Dear Special-Needs Students.

I saw this video on a friend’s Facebook page earlier this week, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think these kids deserve an honest response.

I’ll start by saying that I have a Masters degree in teaching, had a teaching license (it’s expired now), and was really, really excited about being a teacher. And then I met kids like the ones in this video. And I just couldn’t do it. It’s not them, it’s that there’s no infrastructure to *actually* help them. Yes, there are IEPs and 504s and all kinds of regulations. Paperwork is not the same as *actual* help. I’m glad these regulations exist but they are not enough.

But onto the kids, and addressing their really valid concerns, fears, anxieties, hopes. If any of you had been in my classroom during the very brief time I was a classroom teacher, this is what I would have told you:

1.) Your brain is different. Mine is too. You have no idea how much I want to be your teacher, your advocate, your #1 fan.

2.) You don’t have to look at me when I talk to you but I do need to check in with you occasionally to make sure you are processing the information accurately and to see what else you might need to understand.

3.) I know you have to move. I do, too. One of the “small things” that appealed to me about making a career as a teacher is that I would have a job where I could stand and/or move all day. It was really hard for me to focus and do good work while sitting down in a cubicle every day. I am an adult with ADD; I really understand. Whether you are a kinesthetic learner or just need to move to be able to concentrate, I want you to be able to move.

But, as a classroom teacher, I can’t let you. I’d love for you to be allowed to pace back and forth at the back of the classroom, or stand, or have a desk that has a bicycle under it but my principal insisted on uniformity, on everyone doing the same thing and looking the same.

I didn’t realize it when I was your age but school is A LOT about teaching everyone how to conform, fit in, and follow “the rules.” “The rules” mean that everyone has to be be seated in their desks. The rules are stupid. I know we aren’t supposed to throw around “stupid” so casually, I’m sure you’ve been taught about its power. The rules are stupid. One reason I couldn’t make a career as a teacher is that I couldn’t deal with enforcing stupid rules that didn’t actually help anyone learn and in fact, kept some kids (like you, and me) from learning.

4.) I’m never going to tell you to sit up straight. You might not be able to. It might not be comfortable. I’m really not into body policing. BUT, if the school counselor comes by and sees you slouching, you may get called in to see her. There’s a good chance she’ll see it as depression or disinterest.

5.) I’m not going to tell you to “try harder” but I am going to push you. You can go just as far as everyone else, even if we need to take a different road. If you aren’t showing me that you understand the lesson, I’m going to try to work with you until you do. I’m not going to say “try harder” but I’m also not going to say “that’s OK, let’s just move on.” I feel like you’ve gotten used to not-getting things while trying your hardest and having teachers accept that you just can’t do it.

6.) I listen better if I rock in a chair, fidget, doodle, etc. too! But if I am being observed, there’s a good chance my observer will notice you doing these things and then tell me that my students are not engaged. I’d like to ignore that feedback but these are my bosses who decide if I get to keep my teaching job.

7.) When I give you a bunch of directions, I always give them to you broken down, step-by-step, on paper. I never expect you to remember a long string of instructions. Other people my age who are not teachers think this means I am “spoon-feeding” you and that you can’t think for yourself. I do this because I know it’s useful but just so you know, other adults judge me for it and think I am not preparing you for “the real world” when I model how to break down a more complex project.

8.) I think it’s terrible that your mom and dad are doing your homework for you. For so many reasons. If your homework is too difficult, or not explained well enough, or you need to start it in school/after-school with me, or you need more time, I need you to tell me. If you are not able to tell me, I need your parents, the responsible adults, to tell me. When they do your homework for you, they are not behaving responsibly.

Irresponsible parental behavior causes both of us a lot of problems. Here’s an example, some of the kids in our class need to take medication to concentrate. Many don’t take it over the summer because summer doesn’t require a lot of concentration. Their parents see their kids succeeding without medication over the summer and think their kids are “cured” and they come back to school un-medicated. And they can’t concentrate, and they get frustrated easily, and they struggle for no good reason. Kids in our classroom struggle because their parents want them to be “fixed” or “normal” – you and I both know that there’s nothing wrong with having a different brain but not everyone feels that way.

Parents also make excuses for you sometimes to keep you from experiencing consequences, dealing with feelings of disappointment, learning how to get through those feelings and get back up again – how to be resilient.
I think resiliency is one of the most important things people can learn, especially people like us with different brains. I want to give you a safe space to fail, and learn how to get back up from it but not everyone is so keen on the first part of that lesson.

Last, I also want to be clear that even though you may not be able to do every assignment in the exact same way as everyone else, I have no intention of “dumbing down” the lesson for you. I am going to hold you to the same standards as all the other kids; I want you to finish our year together understanding all of the key information for the year. I don’t care if you need more time, more attention, different ways to do the work but I do want to make sure you can achieve the objectives for your grade level.

——————————————————————————————————————-

But beyond responding to each of your individual concerns, here’s the real problem. Classroom teachers aren’t required to have ANY training on how to modify an assignment for different brains. Most of us are really flexible because our goal is to help everyone learn. Sometimes, we look to other teachers for ideas, some of us are lucky enough to have good special ed teachers who can advise on how to modify assignments, but some of us don’t. Some of us don’t know how to modify a homework assignment to make it more likely that you’ll be able to do it and learn the concept.

There are lots of things I do when it comes to “do no harm” to your learning. I am careful not to ridicule any of you, ever. I try my best not to call on anyone or put anyone on the spot. I try to put you in groups that are as diverse as possible with an emphasis on mixing different strengths and I try to write assignments that require different kinds of strengths. When I create assessments, I try to give multiple options to demonstrate that you understood the lesson so you can communicate that understanding to me in a way that makes sense to you.

But here’s what you actually need: more time. Most of you need one-on-one time to give you truly personalized instruction. That’s how you are going to be the most successful. And, I can’t do that. Our classrooms generally have 20-30 students per class. I have to keep an eye on everyone, check in and make sure everyone is understanding as we go. If we are doing group projects, I have to keep an eye on group dynamics to make sure everyone is being treated fairly. How much time do we have between classes when I could pull you aside for an encouraging word, to clarify a concept or assignment, to give you extra instruction? 3 minutes? Maybe? In many schools, due to winnowing the school day down to the bare essentials, there are no study periods – no lengths of time where I could work with you, during school. I could help you after school except that the bus leaves 10 minutes after last bell and for some of you, that’s your only way home. I could help you and give you a ride home myself but that would never be allowed these days.

I’ve met with your parents to talk about things they could do to support your learning: having a predictable routine/schedule, consistency of rewards/consequences, making sure you are not over-booked with after-school activities and have brain downtime, sitting with you while you work. Some of your parents do this stuff. Other parents take my suggestions as an attack on whether or not they are good parents. A lot of what you learn about how to learn will come from them and I have so little control over it.

When I was in school, I had all of these non-academic classes: wood shop, home economics, art, chorus, gym, orchestra. I could switch from different kinds of learning and take a break from using certain parts of my brains. Sometimes, when I watch you move from class to class, I feel like you’re on an assembly line and there’s nothing I can do.

That helpless feeling is why I quit teaching. I was perpetually caught between doing right by you and appeasing my bosses (the principal, vice-principal, your parents) and too often had to to more appeasing than helping. Like you, I was asked to do useless and detrimental tasks. You were told to “sit up straight” and I was told “absolutely every kid MUST be reciting the pledge of allegiance.” How can I teach you about freedom, autonomy, and democracy, how to advocate for yourself if I am being forced to teach you the importance of following rules above most other lessons?

I guess what I’m saying is that yes, there are some jerky teachers out there who treat you poorly because you are different. I want to validate and respect you on that. At the same time, a good many of your teachers are on your side and want to help you but we are actively blocked from helping you on multiple fronts. For the most part, activism from the parents of special-needs kids got us this far – to regulations and laws to protect your rights. I think we need a second wave of activism to make good on those promises – to get you more one-on-one time, more in-class resources, a longer school day to make time for more movement breaks throughout the school day, a greater variety of subjects you can learn, less standardized testing, and above all — policy that originates from teachers and parents and students rather than politicians and corporations and administrators. You deserve it.

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