To Value and to be Valued

When you have an endorsement in Special Education, schools have some flexibility with what you teach because within Special Education lies a continuum of services that in most cases do not require specialization. This was especially true before the ESEA came to fruition, requiring teachers to be highly qualified in their content area. During my first two years of teaching, my position changed three times as the principal worked to keep me at her school. As a person with no seniority, I was thankful that I didn’t have to move schools.  But changing positions during the school year created some heartache for me.

After the second change, I settled into teaching resource English. My students told me they wanted to learn to read or to read better. Within a single class, reading levels varied from K-11th grade. I created centers to group students by ability and to be able to work with them at their individual levels. My students were excited as we began a program titled, “The Writing Road to Reading.”  My department coordinator told me students were lining up in his classroom, asking to switch to my classes.  Again, I was moved to a new program and I had no control over it. I felt like I abandoned my students, but I didn’t have a choice.  I felt I let them down.

I was moved to a multihandicapped classroom, which was in my own 2 room portable. I had minimal knowledge and no experience of working with students with severe and profound disabilities, but I had a teaching assistant, 3 paras, and a full-time nurse to help me. Thirteen of my fourteen students were under the care of the state, meaning they were institutionalized. Most students had been awarded custody of the state. The remaining student in the class had been adopted. Twelve of the students were able to feed themselves. Ten students were in wheelchairs (the old hospital type of wheelchair, nothing fancy). Only one of my students could communicate although it was a struggle.  The rest very rarely said any words with clarity. When words were clearly spoken, they were out of context—just random words spoken.

Each student had a story, but I wouldn’t be able to learn it due to the severity of their disabilities. I wondered about their families and at what age they were institutionalized. I wondered if they had any memories of their parents.  I was able to learn a little about one of the students, who had previously received services as an SLD student.  In junior high, he was found floating face down in a pool. I have no idea how long he was unconscious, but the brain damage was significant.  He had to relearn how to walk and talk.  His mobility was limited as his muscles and joints were tight. He could not bend his arms much more than at 45 degree angles. His speech was inarticulate and limited, but he was able to communicate his basic needs and comprehended much of what was said.  To imagine that at one time in the recent past he had a home and a family and was now living in an institution tugged at my heart every day.  I wondered if he knew what happened to him, or if he knew anything about his previous life, but I was afraid to ask because I didn’t want to make him feel sad.

I had no idea what I was doing and what I was supposed to do, but what I knew was that my students needed someone to care about them.  I quickly learned that the other adults in my portable had the same belief.  Before long, my portable of 6 adults became a pretty cohesive group.  Our goal every day was to make sure the students were cared for.  They were groomed, fed, changed.  They were dressed in clean clothes. We interacted with them and did our best to provide fun experiences. Most of all, we wanted them to know they were loved.  We hugged them, held their hands, and told them how special they were every day.  We knew they understood because when their bus pulled up each morning, we would see them go from slouching over in their seats with blank stares on their faces to sitting upright and smiling and clapping.

I couldn’t imagine what their lives were like, living in an institution.  I had made a lot of assumptions, but I had no real idea.  I heard stories from my paras who heard from some of the employees, but could not tell how much of what I heard was true.  I knew that they were rarely exercised or taken out of their wheelchairs.  Their muscles had atrophied and were stiff.  One girl’s legs were stuck with her knees bent at a 90 degree angle. The doctors at the institution surgically released the tendons behind her knee to allow her a little more flexibility.  We worked with her to teach her how to push her own wheelchair. She was eventually able to move herself a couple of inches, and the beaming smile on her face would make you think she had just moved an entire mile.

I worked with a wonderful physical therapist who also volunteered with the local Special Needs Rodeo.  With my permission, and much to the chagrin of the nurse in my program, she brought a horse to school.  One by one, we placed each student on the horse and walked them around the field.  I sat on the horse with some of them.  With others, I simply held onto them and onto the horse. They were elated.  We imagined this was probably one of the best days of their lives, if not THE best.

My heart is what guided my journey that year. I did nothing special. I simply let students know that I genuinely cared for them and for their well-being.  I am thankful that I had a wonderful staff with the same philosophy.  My director wanted to use my program as a pilot for the district. I loved learning better ways to meet the needs of my students.  I was fascinated to learn about neurodevelopmental feeding techniques. But the challenges of an inner city school were too much for me, a teacher with just one year experience and with so much to learn.

As I reflect on this experience, I have mixed emotions.  I had a purpose and a mission in that position. When many of my colleagues repeatedly said, “I could never do that,” I never questioned whether or not I COULD do it, but knew I NEEDED to do it. My students had been rejected by their families and ignored by society.  I imagine they died in that same institution and probably lived relatively short lives.  While I was content in knowing that for several brief months my staff and I were able to brighten their days, I worried about them each night. Were they cold? Did they eat? Were they lonely? Did anyone talk to them? Did anyone brush their teeth or hair?  Were they bathed?  Did anyone comfort them if they cried? It was an emotionally rewarding yet draining position.

We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us.  We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far. – Ron Edmonds

To connect this post with my overall theme of my blog, I want to bring you back to my second post, Soul Crushing. Does the general public have any idea that this is what some teachers do on a daily basis? I cannot imagine working in that specific position without putting my whole heart in it.  Are we ever able to put a value on that? I believe every parent with a child in public school would like to know that the teacher is putting his or her entire heart into their work, and I believe the majority of teachers do just that. How does our society let teachers know that their work and emotional commitment are valued? I wish I had an answer that makes sense, but I don’t.

I’ll leave you with one question: how much do you value the emotional commitment and investment of teachers in your child’s education?

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