To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

My commencement address would be titled “Envious, But Not That Envious.”

Most colleges and universities will be wrapping up their commencement ceremonies by the time of this post. Thousands of education majors will be hitting the field in earnest, ready to wave their degrees and certificates at schools with vacancies. A few fortunate (or ambitious) types will have positions locked before graduation and will be spending the summer prepping for that petrifying first day. Many more will be scouring the market for whatever position they can find, possibly continuing the search into the fall. It’s a dizzying time for all.

I’m envious of those experiencing any of this. To specify, I’m envious of the moment they’re experiencing. Completing college feels great. Proud reflection on accomplishment mixes with the realization of being free from coursework. The word “career” still refers to a set of aspirations rather than a collection of memories. The moments that will become memories haven’t had the chance to be qualified as fond or regrettable.

Addressing the graduates directly, yes, I’m envious of the moment you’re having. Even if you end up having a second career at some point, no moment will feel quite like this one. What I’m less envious of is your fortune entering the field in its current state. I won’t spoil your moment with a diatribe about education. I will say that the dumb luck of your timing isn’t great, at least from my perspective. Based on my experiences, I’m glad I’m not entering the field right now.

This sentiment risks seeming like that of the guy in his forties lamenting the current music scene and claiming the music of his youth was “real music.” I’m sure some teacher could have pulled me aside back in 2000 and told why I was making a mistake becoming a teacher, along with how much better everything was when she started. If I would do the same today, I’d be ignoring a decade and a half worth of advancements in technology, methodology, and even accountability that have improved conditions for students and enabled the effectiveness of teachers. Echoing the jaded not only doesn’t help much, but it might not be accurate.

I have to echo it a little, though. Every aspect of getting a teaching job has become more complicated since I started. I’d like to say this helps in some way, but I’ve struggled to see how. The day-to-day of being a teacher has become more complicated as well, largely in detrimental ways. The whole of public education stands to take a hammering at a policy level, all while it’s becoming an option rather than an expectation. I promised not to rant, so I’ll stop here. Comparing my early experiences in the field with what I know teaching currently entails, I can’t say I’d want to get started in 2017.

I’m not starting this year though, dear graduates. You are. You don’t have the perspective I have. I didn’t know any better in 2000 when that crotchety teacher would’ve given me an earful about the descent of everything. Without a point of reference, you’re entering the field as though it has always been as it is. This returns my perspective to envy. I think you’re going to have a rough go of it, but you won’t know anything but this.

My hope is that each of you prospective teachers leaving the safety of college for the wilds of the field lands in a position that suits you. That might matter more than anything else right now: a strong match between personality and the culture of a work environment. If these align, wonderful. If not, be not afraid to retreat and regroup. You don’t owe some school your sanity. Don’t forget that while time might not feel like an asset at the moment, it is. I’m becoming more envious as I write this.

Best wishes Class of 2017. I hope you’re still at it in 2037.

 

To Future Teachers Graduating This Month

Preparing Students with Disabilities for Graduation (Repost from iAchieveLearning.com)

This week’s repost from iAchieveLearning.com  covers some thoughts on how teams can help students with disabilities be ready to graduate. Visit iAchieveLearning.com for more.

https://iachievelearning.com/2016/04/preparing-students-with-disabilities-for-graduation/

Preparing Students with Disabilities for Graduation (Repost from iAchieveLearning.com)

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

Graduation Redundancy

I graduated from high school twenty years ago this week. Since then, I’ve attended nearly twenty additional graduation ceremonies. A few of these were for friends graduating from colleges. Far more were for the high school students I taught. I suppose I’m somewhat of a graduation veteran. During these two decades, I’ve pondered the relative impact of these ceremonies. While doing so, a curious trend has caught my attention. It might be altering their impact.

This month, students across the country will graduate from high school. Completing high school only happens once. It’s a stepping-stone for many, but a major event for others. For as much as I dismissed high school, I’ll admit feeling slightly overcome when I realized I’d reached the end. The actual ceremony resonated with a mixture of finality and new opportunity—like a commencement should. I was almost embarrassed by how much it affected me. I can understand how potent the feeling must be for those who genuinely struggled to earn their diplomas.

Or maybe I can’t. I fear the potency might get diluted for some students. June isn’t just for high school graduations any longer. Middle school graduations have become quite common. Many districts host elementary school and kindergarten graduations. By the time some students reach their senior year, they’ve had plenty of practice walking the aisle.

When I graduated, I hadn’t previously walked in any other ceremonies. I had one graduation. It came at the end of my public education. It was a coveted event symbolizing an educational culmination. Graduation wasn’t something routine I’d experienced at every interval of my schooling. The idea of graduating from anything other than high school or college hadn’t occurred to me prior to starting my teaching career.

I learned about these additional ceremonies when I started teaching in an urban school district. Their existence puzzled me. I reached a cynical conclusion about why they might exist. In particular, I applied this reason to the middle school ceremonies. The district in which I taught had a pitiful graduation rate. Almost half of the students dropped out. I figured the middle school ceremonies might have developed as a way to celebrate accomplishments before students quit. Less cynically, I thought they might serve as a way to emphasize the importance of schooling. The ceremonies would stress the significance of the transition from middle to high school. I was reaching for a reason.

My reasoning got upended when I found out suburban districts were holding similar ceremonies. These were schools without such significant dropout rates. Many held ceremonies at all junctures between buildings. Students generally don’t quit during middle school, so the ceremonies at younger grades probably served some other function. This didn’t mean urban schools didn’t hold them for the reasons I suspected, but it suggested other reasons must also be at play.

Further reasoning was nearly as cynical. I began to think the additional ceremonies were indulgences. They were at least as much for the parents as they were for the students. They were opportunities for parents to snap pictures. They were excuses for parents to buy little suits and dresses. Parents could see their kids in tiny caps and gowns. They could buy glossy portraits to display in their living rooms (I briefly suspected a cabal among school picture companies). Each additional ceremony was another reason for parents to gush over their little angels.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t relate. If parents feel the ceremonies are important, good for them. My family was content with a high school graduation. Everyone I know who is my age seems to have reached adulthood intact with only one ceremony. If students today need the extra recognition as a form of encouragement, then I guess they should have this. I’m not callous enough to say this is dismissible nonsense for a succession of self-centered and over-indulged generations, but I could see how one could argue as much.

The entire phenomenon confounds me. To begin, how had I missed its encroachment? I’d been out of high school a mere five years when I learned about these extra ceremonies. In that span of time, who had decided they were necessary? What had changed? I wasn’t certain if schools had started the trend by offering them, or if parents had pushed until they got them. Either way, by the time I found out about them, they were firmly entrenched in the culture of many schools.

The concerns I have about these ceremonies—especial those for middle school students—have not to do with indulging anyone. Schools indulge students and parents in much more profound ways. My concern is about assigning too much worth to the wrong achievements. I suppose the recognition of milestones is good. Finishing middle school is a milestone. However, is it an achievement worthy of a cap and gown ceremony? Should anyone be proud of someone who graduates from middle school? Shouldn’t this be more or less expected to happen? Could schools be reducing the perceived worth of high school graduation by making it one in a series of ceremonies rather than the point of public education? More practically, might middle school graduations be setting a precedent for students to expect to be rewarded for simply being present?

I’m probably over-thinking this and coming off like a delusional curmudgeon. I’ve already admitted my age in this piece, haven’t I? Perhaps I’m exaggerating how much importance is assigned to each ceremony (although apparently out-of-control parent behavior at graduation ceremonies has become a trending topic in recent weeks). I could think of additional cynical condemnations of these ceremonies. What I should do is recognize that kids now expect to be recognized more often and for less than when I was a student. Parents expect this recognition as well, and maybe more so. There’s a precedent, which is difficult to take back. I’m not certain taking it back would achieve much. The ceremonies might benefit all involved in some way I’m not seeing.

Let the students and parents have their ceremonies every three or four years (as if it this were up to me). Let students bask in the chance to feel good about themselves. Let parents watch their little angles through the screens on their phones. I think it’s weird, but what I think isn’t going to postpone anyone’s party.

Graduation Redundancy

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

Considering Alternate Diplomas and Certificates for Students with IEPs

Students with IEPs often have atypical school experiences. They might follow the general education curriculum with some support, or they might work on learning to get dressed. Performance expectations vary with their disabilities. Unsurprisingly, their paths to graduation diverge from the norm.

Options for completing high school are broader for students with IEPs than for their peers. Most graduate according to whatever requirements are in place for the majority of students. Others graduate by meeting their stated IEP goals. A few exit school at twenty-one more than they truly graduate. Their programs stop regardless of their progress.

Recognizing the various graduation paths for special education students and how these differ from traditional paths, states and school districts have responded with multiple ways to acknowledge program completion. Controversy begins here. The initial question is about equity, but surrounding circumstances are more about accountability. If students with IEPs complete non-traditional paths to graduation, how should their efforts be noted? Should they get traditional diplomas regardless of requirements, or should they be awarded in a way reflecting their actual achievements? Answering these questions can be complicated and revealing.

A dominant trend in education is adherence to standards. The bulk of students with IEPs follow a standards-based curriculum, but even these students veer from general education expectations by leaning on IEPs. Their defenders say accommodations grant equitable and comparable opportunities, therefore these students deserve typical diplomas. This argument becomes strained for students needing modified content.

Select students with IEPs work towards standards, just not grade level standards. The vagueness of and redundancy between standards reduces the significance of grade level adherence. However, a high school student following a functional academic curriculum based on rudimentary skills plainly isn’t doing high school work. Comparisons completely cease for students working on basic life skills such as feeding and hand washing. Looking beyond the curriculum, many students with IEPs are either excused from having to actually pass statewide competency tests required for graduation, or they can take alternate tests. Some of these same students can be excused from required senior projects. The truth is many students with IEPs do not have to complete traditional high school requirements.

Alternate means of recognizing program completion are reserved primarily for these students. States use certificates of attendance or achievement, vocational diplomas, and even special education diplomas. Certificates show that students participated in or completed a program, but the program wasn’t based on general education standards or curricula. Special education diplomas do the same, but usually after credit, course, and performance criteria have been lessened.

By qualifying the degrees awarded to students with IEPs, states and school districts acknowledge that these students followed alternate paths to graduation. To counter the argument of those claiming students with IEPs still deserve traditional diplomas, the qualified degrees recognize the equitable work the students have performed while specifying the nature of this work. This doesn’t satisfy all decriers. A debate over fairness could ensue, but state and school district motivation for these different degrees isn’t about fairness.

Before discussing the genuine motivation, consider what high school diplomas are worth to the general public. They are cheap. Most people have one. Possessing one is taken for granted in some sets. Not having one garnishes more attention. To some, a high school diploma may represent a momentous accomplishment. To most, it doesn’t.

Further diminishing their value is what they offer, or perhaps what they don’t. Earning potential for those with a high school diplomas alone lags behind those with nearly any form of post-secondary education or training. Conversely, in the most blighted communities, the difference between having and not having one might be nil due to the community’s dearth of opportunities. This can make bothering to get one not seem worth the effort.

Value becomes more questionable upon examining graduation paths for general education students. Examination quickly spirals into philosophical inquiry. Some high schools are more rigorous than others. Courses of study within them have varying demands. Graduation rates are low enough in certain schools that essentially handing out diplomas is necessary to offset attrition. Every student is different, leading to notions of equitable difficulty for students in vocational versus advanced programs. Even as efforts mount to solidify national standards, can any two diplomas be considered equivalent indicators of aptitude and accomplishment?

This returns the discussion to students with IEPs. Apparently, graduation paths vary for all students. Arguing that awarding diplomas to students with IEPs diminishes diploma value is nearly facetious. Diplomas already carry low value. Furthermore, relatively few students have IEPs. The value of a diploma might matter most to the special education student. It could be his or her terminal degree and possibly the highlight of a resume. Students and parents haven’t been clamoring for alternate recognition. Even if these students aren’t strictly beholden to standards, why not just award diplomas in all cases?

Again, the issue isn’t just about fairness or value. It isn’t merely a matter of accurately recognizing achievement. States and school districts have another motivation: accountability.

Under the ESEA/NCLB, states and school districts must report graduation rates. The states establish criteria. Many states include competency tests with their requirements. Credit completion within a standards-based curriculum is required by most. Students with IEPs can jeopardize performance on these measures. If states change graduation requirements for these students and offer alternate paths that all lead to graduation (with corresponding and legitimizing recognition), states can assure improved graduation rates while preserving test averages.

The alternate paths benefit states and school districts. They might undermine outcomes for students. Most students receiving certificates or alternate diplomas won’t seek competitive employment or post-secondary education. For the few who do, employers or programs might not accept diplomas that come with a disclaimer. Those touting the rights of these students can continue to argue that equitable effort deserves equitable recognition while claiming alternate diplomas or certificates impede post-secondary outcomes. Whenever anyone perceives right infringement involving students with disabilities, litigation is likely to follow.

The issue becomes more complicated as tests are considered. Counter-intuitively, many anti-testing parents are seeking to have their children identified for services to get support for or even exclusion from standardized tests (previously, parents sued to have their identified children tested like all other students). More insidiously, poor performance on standardized tests could become a new compensatory education opportunity for parents. Attorneys might successfully suggest students fail not because of inappropriate tests, but because schools didn’t effectively address deficient aptitudes. Why wait until now to press for this? The tests provide detailed, criterion-referenced evidence. States and school districts could be wise to keep these students away from such tests.

So what is best? In the spirit of special education, there isn’t a best. Rather than states absolving some students from requirements out of self-preservation, graduation criteria and acknowledgements should be IEP team decisions. According the IDEA, they already are. State level planning hasn’t reflected this exactly. States have been putting options in place, which seems like a special needs-sensitive move until motivations are considered. IEP teams must be assertive. The importance of transition planning can’t be over stated. Conversations about transition must be thorough, forward thinking, and realistic. As mentioned in a previous post, such conversations aren’t easy to cultivate. The point, as always, must be what will work for the student.

Considering Alternate Diplomas and Certificates for Students with IEPs