:

I love what I do. I love seeing ‘my’ kids, I love when they
pass a spelling test on the first try, I love seeing them make a discovery on
their own, I love when the light clicks on in their mind, and I love when a
student with an ASD looks me in the eye first thing in the morning and says
‘hello!’ What’s more is that every single one of these events is a mine full of
data and evidence that I can use to make important academic and/or behavioral
decisions for the student.

Become One with the Data

Enjoy the post.