Three IEPs in a single
week. Students involved in custody battles. Parents informing me that their
children cry every Sunday night before school resumes on Monday. Two
eligibility and reevaluations to complete. A disastrous, rainy field trip to the annual county fair. Behavior
plan backfires. And all of that in the past two weeks.
I know that being a
special educator is difficult. I understand that there are days, weeks, and
even entire school years that don’t go smoothly. But when you love the students
you teach and are passionate about their success, tough times take a toll on
you. If my kids aren’t doing well, I’m constantly evaluating and processing what
I can do to fix the problem.
The questioning begins:
have I been inconsistent; am I pushing them to hard; is it all rooted in
problems at home; are my assistants and I not on the same page? My mental
inquisition carries on non-stop. I find myself talking to the after-hours custodian
everyday because he comes to take out the trash in my classroom at 5 p.m., and
I’m still there sorting through what didn’t get done and brainstorming
potential remedies for my ailing classroom. For the first time in my nearly two
years of teaching, I find myself not looking forward to work.
Last Sunday, my fiancé,
Derek, had been asked to preach at a local church, and I attended. Even though
it was the weekend, my students and classroom were still at the forefront of my
mind. I forced myself to block everything out and focus as Derek began his
sermon. The topic was “Choosing to Stand.” I felt like I was the only one in
the auditorium as he relayed a message I desperately needed to hear.
He talked about
standing for what’s right, standing for what’s true, and standing for the
defenseless. He also shared about times in our lives when we need others to
come alongside us and help us stand. I walked in that service feeling like I
was carrying my 13 students with all their individual needs and issues on my
back; I was burdened. But Derek’s sermon refocused and recharged me; it also
reminded me that I can’t do it alone. He helped me stand.
Obviously, my outlook
was much more positive as I headed back to school last Monday. I had previously
planned with the health teacher at my school to teach our disability awareness
lesson in her sixth grade classes that day. In these lessons, we discuss that a
disability is not something that makes a person less capable or worthwhile as
an individual; it simply means having to do something differently than a
student without disabilities.
We teach the students about people-first
language and give them an opportunity to sign a pledge to not use the “’R’ word”.
The main focus of the lesson, however, is encouraging general education
students to get to know and make friends with their peers with disabilities. We
explain that it’s no different from making and having friends who don’t have
As part of the lesson,
we ask students if they have friends with disabilities and, if so, to share
about these relationships. In the first and second period classes, we got very
few responses to this question, which is typical. However, something very
unexpected occurred in the third period class. Almost every student in the room
raised their hand to share about a friend of theirs who had a disability. The
stories were very personal, including talking to each other at Wal-Mart, doing
class work together, and passing notes. Students in this third period class
also had much different ideas of what a disability is. For example, one student
explained that having a disability “doesn’t mean you can’t do something; it
just means you do it in a different way or at a different level.” Another said,
“Students with disabilities can do the same things we can, they just may need a
little more help.”
The health teacher and
I were shocked at the difference between the first and second period classes
and this third period class. What made the difference? Third period is the
health class that my seven sixth grade students attend everyday! These students
were more aware because they had been given first-hand opportunities to spend
time with and learn alongside my amazing students! Mrs. Watson, the health
teacher, and that accepting class of sixth graders, helped me stand that day.
Thursday and Friday of
last week, I got the opportunity to attend the West Tennessee Special Education
Conference in Memphis. There were more than 500 special education professionals
from across West Tennessee in attendance. On Friday morning, Mrs. Watson and I
had the opportunity to present on our disability awareness lessons and the successes
we’ve seen from them. It was thrilling to share about how we’d seen social
interactions increase between students with and without disabilities! Several
other teachers, the federal programs director, and the special education
supervisor from my school system all supported us by attending.
I also got to attend
some great sessions during the conference. My absolute favorite was a session
dealing with puberty education for students with disabilities. Hormonal changes
and the many changes that go along with maturing bodies is definitely something
I deal with on a regular basis as a middle school teacher. I’ve often struggled
with how to approach and deal with these issues.
The presenters shared
about a curriculum used in the Memphis City Schools that was designed
specifically for students with disabilities. It was developed by Marsh
Media and contains simplified reading materials, visual aids, and
interactive role play activities appropriate for students with intellectual
disabilities. I was already brainstorming how I was going to get this for my
classroom when the presenter asked for middle school teachers to raise their
hands. I threw mine up in the air, and the next thing I know, I’m holding a box
with at least five student booklets, a DVD, and a teacher’s guide for the
curriculum! I was ecstatic! During the conference, my very supportive and very
generous fellow special educators helped me stand.
This week I am anything
but discouraged. Thanks to Derek’s inspiring message, some amazing middle
school students, and the incredible community of educators I am blessed to be a
part of, I have the strength to stand for my students again (and the sashimi
and Panera Bread I ate while in Memphis were good for morale, too).
What about you? What or
who has helped you stand lately?