The Battles for the Teachers’ Souls

December 19, 2018

This is a difficult subject to write about. It opens never entirely healed wounds. It is also  complicated.  At the same time, it is both painfully sharp and confusingly foggy. There are hundreds e-mails, which I still keep, demonstrating how desperately I tried to deal with those never-ending problems  but kept failing. Finally I gave up.  Many parents burn all the documents related to the struggles for education of their children with special needs.  They want to move forward. This doesn’t help the children who come after. New parents have to go through the same battles and the same pains. That is why, almost 5 years after Robert “graduated” from Mytown Public Schools, I do feel obligated to write about some of the past experiences.  But because it is a difficult subject, I will write in short paragraphs which might seem loosely connected to each other.

1. Teacher and Teacher Aid

One of the reasons I took my son from a good private school for children with autism was the fact that he was  only taught in one to one arrangement. I wanted Robert to be a part of the group and listen to group instructions. So, what was my surprise when during observation of Robert in his new public school setting I noticed that he was separated from other children in the classroom and taught by the teacher aide in one to one model.  It was worse than what he had experienced in private school as he could see first hand that he was the only one not included. I voiced my concerns with the classroom main teacher and soon enough everything changed.  From that point on, all throughout the day, Robert was learning in one of the  few groups of children formed depending on the subject, the theme of the lesson, and  student’s skills and needs. I believe that this teacher was also using elements of Universal Design. The teacher’s aid became more important and his job more diverse but also more gratifying. That was the best year in Robert’s education.

2. How to Destroy a New Teacher

The wonderful teacher, I wrote about above, was  fired by the end of her first year in the school.  I don’t know what was the rationale of the school principal but I do believe that he didn’t know much about special needs and complexities of running as diverse classroom as was this one.  Instead, the principal hired a young teacher.  He based his choice on what he believed were her “qualifications” of which the most important one was that she had a brother with autism.  Moreover, she worked as a teacher’s aide in another district and before that she worked in a private school. Still, that was her first year of leading a classroom. It would help her if she were required to write lessons plans for, at least, a few hours a week.  It would help if she were supervised and instructed properly. It would help if she had a mentor who would be familiar with the range of needs the students had. It would help if  she were open to listening to their experiences of the teacher’s aides who worked in the classroom before.  Unfortunately, the principal never entertained any notion that this teacher might need intensive support.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Each month,  Robert became more anxious and agitated  – the consequences of his increased confusion.  Robert lost the classroom in which he new the rules. There is nothing Robert hates more than  contradictory directions. So, almost every week I was summoned to school, to pick up my bewildered son at the front door to which he was escorted by two people. One day he was brought home on a school van an hour before scheduled time without any prior notification. It was lucky that I was home. The day, I picked him up while he was hitting his own face with the full force of his two arms  I decided never to bring Robert to that program again. I believed that this  teacher’s abilities were destroyed beyond repair and thus my son who had been already seriously damaged would continue the spiral to abyss.

3. Hindering the Teacher’s Growth

It was his first year of leading a classroom.

He had the best possible personality to work with young people with special needs. He was warm, patient and calm. There is no doubt on my mind, that it was he, who let my son recover from distrust, confusion, and anger.  The consultant who had seen my son in his previous program and this one, attested to that. It was just a second week but Robert, according to the consultant, was much calmer than he was in the previous classroom.  “He was relaxed,” she said.

Unfortunately there were also problems. The classroom, although at first considered part of the high school, was situated  in the administrative building. Consequently, the TEACHER didn’t have any support from other teachers. And thus he relied heavily on a job coach/teacher’s aide working in this classroom. His reliance on her was amplified  by the fact  that this person was also a Gray Eminence as she was a secretary for the School Committee.

Moreover, she was very invested in this particular program because her daughter was attending it. As every mother, she wanted to make the program fit her daughter’ needs perfectly.  She had every right to do it, but somehow, her concept of that classroom didn’t involve group teaching. As she told me much later, in a heated phone conversation, “This program was for the students over 18 years old as a sort of waiting room from which students were bused to different places”.  Those different places might be a course in college, (provided that other institution and NOT Mytown Public Schools paid for it)  be it a place the students volunteered. As the woman stated, this program  could offer some job training, but no academics. Students were not to be told what to do and they could freely accept or reject what the teacher suggested.

As it happens, all of them rejected the idea of having gym with Robert. So it was Robert’s teacher’s aide and the gym teacher who exercised or played ball with him. Nobody else. This broke my heart and I blamed the teacher for it. He was in charge.  In my opinion he was there to install in the students that they do have some obligations toward others. That there are rules of the classroom.  He had a power to persuade them or convince them to play a ball for 30 minutes a week .  But he didn’t.  He didn’t because he had the gray eminence of Mytown Public Schools who told him that this is not, “HOW THIS PROGRAM WAS DESIGNED”  And thus Robert was  again lonely if not shunned by other students with special needs.

IN a letter to the School Board I stated that The School committee has a right to design program as it wishes, but the Mytown Public Schools cannot place my son in a program that is so horribly incompatible with his IEP.  Of course, it had to be said, that the most members of the School Committee had a very limited idea about IDEA or the state laws governing special education.  It is possible that they look at special education through the eyes of the former principle of High School or the secretary of the School Committee.

As I am writing this, I am still angry, as I see how much money was wasted on a program that didn’t accept my son and how many chances for learning social skills were lost. I am angry about the time and energy I spent trying to persuade the TEACHER, the special education director, the superintendent, and the members of the School committee to TEACH MY SON.  I wrote hundreds of e-mails persuading, begging, filling for mediation, and then for hearing,.  At some point I knew I just had to preserve my sanity and give up.

Even now, when I remember some of the things that happened,my blood boils and I have to take a break.

I don’t know how, but this TEACHER by the end of the January of the following school year, changed dramatically.   He began planning his lessons and he connected them with the real life experiences from community trips. He organized more opportunities for job trainings for the students. And he did so much more about having Robert accepted. He always had a very good, calm personality to work with special needs population but now he became a great teacher. He became the TEACHER,   I always wanted my son to have.

And then he quit.

Possibly, he couldn’t take the pressures coming from Gray Eminence and me.  He quit.

It is possible that I am the person who was blamed for his decision. I wanted the classroom to teach my son despite the fact that it was considered a waiting room for adulthood.  I wanted to make the way my son was taught to be also beneficial to other students.  I was the one voicing concerns, by bringing educational consultants to the classroom and offering new educational materials.

The Grey Eminence, was soft-spoken and only once she lost her cool when I asked her “Why she doesn’t want this classroom to teach its students”  It was clear that the anger about my effort to change the program was boiling and she exploded. That was when she told me that the program was a place where the teacher’s activities were, more or less,  reduced to janitorial supervision of students.  It was also implied that it was not the program, that was designed to answer my son’s need. No, she didn’t say, my son should go somewhere else. But she implied that.

Yes, I regret terribly that this TEACHER left, but I do not feel guilty.  I do think that it was The Grey Eminence who was impeding his teaching. Yes, I was loud, she was soft-spoken.  I was trying with the help of consultants bring changes to the classroom while she peacefully and pleasantly tried to keep the status quo. Yes, it was I who introduced criticism hardly hiding my disappointment which might come out as anger while she was spraying the balsam of contentment over  the classroom. .

At some point, the special ed director accused me of “hating the TEACHER”.  I told her, that nothing was farther from truth. He did save my son after hiatus of the previous 6 months in an old classroom. He did save him. I have never stopped being grateful for that. I liked his calming personality, but I did believe that given his appeal to the students, he could do so much more and I was bewildered why he was not trying.   Then I learned about the politics of the classroom.  The politics of opening a program by Mytown Public School and not giving almost any money for teaching materials.  It was the politics of the School Committee which had to separate students whose differences in ages were over 4 years as the law demanded after the expiration of the grace period given a few years before by the state.  The classroom had to be created and so The Mytown Public schools built it in such a way as to limit any expense  and by doing so it hindered education of almost all students placed there  including the Grey Eminence daughter.

I understood later how hard it would be for any teacher to open his/her wings and soar in those circumstances.  But he did.  For 5 months but he did.   I hope he is not discouraged from teaching.  I hope somewhere some other young people benefit from his skills, from his calm and patient attitudes and, most of all, from the strength and determination he showed when he regained the control of his teaching profession.

I have to add.  I don’t blame The Grey Eminence.  She fought for what she considered to be the best solution for her daughter just like I fought for my son. It is not her fault that she was given a power to influence the way, the program was designed. She might not even be aware of her prominent status. But I do blame members of the School Committee and the former superintendent of the Public Schools in Mytown. They allowed for this imbalance to the detriment of my son’s education.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Confusing Pains of Changing Habits

December 1, 2018

A few times during the last week, I told  Robert that we would move his horseback riding lesson from Sunday to Friday.  He accepted that change in a schedule without protests. However, nobody made Robert aware that during a lesson, he would have to use a blue helmet instead of a purple one. That was the last-minute switch and he was not ready for it.  As soon as the instructor told him to put on a new, blue helmet, he protested.  When, he was told that the purple one is not there anymore, he ran to the riding arena and came back with the  purple helmet already on his head.

This was one of those moments when I don’t know how to react.  Insist?  But insisting might result in failure to accomplish acceptable response.  Of course, when insisting doesn’t work, I can reduce the feeling of complete lack of influence over Robert’s behavior  by asking Robert a question. For instance, “Robert, do you really want to wear the purple helmet? Start with I, and tell me which helmet do you want to wear.” Then I should wait for an answer. Since the most severe of Robert’s problem is his very limited functional language, having Robert to respond in a full sentence could be treated as a valuable consolation prize. It could give Robert one more example of using language instead of non verbal behavior  and reduce his anxiety related to the fact that he did something other people consider wrong.  Because, even when he “wins” the battle” and continues wearing purple helmet, he is not happy, he is anxious and doubtful and he doesn’t know how to solve his dilemma.

This is what I should have done, but didn’t. In a public place, my responses are almost always tainted by the presence of other people.  I understand that each person brings to the conflict Robert has been causing, a different perspective. I feel obligated to take those perspective into account, even though, I don’t exactly understand them. Moreover, Robert usually gives the person who is in control of the physical place and who is his teacher preference over me.  Finally , there is a confusion I feel because on one hand I feel obligated to address Robert’s problem myself, on the other, I  prefer others to address Robert directly.  The effect is more doubts and hesitation on my part and more confusion on Robert;s part.

And confusion he hates.

That Friday, Robert’s instructor agreed that Robert could wear the purple helmet. She just made sure that Robert knew that the next time the blue helmet is obligatory.

Robert was fine with that. Well, for 10 seconds.

As soon as he felt that the pressure to wear blue helmet subsided, Robert discovered the freedom to do what was right.  Such freedom is a very difficult thing to deal with specially if you are used to always do what you are told  or by what you have done many times in the past.  When other people words or the past behaviors shape your reactions, then taking it upon yourself to make decision seems overwhelming.  And Robert was overwhelmed.  He moved closer to the shelf with the blue helmet, then away from it toward the riding arena. He didn’t know yet, what to do.  It took him a few more minutes to decide and many more trips between his horse and the shelf. He suffered, he was anxious.  He was confused. he made noises of frustration and patted his cheeks in short and quick motions.  He didn’t know what to do. He wanted to do what was right, what his instructor Meghan told him before, but that would mean he needed to change his habits.  The habits which suited him well for the last few months. After a few minutes, Rober was almost ready to mount his horse, Calvin, when he turned back and ran to the shelf.  He took off the purple helmet and put on the blue one.

He was still not sure that was the right decision, but as Calvin walked out of the arena to the the woody path by the edge of the lake, Robert’s doubts disappeared. He was fine.