(Readers need to read the preceding few posts to follow this thread.)
Technically, I was the teacher. A classroom needs a certified teacher. I was there, just incidentally serving as a one-on-one aide to one of the children who regularly sat in that room. A couple of students had been redeployed to regular classrooms and teachers reported they were very happy out there. I am not surprised. Tantrum-land must feel scary sometimes. Another aide told me how frightened one of the missing students had appeared when he was first moved into that special education classroom. Those two boys can be hell on wheels, and apparently there had been a third boy at that time, a boy who now has been placed in an outside school.
Today the boys were fine. Each boy had his own aide. We separated the boys almost from the outset. The aides knew their jobs and I was impressed. One boy spent the day out of the room, so I can’t comment on that effort. The other boy worked on numbers and letters as he occupied himself. His aide understood that if you told this boy to go left, he would probably go right, and possibly while shrieking. So she offered him choices. Would you like to do this or that? She did not make him stop and focus on one thing. She worked on letters while he studied bugs, for example. She responded to nonverbal cues. She did not demand that he make eye contact. The boy prefers nonverbal cues and he is lucky enough to have a (former) aide who understands his signals. Unfortunately, this aide used to work with him one-on-one, but she is now only being pulled in for emergencies like this Friday.
I worked on letters and numbers with the cognitively-delayed girl I was helping. I changed a couple of diapers. I talked and played. We colored and fed monsters on the IPad. We watched Peppa Pig and talked about getting dressed. We talked about birds. We looked at pictures and talked about what different facial expressions meant. We laughed. We practiced running while holding hands. We went to art and molded clay, making lots of long snakes/sticks to go above and below the bushes/fires I sculpted. I had a great day, but how can you miss with only three kids and three aides on a day when the kids have art?
I think the first part of this post should be about elementary and special education. People sometimes assume that teaching small children must be simple. How hard can it be to teach the alphabet? How hard can it be to teach simple addition? I’d like non-teacher readers to imagine twenty-some six year olds all in a small room. Getting all those kids to sit on their square on the little rug takes awhile. Getting them to stay focused takes longer. Especially at first, while routines are being taught, teaching elementary kids definitely resembles herding cats. Every classroom will be different, too. While certain techniques will work in all rooms, the routine from 2015 may not work in 2016. Each class group will have its own character, its own strengths and challenges.
Special education can up the challenges exponentially. What if Andrew can’t sit? What if Andrew can’t concentrate? What if Andrew can only hear in one ear? What if he never bothers to tell anyone that he did not hear or understand a word from the last five minutes? What if Andrew’s brain does not seem able to produce understandable sounds? Andrew may understand what was said, but be unable to reply. What if Andrew loves to scream? What if Andrew naturally wants to go left when anyone asks him to go right? What if Andrew is trying to make intelligible words but often can’t quite get there — and he does not handle frustration well? What if Andrew takes many, many repetitions to learn a new idea? What if Andrew has bundles of quirks, such as the need to arrange materials in rows and an inability to make eye-contact? At what point do we determine that Andrew has fallen onto the autism spectrum? At what point do we decide he may need special education because of this fact? How much attention deficit is too much attention deficit? Certainly, many kids with problems like those listed above do not need special education. They may need extra help with an aide. They may need time with a speech pathologist, physical therapist or social worker.
Special education placement will always be more of an art than a science. Even when placed in special education, results will vary from district to district. A child with Downs Syndrome will naturally merit placement, although not necessarily a separate classroom. Some districts will mainstream that child, placing him or her in with other students in a regular classroom.
The right teacher in that self-contained, special education classroom will be a crucial component in students’ educational progress. I have known great teachers, teachers who approached each child with love and understanding, working to get that child to achieve as much as possible within whatever limits their disability imposed. These teachers understood that what worked for one child might not work for another child, and tried to find the keys to unlock individual learning.
Dissecting the mess from this week:
I liked the teacher who quit, but I’d say she was not the right long-term substitute for this position. She was trying to do too much whole-group instruction, I believe. When she told all the kids to go to the rug for circle time, she hit major obstacles. Her two screamers did not handle transitions well. When they were engaged, they did not want to be forced to drop their activity. She did not know how to manage those transitions well. She expected students to behave and pay attention.
Yes, learning to follow directions is a useful school and life skill. But we are talking about two early-elementary school children who were in special education in part because they did not possess the following-directions skill. If they had been following directions on command in their elementary classrooms, they would probably never have ended up in this special education classroom to start with, at least not at their young ages. Their knowledge levels had not yet fallen catastrophically behind their peers, not in the first grade. Their behavior was the challenge.
Those boys often could not handle an activity well once the transition to the new activity was accomplished — sometimes because they knew too much, not too little. At least one of those boys reads sight words very well.* He had problems sitting. He had problems listening. He was highly unlikely to sit quietly while other students slowly figured out those words. This boy who could already identify the sight words being taught should have been working on comprehension, not identification of those words.
These kids should mostly not have been taught the same material at the same time. Their individual needs were too different. What makes a great special education teacher? (Or any teacher perhaps.) To put it in a nutshell, I’d say the skill required is recognizing areas of academic need and individual behavioral issues, and working within those parameters to help a child maximize his or her potential. In a class with mixed behavioral and academic issues, children cannot usually be taught as a group, not if some students have already moved far ahead of others academically.
I read the last line and I think, “It’s first grade, dammit. How far behind can you be?” In these times, the answer’s much different than it was twenty years ago. We are teaching reading and math in kindergarten and even preschool. By first grade, a kid can have fallen appreciably behind now.
Eduhonesty: I think I’ll end this post shortly although I have more to blog on this classroom. But I want to focus on one point: This class demanded individualized instruction. One of those two boys had recently lost his one-on-one aide. The school will function better if he gets that aide back. For one thing, when that boy decides to make a run for it — as he did a few times while I was there — someone needs to be readily available to chase him. The teacher obviously can’t be running out of the classroom.
I’d say the biggest problem in the room I observed this week stemmed from a lack of continuity in that classroom, combined with the long-term sub’s sometimes clumsy attempts to gather her kids together for whole-group instruction. She was trying furiously to teach, and I’d add that to the list of difficulties — and as a cautionary note about always believing what the textbooks say. The books will tell us that children in first grade have short attention spans and need to shift from activity to activity so that they don’t lose interest. If transitions are killing any readers out there, though, I’d say that longer, flexible activities might be useful. Partial-group transitions would have helped that sub out. Fewer transitions would have helped her. Scheduling also becomes critical. Put the Hungry Hippo game before lunch, for example, and not before an academic activity that’s a lot less fun than Hungry Hippo.
That fact that the sub has quit creates a new problem. All children, and special education children in particular, benefit from routine. Teacher number three with routine-set number three will be a tough sell to these kids. That teacher will be walking into a classroom that will likely resist her at first, as students try to hold on to the routines they know. The Principal needs a skilled, new teacher fast, but we are deep into February. I’d say her only shot will be a retired teacher willing to take a contract for the remainder of the year. I wish her luck.
*The other boy was out of the classroom so much that I can’t speak to his reading skills, which might be equally good.