Different kids have different needs and different students have different skills and needs. Obvious, right? So why is it that public education tries to fit them all into the same mold? Some teachers may object to the last statement and mention AP, Pre-AP, Resource, and Sheltered classes, depending on the various levels of intelligence and skills. Allow me to explain my thesis more extensively and clearly: Even within the specialized classes, every student has different needs, different backgrounds, and different levels of interest and skills. The ideal teaching method is the one that fits the child’s requirements perfectly, attending to all his individual exigencies. That would include satisfactors (neologism) for Emotion, Intelligence, and Social background.
Peter (not his name) is 15, with nary a stubble on his pinkish cheeks, and yet he is already a genius with computers. Some teachers don’t even bother with tech support, a very slow and inefficient service; they interrupt a class and ask for him, the teen who can fix anything electronic, whether hard- or software. The incredible story is that he was diagnosed with a severe learning disability and belongs, ipso facto, to special education. I suspect a touch of autism also, though his assessment doesn’t mention it. After all, aren’t we all a bit autistic, a word that means “love of self?”
Thank you again for your numerous comments on my last post “A Great Change is Needed”. True, as some of you mentioned quite wisely, this little phrase has been used on various occasions in the past; nothing new under the sun except change, the only constant. But if we stop asking for it, if we stop signalling the faults and vices of the present educational system, if we pretend that everything is just fine and keep our head in the sand, sooner or later the edifice will come tumbling down and hurt our society, our nation. The very foundations of science, of literature, of our culture, of our technology, and, most important, of our democracy, depend in large part on the type of education we provide to our kids, our future doctors, engineers, politicians (gasp!), civic leaders, philosophers and artists, soldiers and citizens in general.
Some experts with Ph.d.’s would prefer the term “Science of Teaching.” There are probably millions of books on the subject, but the art itself of transmitting information and making sure it is applied to new situations, thus proving the correct assimilation of data, is as old as humanity. Consider the son of a hunter/gatherer who fails to learn his father’s teachings and we have a very dead human being. Some remote tribes still send their teens into the wilderness to prove that they have become worthy of becoming hunters and warriors. It is an art, much more than a science. The oft-repeated example of Einstein being an ineffective teacher illustrates the need for more than just academic titles and knowledge.
The article on Homeschooling has provoked a wonderful debate by both sides and I invite you to read the interesting insights given by the mother who chose this option for her child. But now I would like to focus on the school system itself which has become semi-paralyzed by so many restrictions emanated from NCLB (No Child Left Behind) legislation. We spend more time testing and teaching to the test than we do on instruction; teachers are hobbled by rules and regulations, some of them totally unnecessary, and by the fear of being sued by the parents if we “punish” the child excessively, a word that has as many definitions as there are people.
A teacher in my school with 18 years of experience has an interesting technique to “enforce” discipline management in her class. Every incoming student has hand-outs on their desk which they must address immediately. No down time, no idle chitchatting before the lesson actually starts and transgressors of this rule are called to order without delay. I have seen other instructors do things differently and suffer the consequences: They sit down at their desk while students are still incoming or they write instructions on the white board with their back turned to the class. Granted, these are high school youngsters who should know how to behave; but a teacher who is not ready to keep them busy from the get go will see their class fall into chaos with frightening speed, especially if the group exceeds 25 teens. It is always much more difficult to recover discipline than to start right away in an orderly fashion.
- Do not pursue with the terrible scourge him who deserves a slight whip.
- Horace, Satires. I. 3. 119.
The recent news regarding the death of a high school football player due to severe physical punishment for arriving late to practice is added to a long list of students who either died or were injured under insensitive coaches. What constitutes punishment for a student, any student, whether athlete or not, is a topic that has not been studied sufficiently by science. As a comparison, I watched the training of an elite military unit which pushes candidates to the limit of their resistance. Sergeants and instructors were very careful to tell each man to drop out if they felt so weak that they might lose consciousness. These soldiers were not being punished; they were trying to qualify for a few spots in a grueling try-out. There was no shame is giving up; not everybody is able to transcend their physical limits. It is a lesson that some coaches apparently haven’t learned. Some of the injured kids were too proud to admit defeat or to tell their instructor that they couldn’t continue.
One of our most important tasks as a special education teacher in a public school is to prepare and conduct an ARD (Acceptance, Dismissal, and Review) meeting. This is where all the crucial information about the student is discussed, approved, or rejected. The attendees are the parents, usually only the mother can be present, a representative for the district, the classroom teacher for that student, a teacher for the career chosen by the teen, and the folder teacher who prepares and presents the material. The ARD will receive the student in high school, follow his/her progress every year, and meet for the last step, graduation. Few parents really understand and take advantage of that meeting to make sure that their son or daughter is receiving all the benefits of special education, a sort of safety net for disabled children.
Dealing with Parents
It is therefore most important to clearly explain all facets of the program; sometimes parents will make impossible demands, as they fail to understand their child’s academic limitations. They may believe that college is the only option for a student who reads at the fourth grade level. They may ask for difficult classes that guarantee failure for the youngster and that he or she does not have to take. Indeed, in many cases, a special curriculum is established simply because the student cannot successfully follow the regular one. A common exigency by emotional parents of special education students is to give them a different classroom teacher because they simply don’t like the current one. They have also demanded a change in folder teacher (special education), the person charged with following the progress of the student and report regularly to the parents. I have witnessed female colleagues in tears after talking to a parent on the phone; some young special education teachers quit after a few months, unable to handle the enormous stress caused by some students and parents.
Not Just Anybody
It takes a special character to work in special education (pardon the pun), quite different from the teacher who faces a whole classroom of excited teens 5 or 6 times a day. Not only do we act as counselor, surrogate parent, confidant ( the art of keeping adolescent secrets), friend, and school supplies provider, but we also perform as “lawyers” when arguing with a regular teacher who failed to apply the modifications stated in the IEP (Individual Education Plan). As I tell all my new folder students fresh from middle school, “I am your best friend in high school. Come to me or look me up at any time if you have a serious problem.” If I suspect or know about abuse in the home, I am legally bound to report it immediately (I may lose my certificate if I don’t).
My main concern when I receive a special education freshman from middle-school is to guide him/her toward occupational independence. After 4 years of high school, this student must have a clear idea of what path he is going to follow and my job is to make sure he has had all the information at his finger tips in order to decide. There are questionnaires, surveys, assessments, manual practice, pamphlets, state agencies, presentations by colleges and vocational schools, and all kinds of vocational supports in a public high school. Even if we do not offer a particular field, we can “bus” the student to the specialized institution where he will receive a thorough preparation. For example, we offer classes and practices focused on business, on personal care such as cosmetology, cooking for large groups (complete with a trained chef), auto mechanic, air-conditioning technician, woodwork, plumbing, electricity, construction, medical field (nurse, medical assistant), computer design and website construction, and quite a few other areas where the student should be able to find work more or less easily.