Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations

Some reasonable predictions can be made about outcomes for students. In special education, children with the most severe disabilities might have clear destinies before they start school. For higher functioning children, estimations remain possible, but they can be more difficult and thereby are dangerously suspect. Where students are at the end of high school might not be a good indication of where they have the potential to go. Just because they don’t appear prepared for adult life doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out. I should know.

Throughout high school, I slacked with the worst of them. Sometime during tenth grade, I decided I was only going to do as much work as I could get done during the school day (and only if I felt like it). I ignored major assignments. I drew during class instead of taking notes. I sat quietly, sometimes just staring back at teachers who had the nerve to call on me.

I wasn’t remarkable for anything positive in high school. If teachers noticed me, they noticed an unmotivated kid who wore the same clothing every day. Some would know me as that kid who got caught stealing art supplies (I almost got away with it, too). Others might know me as that kid who asked other kids for the food they were going to throw away at lunch (I didn’t like to see food get wasted). Still others might know me as that kid who penned an essay about shooting a president to get in an encyclopedia (my parents got a call over that one). None of these were good reasons to be noticed or remembered.

I can imagine what my teachers might have said about me, had they noticed me enough to comment. I’m guessing they would’ve described me a waste of potential. They might have remarked about me being dirty and gross. My guess is they didn’t look at me as someone who would someday teach for a living. I wouldn’t have guessed this, either.

Teachers get the opportunity to either relive or correct the mistakes their teachers made. Often, they don’t realize they’re reliving these mistakes until they’ve made a few. I hoped I’d be able to avoid this trap, but I fell for it. Presented with the chance to pass judgment about student potential, I did so repeatedly. I’ll defend myself somewhat. Most of the students I taught had disabilities that would act as definite limitations. I based my predictions on statistical likelihoods. This had some practical merit, but also it was cold and foreclosing.

Experience shaped my perspective, but it had a nasty hand in shaping expectations. Years of watching students flounder after graduation undermined my ability to have hope for more positive outcomes. I worked to prepare students as much as possible for outcomes that seemed appropriate. My sin was letting preconceptions dictate what these outcomes would be. In doing this, I might have had the exact wrong kind of influence.

True, many of these students did have genuine limitations that set what outcomes would be available. I’ve mentioned on this blog the importance channeling transition efforts towards realistic outcomes. I did this. I stand by the decision to work with families to find the best possible transition plan within a student’s reach. I still have to wonder if I might have aimed too low with some students. Instinct tells me I more frequently aimed too high. My instincts might have been warped by cynicism.

I was looking at where students were as they were ready to exit. What isn’t certain when a student is graduating is what that student will be capable of doing three, five, or even ten years later. Many people aren’t ready for adulthood in their late teens or early twenties. Some don’t hit their stride until their late twenties or early thirties. Late blooming has become somewhat of a function of economic circumstances. Even two decades ago, I was scarcely ready for adulthood. I fumbled through college and didn’t establish anything solid for myself until my mid twenties. Any snapshot of me along the way would have revealed a guy who appeared to be somewhat of a mess (and I didn’t have a disability).

My concept of success might have been too narrow as well. Many people in the education business have an unfair tendency to think of post-secondary education and eventual degree attainment as the threshold of success. Having a job that allows for financial independence becomes synonymous with having “made it.” For many students with disabilities, getting any kind of job might be the pinnacle of success. While this might seem a bit detached and impractical, relative contentment probably should be the ultimate benchmark. If a person with a disability works ten hours per week at minimum wage but feels good about the work and about life in general, perhaps that should be enough.

Benefit of the doubt is crucial. Yes, students with disabilities need to work towards practical outcomes and teachers will have an important role in determining what these will be. However, harboring cynicism about student prospects could subtly influence a teacher’s efforts. Even if it doesn’t affect practice, a preconception that students in special education have no chance at any echelon of success can make the day-to-day of the job more grueling than it needs to be. Students might seem unready for adult life when teachers finish with them. That doesn’t mean these students will never figure out a way to thrive that works for their lives. The path to adulthood has become longer and more convoluted. Throwing a disability into this path compounds the complexity. Special educators need to apply their differenciated thinking to expectations. I had trouble with this, but I came around. Many of us need some time to come around.

Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations

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