Category Archives: special education

News of my death…

has been greatly exaggerated. I’m feelin’ you, Mark Twain. All my posts lately are about how busy I am, and how that’s what’s keeping me from doing any real writing for you… but there will still be plenty of writing next year, and much of it related to education, too. More on that late-June-ish. And if what brings you here is not the education stuff at all, there’ll be who-knows-what dropped at a dark barker. If all goes exceptionally well, there’ll even be pieces published on real, tree-killing, high-gloss paper.

But yes, it is goodbye to teaching. Or at least, goodbye for now. TMAO says it’s a false promise to leave indicating one’s possible return when that might just be a rationalization or a fantasy or something. But teaching science has been good to me. It’s been full of challenges, adventures – dead lobsters, dead crickets, LEGO robots, homemade musical instruments, and more, and let me meet a few hundred interesting people who are fast on their way to becoming adults.

I ran into one of those young people on the bus the other day. He was in our school, perhaps illegally, in the very first year. Illegally because he was supposed to get services that we couldn’t provide. He was kind-hearted, didn’t read or write all that well, loved science but could be infuriatingly lazy, drove us up the wall, and thrived at the same time. He’s a junior in high school right now, teaching chess to little kids at a camp this summer – he always was a super-star chess player – and was talking about taking the SATs and the Chem Regents and starting college visits pretty soon. He wants to be a chemical engineer. How do I capture what it feels like to sit on a bus next to this young man, talking about his future, thinking back on the three years that I taught him, knowing the long odds for a kid from the South Bronx, a Dominican male with special needs, becoming an engineer, and yet knowing that he is already far along that path and can now see it unfolding in front of him. This kid is going to make it, and I played some role in that, and what’s simultaneously remarkable and reassuring about it all is that among the students who have graduated from my school, he is not an exception (I don’t have any data to back this up, just a few anecdotes and a sense). (The fact that he wants to go into a science-related field is just icing).

But it’s been a hard year, and the eighth hard year in a row, and at a certain point this winter, every cell in my body was telling me it was time for a change, physically, mentally. Time to make space in my life for healthier relationships, for the trazillions of interests that I have besides education, for pursuing writing in a serious way, for slowing down and redirecting my energy, at least for a while. I’m turning 30 next week: I guess that’s part of it. And then I saw an opportunity, and soon there was a job offer, and then I accepted, and then I told my boss, and then I wrote a resignation letter, and here we are. My new team met yesterday for a few hours, and reality got a bit realer, some initial planning was sketched out… well, I really can’t share more than that but be patient!

Still, I wish I could annotate this post in multi-colored post-its and add all the things that I’m leaving out (for now)… thoughts about why teachers stay and why they go, about my own personal reactions to stress and whether the problem is me or the job or the particular version of the job that happens in certain kinds of classrooms and schools in the city, about where I hope life might go next and the ten-thousand things that might come as next steps. I’m leaving, but I’m not going anywhere.

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Filed under blogging, confession, education, midlife crisis, New York, science, special education, teaching

Thought bubbles…

thought bubbles.jpg

The drawings are a bit self-indulgent, I realize. But dude, where else can one indulge one’s own need for something different if not on a blog?

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Travesties

1. Slightly fewer than 20 of our students have IEPs.  We actually possess six IEPs.  It’s December.  What’s sadder, says our amazing special ed teacher, is that when she says this to people expecting them to be shocked, they’re like, Yeah.

2. At least two of the students in our CTT class are not in the correct setting according to the specifications of their IEPs, so… what to do?  CTT is an overly restrictive setting for each of them.  For one, it actually seems like a move to a less-restrictive setting would be problematic, while the other would fit in quite well in any of our classes with SETSS support.

3. At least one of our special ed students has an IEP that has not had an annual review in over three years.  Three years, people… annual review.  Then again, this is what the district’s computer file says, but who knows what her real IEP looks like, because damned if anyone can find it and give it to us.

4. There are no service providers for our students who require services (speech, counseling, etc.).  Practically everyone who should be working at the school downstairs – and therefore with us, as well – has left.  That is, the psychiatrists, speech teachers, everyone.  Shortage area, no joke.  And it crossed my mind, because I know the kids, and I know they need the services they are entitled to, and I know that when they don’t get those services, it affects the rest of their lives, and I know that it also affects my immediate classroom life when they don’t get what they need… thinking about all this, it occurred to me to wonder what it would take to attract good people who could teach and provide services to our students with special needs.  Would it take another $20,000 above their current salaries?  Port Jeff came up in conversation, a teacher from that town observing that sometimes classrooms there have 20 kids and 3 or 4 adults in the room working with them in different capacities.  How would you attract those teachers and paras to come work in the city?  “There isn’t anyone to do it” is not an acceptable answer.

5. District 75 is full.  This means nothing to you if you work outside NYC, but when someone from our PSO (which also means nothing to you if you work outside NYC) said it today in our meeting, no one questioned it.  One colleague suggested that would be the title of his campy indie short film when he gets around to making one, a la Escape from New York, District 75 is Full!  Maybe you had to be there.  Maybe you think this is the funniest thing you’ve ever heard.  Maybe we just think it’s funny because the alternative to laughter is to get really sad and really angry.

6. We just want to do a good job.  The classroom bit is hard enough, the learned helplessness, the fits of over-reaction, the occasional bouts of semi-chaos, the frustration of finding all the kids way behind where they need to be and that class even farther behind, the feeling of banging your head against the wall when the kids who need you most are absent day after day until they lose the habit of school altogether, the newfound compassion mixed with a little helplessness of your own when you realize the reason that angry kid is so angry is because his dad is in prison for something really, really bad that was all over the news… yeah, the classroom bit is hard, but you signed up for that, all in a day’s work, etc.  You want to do a good job, and sometimes it feels like no matter how hard you work, no matter how hard you bang on the doors of the people who are supposed to solve these problems, the system is so effed up you’ll at best make a whisper, no more than a whisper in Grand Central on a holiday weekend.  One hand clapping.  No one around to hear.

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The things that can break your heart…

like finding out that one of your students who receives services for an attention disorder, and is kind of disruptive but really good-hearted, has a chronic illness that causes him/her great pain and from which s/he is expected to die… that in fact, s/he has already lived far, far longer than expected.  I haven’t cried at school in a long time, and I didn’t cry, not really, because it was parent-teacher conferences and I couldn’t look like I’d been sobbing my eyes out – but tears came to my eyes.

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Short term problems with long term solutions…

As promised, I kept my sixth graders – all of them – in for recess today, as a consequence of their bad behavior on Friday.  I basically lined them up in the cafeteria – we couldn’t go outside due to wet weather – in the same way they line up to come upstairs each day.  I lectured them on WHY I need their cooperation – long-term benefits of making the most out of every minute of their education – and then, when even I was tired of the lecture (and having trouble keeping my train of thought), we practiced responding to signals, like counting down from five or a raised hand (I don’t like this one as it is so similar to a Nazi salute, but it seems ubiquitous in schools and our teachers use one, the other, or both).  It was artificial.  They did pretty well, but you’d better do well when the stakes are more days of lunch detention and you know that within the next minute or so, the signal for quiet will be given and you will be judged on your response… like I said, artificial.  But I really believe in (a) making expectations crystal clear, and (b) if we’re gonna talk the talk of “teaching them to act the way we want” then we have to walk the walk and practice the individual skills like we would an academic subject.  Will it make a difference?  We’ll see… I’m not naive enough to expect a rapid turn-around but… maybe a little improvement?

My CTT class was AWFUL, though, later in the afternoon.   I mean awful like, if-this-is-how-the-rest-of-the-year-is-going-to-be-I-want-to-jump-out-a-window AWFUL.  Loud, unpleasant, cursing, insulting each other, unfocused, unproductive, unresponsive, copying each other’s homework, the whole shebang.  I’m not the most positive teacher on earth but I try to find behaviors to praise, and at least to phrase my negativity in a productive, corrective way, but they evaporate my pool of patience so quickly!  I took the time to have quiet conversations with THREE students in the first few minutes of class, about their behavior upon entering the room, but no sooner did I move on to something else than those students continued their disruptive behavior.  One student started fussing about needing 10 seconds of quiet – and all I could do was acknowledge that I, too, wanted that more than anything on earth, because nothing, nothing could get done as it was.

Meanwhile, in grown-up land, the paper wars have begun again.  By this I mean the limiting of copy paper along with statements about how we’re using too much.  But what I see are teachers arriving 40 minutes early to school to have enough time to prep for their classes, finding themselves stymied by the lack of paper, and becoming increasingly demoralized.  I really think a start would be to assess what is being copied and why and decide together on some reasonable guidelines based on what people actually need rather than a “look how fast that box disappeared” reaction.  If limitations are really necessary because of lack of money, fine, but include us, take a problem-solving approach rather than a punishing approach.  In the meantime, I’ve tried to handle it by advocating on behalf of the other teachers and myself,  with some success although I suspect the issue will rear its head again.  And my plan for getting work done today was totally undermined by the forty minutes of my prep spent copying something that I planned to do during the forty minutes I had available before school.  *sigh*

Sometimes it feels like I just keep running head-on at a brick wall.  No, scratch that, make it a CONCRETE wall.  Bricks would probably have fallen by now.  Still, I know this post sounds really negative, but I still have a “let’s fix this” attitude when I’m not ranting on my blog.  It’s just that the fixes take time, and we’re struggling now

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And a word about progress reports…

it is mind-bogglingly difficult to keep up with all the change going on in NYC this year, on top of having been away last year.  When I reported a few weeks ago that my school got an A on our progress report, it did occur to me to wonder why no one else seemed to know anything about these progress reports.  I just assumed it was one more thing my school was piloting or maybe that other principals had not chosen to share the information with their staffs.  Turns out there was a media-gag on the whole thing (I’m pretty sure no one did anything wrong – my principal was allowed to tell her staff, and I had no idea the results weren’t yet public when I posted about it).

Here are some thoughts about the report cards:

1. Vis-a-vis all the criticism that small schools and others that screen or select their students should not be compared with the schools who have to take all applicants, the school report cards compare schools to a “peer group” of schools considered to have a similar population of students entering their school.  While this can still feel unfair – when a school like mine with kids coming from a background of poverty and instability is compared to a school with kids coming from more stable, middle-class homes – it certainly feels more fair than comparing us to the schools around us in the neighborhood, given that our kids do come in better prepared in terms of test scores and academics.  Similarly, the progress reports reward schools with greater numbers of ELL and special needs students (and other categories?  I forget), which seems fair.  These students add complexity to the work a school must do, and it’s a good push to the new, small schools to expand the services we provide.  To me, it’s kind of a “Think you’re so great?  Put your money where your mouth is!” thing.  The truly good educators and schools will rise to the occasion.  Witness this quote from the NY Times:

Gregory Hodge, principal of Frederick Douglass Academy, a school in Harlem with students in 6th through 12th grades and a stellar reputation, said he was shocked that his school was compared with those with white middle-class populations. But Dr. Hodge said he was pleased with his school’s grade.

“We’re moved into a much more competitive group of schools, and it’s going to force a school like Frederick Douglass to work a little bit harder to keep up,” he said.

2. I like the growth model approach rather than flat scores.  I like that it includes more than just test scores.  But keep reading.

3. The statistics are HARD.  I like numbers.  I think numbers can tell us certain things and can, at the very least, prompt us to ask questions that we might otherwise not ask.  Like, if your school’s scores dropped when everyone else’s rose, why did that happen?  Or, why is this one group of kids underperforming at your school compared to everyone else?  Or, why did parents report dissatisfaction with X, Y, or Z on the school environment survey?  Sometimes these questions might spur positive change.

But dear god.  The statistics on these progress reports raised questions on the level of comprehension.  Is there a ceiling effect taken into account in the growth model?  What does this mean?  What does that mean?  I looked at it a few weeks ago and don’t remember all the questions I had any more (and was out sick for the staff meeting at which we discussed it in more detail).  But one thing that sticks out in my head is that there is supposedly a computer program designed to help schools analyze their results to determine which actions are likely to achieve the greatest improvements in the data.  (The idea is to prevent situations where principals throw a ton of resources at a problem identified in the school environment survey, improve that result, but find out later that because of the weighting it made very little difference in the overall school report).  So you need a program to help you analyze the analysis?  That seems like a waste of resources to me.  Find a way to report data so that it is clear and comprehensible and paints a picture of what needs to change.  Otherwise, it’s just more numbers.

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Just say no…

It’s becoming increasingly clear that some of the very troublesome, highly-disruptive behaviors exhibited by one of my students are largely (though perhaps not completely) under the student’s control. The loss of fine motor coordination that seems to be “switched on” when the students wants to show you that s/he can’t do the work, the verbal tics that disappear during a group presentation but reappear like clockwork when the student is held accountable for almost anything, the stream of interjections and flailing limbs that occurs just at the moment when you are talking to the mom about the child and which the child admits are attempts to distract you from saying anything bad. The yearly evaluations that turn up nothing consequential. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that at no point in this child’s life has anyone set any consistent boundaries regarding asking for and receiving attention. And that teachers have been so afraid of the tantrums that they’ve unwittingly reinforced the manipulative behavior pattern. So the question now is, are we all strong enough to break the pattern? Can we withstand the inevitable push-back that will come when we put our collective feet down and refuse to reward negative, disruptive behaviors with a lowering of standards or increased attention? Can a mom change her mothering patterns when this will more than likely mean absolute hell from her child for several weeks (or longer)? We must. She must.

*****

Then there’s a child who looked like s/he would burst into tears if you even thought of calling on him/her to answer a question, who, only 8 weeks into the school year has begun to volunteer, who stood up during a group presentation and not only said his/her piece but spontaneously filled the gap when an older, generally talkative and outgoing kid refused to say a word. Two teachers’ mouths nearly dropped open.

I’m finding my students with special needs to be my greatest but most rewarding challenge.

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