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.
The X Factor
We all know or should know that not every student is bound for college and this is particularly true for challenged teens. They all possess however some marketable skill and our job is to discover which area will be more suitable for the young man or woman. I have seen Down Syndrome kids work in supermarkets, bagging the purchases. I have seen students with a very low level of intelligence find a job in a school cafeteria. Most of the special education students however enjoy an average level of intelligence which allows them to follow the vocation of their choice. The X Factor* is going to determine whether they’ll be successful or not, and that is true for all high school teenagers.
Alas! Some special education students, though I prefer to call them challenged students, have been so battered in their K-12 academic career that when they reach high school they have lost the desire to test their limits. Their self-esteem is so low that our main goal as special education teachers is to rebuild their confidence, a difficult task indeed. They usually erect an inner wall for self-protection; it may be aggressiveness, sullen withdrawal, I don’t care attitude, what’s-the-point, nobody-cares-about-me, don’t-bother-me, or even a twisted sense of humor during the class to make their peers laugh. They crave attention, they desperately want to be one-of-them, i.e. non-disabled peers, but their ability to trust others has been severely blunted. They become, in short, greatly at-risk students. Some will drop out; some will fall prey to unscrupulous peers who lead them to criminal activities; some teen girls will become mothers before they can care adequately for their children.
As usual, the cooperation with parents is extremely important; some mothers become grandmothers against their will but they offer a safe haven for these unwanted and unexpected babies while their teen mother finishes high school. Others simply cannot or will not help. Broken families often make for broken spirits; on the other hand, I have seen mothers come to ARDs with three little kids hanging from their skirts or pants. They struggle to educate and feed their large family and still find time to cooperate with the school. Such stories of courage go unnoticed by the media, which is more interested in scandalous affairs involving sick celebrities. Yet the enormous sacrifice by these single mothers – they could have chosen the easy way through abortion, is not recognized.
The road to independence is indeed arduous for these challenged students; we can make it a little easier as special education teachers but we need more support from the school districts. We spend too much time doing paperwork when we could dedicate it to helping these struggling teens.