Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reflecting to Begin Again: Life of a Teacher

It is not until the new school comes creeping up that I feel I am really ready to reflect on the previous year. It takes a few nights of good sleep and no stress to put everything in perspective. When you’re teaching, everything is in the moment. Danielson may be looking at my lesson plan, but any real teacher knows, it’s all about how you handle everything in your classroom besides the lesson plan. Switching gears to reflecting is always tricky, but so important.

I remember in college, during my teacher prep program, how many times they stressed keeping a teaching journal. Several years in, I still cannot figure out how a teacher finds the time to do that. If I wasn’t actively seeking ways to improve my practice or planning, or researching social services for families, I was trying to get to a yoga class or meet up with friends to keep the work-life balance. I’m always jotting notes on my phone or sticking a post-it with one sentence in a folder, but a whole journal entry? Weekly?! Monthly?! Yikes.

What I have held myself to is writing an end of the year reflection. I finally sit back, take a breath and admire the work my students and team have done over the past 11 and half months. Reflection clears my mind, helps me set my goals for next year and gives me that itch to get back in the classroom and do it all over again, but 10 times better of course.

Since most of my students are non-verbal or have very limited communication, I feel I owe it to them to document all their work for prosperity. When you have the experience of being someone’s last teacher, going back and adding the moments together helps to explain why some kids get a shorter time in this world then others. That’s why its truly special education.

Challenges of Misclassification and Class Size

What makes teaching exciting is that every year you meet a new set of students, even if in a self-contained classroom you keep some students, the combination is never the same from one year to another. The school year prior to this past one was great with a slightly smaller class I felt like the data and organization queen. I was an experienced teacher hitting my stride. I feel best when I am working my hardest and everything starts to gel. Systems are in place, students are following routines and learning, paraprofessionals and therapists are enthusiastic about what they are seeing and becoming a part of it all.

This past year, I ran straight into 12 students who were all over the map in terms of their needs and learning styles. Data went out the window as I spent the fall struggling with classroom management. In special education, where not all learners are on the same cognitive or communicative level, that meant coming up with 12 individual systems. While teaching lessons and writing IEPs, I also had to spend time with each individual finding out what makes them tick and what would motivate them to buy into our classroom. Bonding is the most important part of classroom management, especially with students with significant disabilities. (Dr. Jan van Dijk’s work is so helpful in making connections.)

A big problem for teachers in New York City though is the number of students who are misclassified. So often, a 12:1:4 ratio classroom for children with the most significant, multiple disabilities becomes a catchall. (And yes, NYC(pg 24) puts 12 students who need the most individualized attention in one classroom.) Children who don’t quite fit anywhere else or who were placed there in kindergarten are never given the opportunity to move to a less restrictive environment. As a teacher, you get caught between trying to meet these more academic learners’ needs by focusing on specific emergent reading skills and leaving my other students who are working on early communication skills in the dust. Yes, you can do both, but with 12 kids its impossible to do it all well. I have training, I have tried to figure it out every minute that I’m not sleeping, and I have failed. I hate that feeling that I have failed even before I started because of the system.

My students with true multiple disabilities and complex medical issues needed my attention and it was being pulled in too many directions. These students who use wheelchairs need frequent repositioning and that is not something that can wait. Pressure sores are really important to avoid and nearly impossible to heal. It’s another thing that takes time with an individual student; especially when not all staff is comfortable working with medically fragile children it falls to me to look out for each child. It’s also my job to be sure that when a child is on a mat that the children who are ambulatory and have behavior issues are not hurting him or her! On top of that, the families that have children who are becoming significantly more medically fragile over the years also need my support.

Unexpected and Uncontrollable Interruptions

On top of a challenging mix of students, this year because of the many interruptions we never hit our grove until May and then we lost it by June. To start, Hurricane Sandy really brought our class to a screeching halt too early in the school year. Some students were out for up to two weeks and many had difficulty with their phones, so we could not find out if the families were okay. With District 75, students come from all over to our schools, so it was not guaranteed that just because our neighborhood was okay, that our students were. When students returned, it was like starting all over again to establish our routines.
And then in the middle of January the school year came to another abrupt stop when ATU Local 1181 of bus drivers went on strike. If you’ve followed this blog, you know my story. I actually had time to document it because I had almost no students who could make it to school. That my students lost 5 weeks of instruction due to politics, and that no one really cared because they were the students in special education, is still sickening to me. If you listen to administrators or politicians they refer it to as a couple of weeks, when it was 5 weeks, plus a vacation week before students got back to where they belonged. After an odd half of a February break, an early spring break and other events, we were never really able to get into a consistent flow the rest of the year.

Despite that, I did see growth in my students. Unlike some, I actually enjoy administering my end of year assessments. (We use the Brigance Developmental Inventory and the SANDI.) It’s stressful to sit down individually with each student with an erratic end of year calendar, but seeing a small improvement in one communication area, or fine motor skills, or maybe even math is so exciting. This year though, I felt remiss about where my students would have been if not for natural disasters and politics taking away almost 2 months of their school year. Would Jessie be reading full sentences? Would Dom be writing his last name too? Would Steven be making picture choices? Would Florentina be toilet trained? As teachers, there is so much that is beyond our control.

To Begin Again

But what’s beautiful about being a teacher is that every school year is a fresh start. One of the best parts of teaching is the automatic reset that happens over the summer, even if it’s a few short weeks for us in special education. What other career gives you an opportunity to come back to a new beginning every year? A new beginning to be the best teacher I can be and help my students achieve as much as they can. An opportunity to take the lessons from the previous years and set goals for what I’d like to do better. It’s why I can’t see myself leaving the classroom anytime soon.

            “The world is round and place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.” - Ivy Baker Priest

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