When Juanito came to me for his first meeting with his special education teacher, I asked him immediately what his plans were after high school, a transition task mandated by the federal government and the district. He immediately answered “Border Patrol” and I could see how excited he was about the prospect of protecting the border. His eyes shone as he pictured himself wearing a smart uniform and carrying a gun on his hip. I had seen such illusions many times before and the resulting ugly conundrum.
The main problem with Juanito is his low level of intelligence and severe learning disabilities in every area. He can sustain a regular conversation in which he understands, or so it appears, 80% of the subject matter. He can even write half a page with legible handwriting and a few grammatical errors which do not affect the understanding of his effort. He belongs to a large population of individuals, how many is difficult to state without extensive research, who apparently can function well in society, albeit with limited resources.
How can a special education teacher communicate the stark message without hurting the self-esteem and confidence of a teen who will never qualify for the Border Patrol? Some colleagues suggest not telling them the truth, letting them discover the futility of their efforts once they attempt to pass the test. Other special education teachers prefer the indirect approach, as I do, by guiding them toward an activity that they can handle, for example a manual skill like carpentry or mechanics. But the next obstacle appears sometimes when the parents want to know why their son or daughter is not preparing for college. A few will accept the facts, knowing that the teen should pursue achievable goals and not illusions; others, the majority, insist that the kids’ bubble should not be broken, even if that means that one day they will hit a wall.
Making a difference as a teacher has never been more important than when the time comes to get ready for the “real” world. I have already written about the extreme importance of vocational schools, as demonstrated by the Germans. We fortunately have a wide array of choices in our urban area of such establishments. Every year, their representatives visit our high schools to try and convince our kids that they hold the key to a rich life. The main problem is trying to persuade families that there is no shame in becoming an air-conditioning technician, a plumber, or a carpenter. These guys usually make more money than many college graduates.
I finally convinced Juanito that his most promising future is in carpentry, as he has demonstrated excellent manual skills. I just hope that his parents will respect his wish and not try to force him into a failed college bid. Of course, there is still a long way to go for him to reach this goal, simply because there are many other skills that must flourish before he can hold a job. But I am confident that Juanito has the basic values that will enable him to be successful.