I recently had the pleasure of observing my talented and diligent son, Sean, at his job as a Special Education Teacher for 6th and 7th grade students in Denver, CO. As part of the organization Teach for America, he has been assigned to a new charter school with about 220 mostly Hispanic children from families (>90%) who are living below the poverty level.
All of those outside forces notwithstanding, the situation involves a very familiar school experience for many special students from all across the nation. Sean teaches math in a pullout class of 8, and inclusion classes of 21 to 32 children.
By observing this group of Special Ed kids, the main medical diagnosis that I could ascertain was ADHD, with only a few on the “Spectrum” (ASD). The major challenges that they faced were significant learning difficulties and severely disruptive behaviors. Some of the ESE (Exceptional Student Education) students were on some type of medication, but most were not. As a result, the children, the student body and the staff has had to deal with a great deal of ‘acting out’ behaviors that require attention, time, mitigation and prevention strategies.
In spite of all of these preoccupations, what I found most interesting was the belief and effort that the teachers displayed that they would accomplish their goals and help the students learn skills to become successful adults. I was struck by the amount of time that the teachers spent coordinating their activities so that the more challenged kids moved pretty seamlessly in and out of the typical population.
The staff are all fairly young, enthusiastic and bright young men and women who are obviously dedicated to their profession and their students. They worked as a team and they all appeared to be on the same page about which students required what intervention(s) in order to better their educational experience, rather than simply ‘house’ them until the day was over. The teachers were hard at work in their lounge from very early in the morning until long after the children had gone home. Then, there was the homework – lessons for the next day, calling the parents of the most troubled children and learning strategies to improve their performance.
Later in the day, as I encountered Sean’s colleagues, they were all very interested in my view of how the school was performing. “What do you think about Calvin (a particularly interesting but disruptive 11 year-old), Dr. Udell?” they would ask. “Did you have an interesting experience today?” Well, my main reaction was, “Geez, I really didn’t appreciate all of the difficulties that you guys face.” The experience certainly didn’t fit my recollection of elementary and middle school days in the last century. And, frankly, as part of my medical practice, I spend a great deal of time listening to parents talk about the school’s failure to address their particular child’s needs.
So, what I have learned is this: It can be very instructive if parents of older children take the time to observe what is really going on with your child at school, rather than accept or even complain that, “It’s not enough.” I think that, if you (the parent) could possibly look through a one-way mirror (or camera focused on just YOUR child) you might find it amazing that anything gets done at all. You might witness how much work it takes when even one child is unfocused and disruptive or acts out behaviorally. You might wonder how the teacher is able to re-focus the rest of the class and go on with lessons. It can’t all be put on the schools’ shoulders.
Maybe this isn’t the most popular opinion – and I know that equal access to education includes developmental disorders – but more support, volunteerism, and/or assistance is in order. I’m not accusing diligent parents or minimizing tired or lazy staff, just trying to help level the playing field for my wonderful son and all of the other committed teaching professionals like him.
Teachers need your help, understanding and support.
As an educator myself I can tell you that your experience in CO is not the norm in ESE and inclusion classrooms. Many of the self-contained classrooms become dumping grounds where students sit and wait until their 22 year expiration date arrives. They leave school with little to no real-life experience and even fewer life skills.
General education teachers are often not trained to deal with the DD and gifted student and as a result behaviors become magnified and all students loose valuable instruction time. The only way to ensure that ALL students are achieving academic success in the mainstream inclusive classrooms is through qualified teachers, trained in behavior protocols such as ABA, DIR/Floortime model, TEACCH, etc., administrations willing to allot the proper amount of money to fund technology in the classroom, district administrators making exceptional students a priority, and parents doing their do diligence to get their children the services they need outside of the classroom for them to be successful. If any of these criteria are missing then students who fall on either side of typical will be left behind.