On Not Fitting In With Colleagues

Teaching never felt like a good fit for me. Despite this, I played the part. I maintained a professional decorum in the company of students and colleagues. I kept quiet about my discomfort. While I never would have admitted to students how out of place I felt, I was similarly reticent to share my actual sentiments with other teachers. I had a canned explanation ready in case anyone asked me why I taught. I realized that speaking honestly about much of anything would have confused other teachers. They couldn’t have known that part of my discomfort was knowing  just how different I was from them.

Looking back, I should have noticed the early signs that I wasn’t right for teaching. They were there before I entered the field; even before I started before college. I hated high school. I was disinterested and disengaged. Somehow, I was able to disregard my work but still earn adequate grades. All that kept me out of trouble was my ability to avoid getting caught. I skipped school frequently. I regularly shoplifted and vandalized. This continued for my first few semesters of college. The stealing and destruction increased in magnitude. Had I been caught doing some of what I did, I would have lost my chance to teach. My general dislike for school and propensity for crime were definite signs.

In high school, I had no interest in going to college. I went because I never devised a better plan. My attitude about college was completely negative. To my teenage mind, college seemed like something between a scam and a mirage. People didn’t go because they wanted to learn. They went because they wanted to get particular kinds of jobs. They only wanted the jobs so they could earn sufficient amounts of money. They wanted the money because they wanted to have stuff. I figured if I didn’t care about having stuff, I could skip the other steps. This made sense to me, but no one around me seemed to get my reasoning. As enrollment deadlines approached, I had no concrete second option. I conceded and enrolled, largely because I got a grant and scholarship.

I spent nearly two years fighting the urge to drop out of college. I remained undeclared until the university forced me to select a major. Education hadn’t occurred to me until a friend’s father suggested it. He figured I should pursue special education based on my part-time work in human services. Without anything better in mind, I reluctantly enrolled.

My attitude about my first few education classes couldn’t have been more cynical. I really didn’t want to be in those classes. Although I knew even then that my attitude was affecting my judgment, I couldn’t help but think some of the course content was nonsensical. Much of the theory discussed in the courses was trumped up common sense. The professors presented it with conviction and the students around me eagerly bought into it. I already felt alone.

Listening to discussions between my classmates further highlighted my distance from them. Directly engaging them made me feel like a foreigner. I sought some kind of commonality, but the truth was I simply wasn’t like these people. Not that they were all the same; they weren’t. However, I wasn’t like any of them. My values were different. My tastes were different. I felt like I was acting when I spoke with them. I knew my actual opinions would bother them, so I kept my mouth shut during conversations about sensitive topics. My colleagues had positive attitudes that seemed delusional to me. Long before I started teaching, I had trouble relating to their optimism.

Student teaching should have been enough to tell me I didn’t belong. What I found in the classroom was profound. I didn’t like teaching. I considered dropping out during my final semester. This meant more than my discomfort around other teacher candidates, but their enthusiasm salted my wounds. At a seminar for student teachers, I recall sitting and contemplating leaving the program when I heard a young woman seated near me express how much she loved what she did every day. I couldn’t relate.

Perhaps foolishly, I carried on and finished. After graduation, I looked for jobs in other fields. When I couldn’t find one, I came to teaching. I wasn’t excited to start. I hoped I could fulfill my obligations without screwing up or quitting out of frustration. I ended up quitting a pair of jobs and living off my savings for a year before settling on a teaching job I didn’t hate.

At each school, my colleagues were nothing like me. The differences were fundamental. Most of them had kids or wanted to have kids. I looked forward to the day I could get permanent birth control (I’ve since had that done). I couldn’t relate to their interest in breeding. While sitting in a staff lounge one afternoon, I mentioned my general dislike for small children (I taught in high schools). An aid in the room condemned me, saying I had no business in education with that attitude. She may have been right.

The differences went beyond interest in childrearing. Every teacher in every school owned cars. I didn’t. I was considered weird for riding a bike and using public transportation. Most teachers either had or were working towards having homes. Home ownership seemed like complete misery to me. My colleagues talked about television shows they liked. I had never seen most of these because I didn’t have a television. They talked enthusiastically about local sports teams. I couldn’t have possibly cared less. Many of them drank and liked to get together for happy hour outings. I had no interest in drinking and felt really uncomfortable at such gatherings. Most ate meat. I hadn’t since middle school. At each school, I was the lone teacher who refused to use a mobile phone, who didn’t use social media (I begrudgingly use Twitter now), and who didn’t even have a credit history. I suppose I could have talked with them about our differences, but when I tried that, I just felt even more distant.

I stood out because of what I didn’t do, but also because of what I did do or had done. I had a repulsively foul mouth. I could turn this off as needed, but I know I made some coworkers cringe at the moments I left it on. I tended to snicker at the tasteless and blatantly offensive jokes students told. Outside of work, I had hobbies and history that were unlike those of my colleagues. My interest in cycling and triathlon was something others admired. My interest in firearms wasn’t as well received. I enjoyed gory films and didn’t like admitting what I liked about them to others. I was secretly tattooed (well, I still am) and didn’t want colleagues to see some of the more objectionable images on my body. I had a former life traveling the country playing in filth-spewing punk rock bands. I had spent weeks sleeping in cars and vans and had realistically considered becoming a squatter. I didn’t bother sharing stories about my experiences because I figured no one would believe them.

The differences extended to beliefs. Almost all of my colleagues were religious. I couldn’t even begin to relate to that. I never discussed faith with anyone, because no one would have wanted to hear what I had to say about religion. Most teachers around me were democrats. Although I never identified with a party, I felt most aligned with pure libertarianism (strange for a public teacher, I know). I was part of the union’s building committee in one school, but I had trouble backing the union. I resented being told who to vote for. I didn’t need the salary increases the union demanded. I was satisfied and grew tired of listening to others complain about conditions. My opinions about organized labor in America differed greatly from those of my colleagues. Such differences in beliefs were deeper than diet or television preferences.

Maybe the deepest difference was in how my colleagues viewed their roles. Many referred to the students they taught as “their kids.” They talked about loving their students like their own. Now, I worked hard for the students I taught. I felt an obligation to them, to their parents, and to taxpayers. Along the way, I cultivated strong relationships with students. These were reciprocal and meaningful. I involved myself in their pursuits through discussions, but also through going to see their sporting events, musical performances, and art shows. Unfortunately, I went to several funerals. I was invested in these kids. However, there was a dark line between their lives and mine. They were not my children. Beyond providing them with an opportunity for a fair education, I had no responsibility to them. I chose to involve myself with them in a mentoring role out of human interest, but I was no surrogate parent. Hearing others talk about taking on more involved roles didn’t seem appropriate to me.

From the outside the field, I meet teachers online who continue to reinforce how out of sync I am with the majority of teachers. I see teachers describe themselves on social media as (I’ll paraphrase) passionate life-long learners dedicated to children and thinking outside the box. I see email signatures that include insufferable motivational quotes. There is my cynicism again. I guess I really never belonged in their ranks.

I’ve never felt comfortable in any room full of people. That’s just me. No group of teachers ever did anything to make me feel uncomfortable. Instead, each faculty I met was welcoming and supportive. That didn’t mean I ever felt at ease. Retreating from the field has allowed me to breath easier. I don’t have to pretend to be anything while sitting at my desk at home.

On Not Fitting In With Colleagues

A Former Teacher Engages Reality: May Is Just Another Month

Spring doesn’t mean much to me this year. Since childhood, I’ve felt a certain kind of lightness in the spring. This has had more to do with the approaching end of the school year than it has with changes in the weather. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a summer break. I’ve looked forward to it through thirteen years of public education, through my college years, and through my entire teaching career. Several months after leaving the profession, I’ve found myself in a spring that lacks context. I’m unaccustomed to the way spring feels for working adults who don’t teach.

The traditional school year has an arc. The arc reaches its conclusion in late May and early June. While working in schools, I felt a sense of accomplishment each spring. In my better years, the accomplishment was what I was able to achieve with the students I taught. In my more difficult years, the accomplishment was enduring the year without resigning. Spring symbolized an end to the arc and definitive closure regardless of what had transpired along the way.

May is marked by celebration in many schools, especially high schools. It’s the month of proms and class trips. It’s when yearbooks and class rings arrive. Senioritis reaches its peak. Class pranks unfold. I worked with high school students for most of my career and experienced their rites of passage vicariously. Each spring was a chance to watch another cohort make these experiences their own. I hadn’t cared much about any of this when I was in high school. It meant more to me as a teacher.

In particular, I enjoyed celebrating with the seniors. Spring signaled the end of familiarity for them. The comfort of their routines and the relative safety of high school life were all but over. Their adult lives were about to begin. It signaled the completion of another year for me. Another tumultuous arc was approaching its conclusion. I was due some much-needed respite.

My perpetual childhood has ceased. One of the consequences of leaving my career has been an end to the cycle of school year and summer. I’m attempting to make a living outside of the routine and relative safety of school life. I’m trying to make my own arc. As I preoccupy myself with this, spring has unfurled around me, but I’ve barely noticed. I’ve been deaf to its sounds and blind to its sights. Strangely, all of its effect is lost on me without the arc to guide me. I enjoy my new pursuit, but in chasing it, I’ve missed the arrival of what used to be the best time of the year.

I recall marveling at the notion of people working during the summer months. This was arrogant of me. It was emblematic of how distant my teaching career kept me from reality. The world doesn’t operate according to a teacher’s calendar. I’ve known this. Now, I’m feeling it. I suppose most people have some form of routine. My new one has an openness to it that is somewhat unnerving.

Although this spring might not inspire the same familiar whimsy in me, I don’t miss everything about the closing of the school year. I left the field of my own accord, after all. I didn’t mind racing to complete grades or stowing my classroom materials. I had systems for all of this, just as I had learning activities planned through the last day. Such routines were part of the arc. The years I spent as a special education liaison ended differently. In that position, I frantically attempted to close difficult cases by June. I cobbled together the next year’s reevaluation and IEP meeting schedule. I reorganized files to accommodate incoming cases while preparing graduate files for the “defunct” bin. I chased teachers to make certain they completed performance summaries for seniors. I sent end-of-year paperwork to parents and leaned on them to get the signed documents back before summer. I completed state and district-level compliance documents and checked, double-checked, and triple-checked to ensure no one in the school had missed anything. No, I won’t miss any of that. I’ll take my current ambiguity over that exhausting certainty.

Seeing graduation cards in pharmacies and advertisements for “Summer Savings Spectaculars!” have reminded me of the time of year despite my inability to feel it the way I once did. This spring doesn’t have the same value I’m used to giving it. I acknowledge the give and take. I’ve abandoned a routine to try building a new one. The new routine has yet to coalesce, but I suppose forcing the pieces in place has been engaging. From my new perspective, all of the griping about change teachers are wont to do seems quaint. They’re still cradled in the arc and soothed by the cycle. Spring sings a different song to those on the outside, which happens to be almost everyone.

A Former Teacher Engages Reality: May Is Just Another Month

Welcome to Special Education!

Veterans of any field take a strange pleasure in trying to shake up newcomers by telling them harrowing tales about what they’ve seen and endured. I’ll admit having shared unsolicited war stories with student teachers and new hires. In special education, doing this seems to serve a few functions. Superficially, it makes the veterans feel validated and wise. Beyond that, it gives new or potential recruits some perspective regarding what to expect. Unsettling anecdotes might brace incoming teachers for the trials ahead, or they might send those with weaker resolves running to safety. The storytellers perform a service in either case.

Textbooks and colleges courses don’t adequately prepare teacher candidates for the grittiness of the field. Nothing does—not even stern warnings from elder teachers. New teachers have to experience the unsavory aspects of the field on their own. Hearing stories from wiry veterans isn’t as meaningful as collecting first-hand accounts. Despite this, veterans still attempt to thicken the skin of newbies. If nothing else, they like to try to top one another’s tales.

I collected my share of cringe-inducing yarns during my career. Now that I’ve left the field, I no longer have an in-person forum for sharing my experiences. However, this blog allows me to reach a much wider audience. Still driven to share, I’m going to do just that. To any sensitive readers: I’m going to be quite direct. You’ve been warned.

Unlike those who come to the field for highly personal reasons, I don’t have a disability, nor do I have a disabled sibling or child. My involvement with people with special needs didn’t begin until the summer after I graduated from high school. I began working at a day camp for children and young adults with developmental disabilities. A local human service agency ran the camp. Working at this camp and later as a wraparound and a resident assistant hardened my nerves for the field.

I have many stories from my time with this agency, but I’ll share just one. A non-verbal camper in his teens had a fondness for the female lifeguards at the camp pool. The lifeguards dressed appropriately and didn’t do anything to stoke his desires, but he simply couldn’t control himself. He began a habit of flinging himself on the pool deck directly in front of them and dry humping the pavement. Stopping him was asking for trouble. He became violent when interrupted. We figured out ways to distract and redirect him, which seemed to work for a few days. What we inadvertently did was change the location and intensity of his behavior, which we realized when a counselor caught him masturbating in the bathroom.

As an undergraduate, I spent a semester shadowing teachers at a special education center school for students with profound cognitive and physical disabilities. In one of the high school classrooms, I met a young man whose behavior topped the wanton camper. He apparently had a habit of masturbating whenever and wherever he felt like doing so. Staff couldn’t stop him. Like the camper, he’d become violent if staff intervened. His teacher decided to stop fighting it. She created a space for him. She built a corral out of a big plastic frame draped with purple curtains. She painted the wall behind the corral purple. Next to the corral was a small stereo, which was set to play a CD of classical music. Staff agreed to lead him to the corral whenever he got started, shuffle him behind the curtain, and play the classical music. All of this was to give him privacy, cover up the sight and sound of what he was doing, and help him associate a place for doing what he needed to do. I didn’t get to see the purple room in action, but the teacher told me it had been working. I asked what would happen if he visited a restaurant with purple wallpaper and Chopin playing softly for guests. The teacher laughed and said someone else would have to cope with that.

At this same school, I encountered a middle school student with significantly more destructive tendencies. He exhibited extreme forms of self-abusive behaviors. He violently lashed out at caregivers who attempted to attend to his personal needs. According to his teachers, behavioral interventions and medication hadn’t helped. The only way to keep him (and others around him) safe was to restrain his arms. Unfortunately, this wasn’t determined until after he had severely and irreversibly injured himself. As a toddler, he had torn out both of his eyes and ripped off much of his lower lip. To prevent further damage, he would remain restrained indefinitely.

I met dozens of students during student teaching. Each left his or her impression on me. One stood out less for what he did in class and more for how he arrived at the school. He was fourteen or fifteen. He wasn’t certain which. No one else was, either. He had been found living under a bush. People in the neighborhood had noticed him and tried to talk with him, but he growled and barked at them whenever any of them approached him. Eventually, police found him and brought him to a hospital. He couldn’t give any information about where he was from or who his parents were. Fingerprint records didn’t conclude anything. After placement in a group home for potential foster children, he was enrolled in a special education class where I was student teaching. His behavior and aptitude seemed to indicate he might not have had any previous formal schooling. No one uncovered any information about his identity during my assignment. I kept close tabs on several of the students I met during student teaching, but I never found out the fate of this apparently feral boy.

The school at which I student taught hired me for my first job. I hesitated about accepting, because I knew the school had drastic problems. I took the job, but only spent one year working there. In the span of that year, I became acquainted with just how challenging special education populations could be. One student in an emotional support class became unruly, prompting his teacher to call security. He took the phone from her and clubbed her with it, then pinned her against the wall and punched her about the face and body. He threatened to rape her right then and there. He might have if not for the armed school police officers who entered and broke up the fray. Just a few days early, this teacher had told two others about how she saw something disturbing in the student’s eyes.

Other special education students managed to cause issues in the school and surrounding community. I recall another student from another emotional support class who successfully lit a forest fire directly behind the school. A full acre burned before fire crews extinguished it. I suppose he was good at something. Another student smashed a glass bottle on a classmate’s face. This happened at the beginning of a class period. By the end of the class period, the parents of the victim were in the building threatening to murder the boy who did it. The display of family support was heartwarming. One of my students got arrested at a boxing match. His uncle fought in the main event. A melee ensued following a controversial decision. The following week, my student was excited to show me a video of him punching someone just before his arrest. I think he wanted me to feel proud of him.

Several years later, I began teaching at yet another special education center school. On my first visit before the school year began, I met a young man whose appearance made me do an embarrassing double take. Most of his body had been burned in a fire lit by a family member. His face resembled that of a horror movie character. His fingers were gone. I didn’t want to be just another person gawking at his misfortune, but I had trouble looking away from what had happened to him. Sadly, he seemed used to it. I later found he had a talent for painting, which he did by holding a brush between what was left of his hands.

The stories from this school alone could fill a book. I remember a girl who used a power wheelchair whose family had difficulty bathing her. While helping the girl get a book from her backpack, I notice a cockroach crawling on her arm. Upon closer inspection, several roaches were hanging out between her body and the seat. With my arm still wedged in the backpack, I felt one crawl over my hand. I calmly removed my arm, washed my hand, and tactfully alerted the school nurse. Another student began menstruating in my class without a tampon or pad. I only noticed this when I saw her chair after class was over. A huge print of blood remained. She didn’t say anything to me or to my assistant. As classes changed, I managed to catch the girl, call the nurse, and clean the chair. Yet another student who used a power wheelchair asked me to adjust her seatbelt. She told me it was hurting her stomach. I struggled to loosen it, so I moved behind her chair to loosen it from the other side. In the time I took walking from one side of her chair to the other, she had quietly filled her lap with pink vomit. Just a second or two earlier and this would’ve been down the back of my shirt. I did my best to soothe her and let her know she’d be okay as I cleaned her and waited for the nurse.

I have dozens of additional stories. The reactions I’ve elicited while telling these in person has reminded of what a truly demanding field special education is. Notice I mentioned almost noting about instruction in any of these stories. To get to that, one has to be able to deal with the peripheral madness veterans know so well. Special education courses can only do so much to prime candidates for the field. Stories like mine can help, but those looking to do this for a living have to get a taste on their own to understand what is waiting for them.

Welcome to Special Education!

When You Don’t Know the Subject: Tips for Special Education Teachers (Repost from Edutopia.org)

The link below is to a post I wrote for Edutopia. It offers refresher tips for special education teachers who have to teach content. See Edutopia.org for a variety of suggestions for teachers and discussions about education.

http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/when-you-dont-know-subject-tips-special-education-teachers

 

When You Don’t Know the Subject: Tips for Special Education Teachers (Repost from Edutopia.org)

How Educator Honesty Gets Tested, Especially In Special Education

The sentencing of several educators in Atlanta has stirred conversation about honesty in the field. This conversation has been evolving. After an initial public condemnation of those involved, a more sympathetic tone has emerged. Many have claimed the punishment of these educators to be excessive. A few have pointed to racial bias. Critics have lamented the relative leniency reserved for many corporate executives convicted of similar fraud. Such comparisons might be debatable, but the public is left with much to ponder. How widespread is cheating among educators? What drives them to cheat? Perhaps of greatest intrigue, how should we define cheating in some cases?

Knowing how many educators cheat and to what extent they cheat is next to impossible. Assuming the majority does so without getting caught, one could take the number of cases under investigation nationwide and increase that by several factors. Testing practices have come under increasing scrutiny, forcing systematic cheaters to either give up or become more sophisticated. The effort involved might lead to diminishing returns. Patterns of score regression following increased scrutiny might indicate who may have been cheating, but it isn’t solid evidence. Cheating on tests isn’t the only manifestation of dishonesty. Catching perpetrators in other areas could be much more difficult.

The degree of racketeering in the Atlanta case was profound. Those involved can’t be excused. A system existed for forging test answers and concealing evidence. Allegedly, administrators pressured teachers into changing scores and remaining silent. This system operated for years, resulting in thousands of students advancing with inflated scores. This wasn’t just an indiscretion. It was a crime.

In Atlanta, the urgency was about earning federal money for underfunded schools through consistently high test scores. In other cheating scandals, motivations have included maintaining adequate yearly progress (AYP) to avoid corrective action under NCLB. Entire schools have been complicit, as have individual teachers looking to protect their evaluation ratings. The repeated theme is educators have felt pressured to improve their students’ performance on high-stakes tests. Apparently, many have felt success was unlikely enough that cheating was necessary.

Critics have assailed NCLB for the poor reasoning behind AYP. Can schools expect students to improve every year? Wouldn’t a norm for each cohort of students make more sense? As a new breed of standardized tests has emerged, an opposition movement has focused on problems with assigning too much value to specific assessments. Vocal critics have attacked the design and content of the tests. They scorn the issues associated with tying teacher ratings to student performance, a practice unfair to teachers who work with severely disadvantaged students. The current opt-out movement is the most visible opposition to an educational initiative in years, attacking standardized testing on all fronts.

For all the resistance, testing pressure remains the norm. Stories abound about teachers quitting because of testing culture. The pressures hit the poorest performing schools hardest. Teachers in these schools hear messages of doom from administrators. These administrators hear similar messages from their superiors. Unfortunately, those in positions of authority don’t always grasp the role of assessments. Even if they overreact to pressure, teachers still have to respond to the edicts of their ratings officers. With evaluations being increasingly tied to student performance, livelihoods are at stake. One would expect some staff to resort to drastic measures. By no means does this justify systematic cheating, but such a response shouldn’t be surprising.

Aside from professional self-preservation in response to fear, dishonesty in schools often seems to have some degree of altruism behind it. Wanting more money for a financially struggling school district is noble, even if the means of getting it are reprehensible. Many teachers might tamper with assessments to help specific students rather than to serve themselves or their schools. One could almost commend teachers for trying to reduce the stigma and pressure on students. What muddies the waters is the degree to which cheating is deliberate. In certain circumstances, defining cheating is tricky.

Nowhere are questions about honesty harder to answer than in special education. The fundamental precepts of special education create unorthodox testing conditions. Accommodations per IEPs throw scoring paradigms into disarray. On many math assessments, teachers can read items to students. Actually, all students can have this accommodation on certain tests in certain states. However, when students with IEPs can have it combined with small group or separate room testing, it becomes an open invitation for abuse. In some cases, math tests might be taken as group activities in which teachers read the tests aloud and testing partners talk students through each item. Occasionally, schools will show unusual spikes in math performance for all students, but especially for students with IEPs. Select students might score at the bottom in reading and at the top in math, which appears suspicious.

Other fuzzy circumstances exist. Special needs students sometime dictate open-ended responses to proctors. Doing so might force teachers to interpret some of what students dictate. They might unintentionally (or very intentionally) inject their own phrasing into student responses. Even if a staff member just transcribes for a student, interpretation is possible. Meaning can be lost (or reshaped) in the transfer. The same can happen if a staff member marks an answer sheet for a student, an allowable accommodation for many.

Unless fabrication is deliberate, a leap is necessary to call these accommodations cheating. They do create gradients of honesty, though. Often, test performance gaps between reading and mathematics for students with IEPs are authentic and attributable to strengths and weaknesses. When these gaps appear on standardized tests and not on tests used to establish present levels, one has to wonder if the accommodations allowed created an artificial bump. Is this cheating? It isn’t cheating in a systematic, fraudulent sense. It isn’t cheating if students are getting accommodations they authentically need for the sake of equity. To call the use of accommodations cheating could lead to calling the whole of special education cheating. Without a doubt, certain accommodations blur what counts as authentic student performance while allowing massive opportunity for biased interpretation or blatant tampering.

Whether or not they’re administered honestly, testing accommodations have repercussions. When the accommodations create glaring performance gaps, they could raise the attention of test monitors who may wish to scrutinize schools. Monitors and even administrators might not notice or care though, especially if scores for these students aren’t counted with the rest of the population, which is sometimes the case. Other issues persist regardless. Inflated standardized test scores create aberrations in present level data for IEPs. Trends among special education students in a district could become unreliable and unusable for planning purposes. Parents might question a child’s performance. If all other scores show the child performs several grade levels below average, how did the child score proficient on one math test? If the child can do this, why does he or she receive special education?

Flexible honesty applies elsewhere in special education. Teachers might alter performance data for the sake of reporting progress. This is done to ward off mediation or due process claims and is similar to responses to standardized test pressure. Some teachers might fabricate ongoing assessment scores for the sake of saving time. Doing this can be tempting if scores for students with stagnant performance are easy to predict. Special education teachers might mislead parents about performance for the sake of placating them. This can be as subtle as overstating achievement or downplaying disruptive behavior. School staff might agree with a parent about student potential even when each staff member knows the parent’s expectations are unrealistic. Teachers innocently praise students for the sake of doing so, sometimes without an honest sentiment. Dishonesty has a range.

Educator honesty is tested by conflicts regarding testing pressure, but also by some of the basic tenets of special education. Wholesale fraud is damnable, but succumbing to the pressures educators face is understandable. Special education complicates the situation, as it usually does.

How Educator Honesty Gets Tested, Especially In Special Education

A Former Teacher Engages Reality: Looking For Another Job

Ending my career in education has given me a taste of the unforgiving job market. The thousands of teachers who flee the classroom each year know this experience. Although I’m currently chasing an atypical second career, recent months have smartened me to the struggles of other job seekers. As a teacher, I had avoided this reality. Stepping outside the security of education has plunged me up to my neck in it.

The build to my departure from the field was long. From the start, I didn’t have strong convictions about teaching. I felt uncomfortable throughout my career. My last few years in the classroom wore at my resolve. Being a special education liaison convinced me I had to leave. While working in that position, I spent my days distracting myself from the misery of my job by fantasizing about doing anything else.

All along, I planned what I might do after leaving. I investigated options and weighed costs and benefits. I devised several contingencies. My schemes for alternate careers excited me more than my actual career. I figured this was typical across professions for people on the brink of leaving. Contemplating how many people loathe their jobs was disheartening.

I had a vision of how I would leave. In my fantasy, I would stride proudly from the tumult, leaving behind those who felt bound to the profession. From there, I would move on to something more dignifying and personally engaging. I would look back and sneer at the rubble of special education. Surveying the ruins, I would feel no regrets for deserting. All would be on my terms.

My actual departure was notably different. For three years, I searched for a new teaching position and an escape from my administrative trap. I wanted out of special education. I had a high school English certification, but no one wanted me for an English position. All my experience had been in special education. In my third year of searching, I conceded and accepted the lone offer I got from a public school (some charters offered positions, but I was leery). To my chagrin, it was for a special education position.

When I started at this school, I found the job was going to be drastically different from what I had agreed to do during the interview. Due to staffing issues, I would be doing two jobs simultaneously without the resources to do either adequately. The working environment was going to be absurd. The teachers around me didn’t seem happy, but they did seem ready to accept ridiculous expectations and substandard conditions. I wasn’t going to play along. The indignity was too much. I left at the beginning of the year, abruptly severing my relationship with the district I had served for twelve years.

I hadn’t expected to leave so suddenly. I wasn’t ready to enact any of my contingencies. Although I had no debt and enough savings to sustain me for a few years, I panicked and decided to find another teaching job. During this round, I opted to include special education positions in my search. I applied for ten positions. Every position was at a charter. Once again, none of the schools seeking general education English teachers got back to me. Out of the ten, I got four interviews—all for special education positions. Three schools made offers. I misguidedly accepted one. Upon seeing what I was going to do all day, I rescinded my acceptance. I didn’t need money that badly. My patience for dealing with special education was gone. At last, I acknowledged I was done with the field.

My plans for what to do post-teaching included trying to write for a living, pursuing a doctorate, or starting a business. Writing interested me the most, but I wasn’t ready to get started with any of these endeavors. Staring at what living without an income was going to cost me, I chose to seek another job for the interim. Someone would hire me, right?

Admittedly, I didn’t put forth a tremendous effort. I only applied for a dozen or so non-teaching positions. Some were administrative positions at local universities. Others were fundraising positions with non-profits. I applied to work for a publisher. I applied to work for an educational software company. Hoping to capitalize on a previous job, I applied to work for a human service agency. In addition to my fourteen years working in schools, I had a smattering of volunteer, human service, and advocacy experience. My roles in schools were varied and dynamic. I figured I made for a viable candidate. No one gave me so much as a courtesy email in response.

These bleak results shouldn’t have been surprising. I had fled the field over a decade earlier. After two years of teaching, I decided I was done (this pattern is revealing). I spent months looking for another job. I applied for a supervisory position with my then part-time employer. I applied for social work positions. I applied to several entry-level insurance, real estate, and financial positions. Nothing. A retail manager snubbed me, as did an office supervisor and a landscaper. My teaching degree wasn’t a hot commodity.

With my pride in tatters, I returned to teaching following that first departure. Getting new teaching positions had never been an issue, as long as I sought special education positions. After quitting my first job, I found another almost immediately. After quitting the second job and spending a year out of the classroom, I got offers for several new and better special education gigs. When I started looking for positions outside of special education, I faced brick walls. I had stayed in special education too long, undermining my chances. The degree and experience continued to offer little mobility.

My resume wasn’t stellar during my first attempt. I think it looked much better for my second search. I had acquired what I thought were transferrable skills. Those who received my resume apparently disagreed. I laughed about how the job searching techniques I taught my former students had failed me. Perhaps I was being naïve. The current job market is a dark place. I probably should’ve applied to forty or fifty positions before declaring myself unwanted. Rather than doing that, I elected to work for myself.

Currently, I’m trying to write for a living. This has been what I’ve wanted to do for years. I’m doing it while I have the financial security to give it a try. I run this blog. I’m working on a book that will critique special education. I’m taking whatever freelance work I can get. The results after several months have been frustrating. Writing is about working really hard to get casually rejected and then repeating that indefinitely. I knew this before the start. For as taxing as it is, I can say with certainty I enjoy it much more than I enjoyed working in schools. From this vantage point, I can look back at the smoldering disaster I left behind and feel good about my decision. I might have to abandon writing and try something else when I start to go broke, but I feel better about this than I would have about slinking back to public education.

I might be happy, but I’m not making any money. Considering how I got shut out while job seeking, I have to wonder how others who leave the field manage. Most of the people I know who left teaching did so over a decade ago. I know far more people who came to teaching from another career or who returned to teaching after a long break. When I read about what teachers do after they leave, a substantial number pursue new degrees. Some people are able to move laterally with teaching degrees, but I wonder if these degrees are becoming less transferrable. If this is true, I’m more worried than ever for those currently planning to teach. I remain among those ex-patriots who would never recommend this field to anyone.

A Former Teacher Engages Reality: Looking For Another Job

Extended School Year As A Microcosm Of Special Education Dysfunction

Extended School Year (ESY) services embody the irrationality of special education. From its origin to its implementation, ESY reflects special education’s fundamental flaws.

For the uninitiated, ESY is a set of services for students with IEPs who exhibit skill regression or delayed skill recoupment following scheduled breaks from school. ESY services allow teams to continue working towards IEP goals during the summer for the sake of maintaining progress. Each IEP team determines student eligibility, but students with the most severe disabilities tend to automatically qualify.

Teachers don’t introduce new content or skills during ESY programs. The point is to maintain performance levels through repeated practice. ESY services typically focus on select goals per student rather than on entire IEPs. Although the aims of ESY are limited, related services such as therapy or one-to-one assistance are expected to be in place.

IEP teams must consider ESY services for every student with an IEP. Criteria exist for determining eligibility. If a team finds a student eligible, the team must detail services in the IEP. Goals must be identified, along with the necessary specially designed instruction and related services.

Even if a student is eligible, attendance isn’t mandatory. Parents can send students every day, one day, or no days. The service must be offered regardless of parental intent to send. Some districts ask parents to put their intentions in writing. This helps establish needed resources. The IEP overrides any letter, so parents can rescind and petition for services if the IEP includes them.

Further examination of ESY reveals several ingrained issues. The origin of ESY, the sentiment behind its creation, and the difficulties associated with its implementation encapsulate special education’s ills. In essence, ESY is a complicated service enacted through litigation and allocated for the least capable students. It has questionable effect while opening up districts to legal attacks. That description feels disappointingly similar to special education at large.

ESY emerged from a US District Court case in 1978 named Armstrong v. Kline. This was a class action suit in which several families from southeastern Pennsylvania sued the Department of Education as well as a few school districts. The plaintiffs claimed the Department of Education couldn’t limit the school year to 180 days on the grounds that students who experience a loss of skill might benefit from year-round programming.

The students named in the case had various needs. Armstrong himself was a student who allegedly demonstrated a pattern of regression following breaks from school—by age eight. A few of the students involved attended residential programs. Some had severe emotional disturbances while others had profound intellectual disabilities. As the case proceeded, one of the students aged out of school attendance. The team retroactively sought damages based on previous denial of summer service.

The assumption for these students was ESY would’ve made some worthwhile difference in skill retention. Although the students themselves were named as plaintiffs, clearly the parents were behind the demands. They petitioned to have free special education services continue beyond 180 days. They won. Today, the cluster of disability categories and support types automatically qualifying for ESY is called the Armstrong group.

The case demonstrated how rational people who deal with special education have to sigh, bite their tongues, and cope with the results of what parents demand. These students all had severe cognitive or behavioral disabilities and received the services their IEP teams had deemed necessary. By the virtue of their needs, all received support far beyond general education norms. Many received highly expensive residential services. None of this was enough. The parents demanded more without regard for the relative value versus cost of their demands.

Now, districts have to deal with ESY. Point by point, ESY exemplifies the logistical complexities of special education. For any student thought to be a likely candidate, eligibility meetings have to happen months in advance. The point of holding meetings so early isn’t so districts can make arrangements (although arranging transportation and classroom space can be complicated). The early date is to give parents ample chance to dispute denials through due process.

Costs are substantial. Most teachers aren’t contracted for summer work. ESY forces districts to spend huge sums on teachers. Districts also must pay therapists, assistants, food service workers, and bus drivers who wouldn’t otherwise be working. Summer energy costs are a real issue for some districts. As usual, this disproportionately affects urban districts with aging, inefficient buildings and less money available to cover expenses.

Other logistical issues compound the difficulty for schools. Teachers and therapists might not have previously worked with the students they serve during ESY. They have little time to get to know these students and often have to rely on what information is included in IEPs. Most ESY programs aren’t full day. With many students needing assistance with personal needs, medication, and feeding, scant time remains for instruction. ESY programs serve many students who don’t handle change particularly well. These students have to do something unfamiliar at unusual times with people they might not know in what might be a completely new place. Effectiveness is questionable before the start.

As mentioned, ESY is not mandatory. Despite this, if something is missing, parents can sue. The missing component could be anything from instructional materials to air conditioning. If a building has a maintenance problem or scheduled repair work during the summer that interferes with a cooling system, parents of students who need temperature controlled facilities might be able to seek compensatory education for every non-air conditioned day. Staffing issues in some districts create problems when more one-to-one assistants are needed than the number available. Some parents initiate disputes over their children not being able to attend their regular buildings. Through logistics and compensatory education settlements, ESY drains many districts.

Administrators wrestle with how to provide ESY. Some special education supervisors and directors want to expand eligibility to fend against denial lawsuits. Other administrators want to limit enrollment because of the obscene costs. For various reasons, many principals don’t want their buildings to host ESY. School officials largely regard it as an unfortunate headache, again echoing prevailing sentiments about special education.

The “E” in ESY is telling. From the original case, the point has been to get more from schools. That case demonstrated how a few parents can produce a massive effect on schools nationwide. It was an allegory for special education. ESY continues to be this. The extra expenditures districts have to make during the regular school year aren’t enough. Parents demand more.

Completing the analogy is how ESY services are reserved for the least capable students who might not benefit significantly from them. The efforts and costs associated with ESY are meant to ensure that a few extraordinarily disabled students won’t forget which coin is a quarter. Schools are expected to measure the effects of ESY at the beginning of the following school year. The skills being measured are often so rudimentary that discerning growth can be difficult as responses might be nearly independent of instruction. Effects become suspect.

Questioning value isn’t popular in special education circles. One does have to wonder about the relative worth of ESY, though. Significant effort is expended to achieve gains so minimal that a rational person could declare those demanding it to be selfish or daft. At least some parents get a summer placement for their children while some professionals get to pad their salaries. Comparisons with the whole of special education make each enterprise feel grim.

(jeffreymhartman.com is now featured at http://education.alltop.com/)

Extended School Year As A Microcosm Of Special Education Dysfunction