One of the simultaneously great and challenging things about teaching students in the type of self-contained program that I do is that I have some of the same students for more than one year. This is my third year in the field and it’s my third year teaching two of my students, my second year teaching two others, and my first year teaching my two kindergarten students.
There are eight elementary schools in my county that provide self-contained classroom services for students with moderate to severe mental retardation (called “MOD/SD” programs here), one for each “cluster” of geographically close high school/middle school/elementary school pyramids. At each elementary school with this program, there are typically two classes and the students are divided by age, ability, or a combination of both. At our school, we divide students into the two classes based primarily on age, with my class comprising mostly grades K-3 and the other class containing students in grades 3-6.
The greatest thing about having students for multiple years is that you develop a more multifaceted perspective on their learning and development. Instead of getting to see them go from point A to point B, I have the opportunity to shoot for points C, D, and E. This is especially helpful given the length of time that many developmental and skill mastery processes require for students with significant cognitive deficits. Over the course of two years, some students have gone from the absence of a skill set (point A) to some significant point Bs. One student can now use the toilet independently; two have learned how to write their names; and another can now walk with just the hand-held assistance of an adult. It is overwhelmingly rewarding and humbling to celebrate my students’ successes with them.
At the same time, I’m starting to share a little of the fatigue my students’ parents acquire from the constant adjustment of expectations. Some of the behaviors that we’ve spent years modifying still require vigilant supports to maintain. Some of my students’ language deficits are more pronounced, some skill developments have plateaued, and some unexpected challenges have cropped up. As relentlessly positive and realistic as most of these parents are, they are starting to see the gap widen between their children and their peers or siblings. They are witnessing challenges go on much longer than they expected and they are picturing milestones much further in their children’s futures than they thought they would be.
It’s a double-edged lesson for new teachers. Students with disabilities deserve high expectations—it’s how they thrive, reach goals, and succeed. But my students also deserve a teacher who considers progress to be a process, not a product. They deserve a teacher who can evaluate expectations and revise them to match the kind of dynamic trajectories many of our students take to success. As we start a new school year, I’m drawn to some words by Mr. Fred Rogers that apply to the role of a teacher as both a lifelong learner and encourager of learners:
“It may be that the most important mastery we achieve early on is not the mastery of a particular skill or a particular piece of knowledge, but rather the mastery of the patience and persistence that learning requires.”