Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Extraordinary Kid Series - Guest Blogger Michelle

If your new to my blog Wednesdays are dedicated to my "Extraordinary Kid Series".  You can click HERE to read more about why I've started this series.  In the past weeks you have heard about a few extraordinary kids.  These kids are amazing and the moms...well the moms are people who make the world a better place to live in.  Today we are going to do something different.  We are going to hear a point of view from a friend who used to be a special education teacher (SPED).   I have asked Michelle to be totally honest and I think she has accomplished it (she is fabulous!!). 



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Hi Friends around the world,

I'm Michelle from Someday Crafts. I highlight some awesome crafts from all around blogland everyday. Before I blogged, I was a Special Education Teacher. I made the mistake of leaving a comment to Melinda about my former life and she asked me to write the "truth" about SPED teachers and some other requests I will try to address.
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First, I want to say, please do not be offended by anything I say. I am not meaning to offend or cause anyone to feel anger, guilt or sadness. I am just doing my best to fulfill the request by Melinda in the most honest way I can. Please also realize that these are just my opinions. Other SPED teachers may feel differently about what I say.
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Next a little background on me. I taught four years full-time. Three years in an elementary school (K-5) and one year at a high school/post high program. I taught students with Down's Syndrome, Autism, Intellectual Disabilities and many other disabilities. They needed more services and attention than kids with learning disabilities (Resource). After I had a baby, I taught two years part-time at an elementary school with students who were "too low" for resource and "too high" to be in a self-contained classroom. They came to me for reading and math services.
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Melinda asked - How did I choose to become a SPED teacher? When I started college, I was a Psychology major, but as I was waiting to serve a mission for my church, I got a short-term job as a substitute aide during the day and it happened to be in a SPED class. I fell in love so quickly with the students and the idea of SPED and IEP’s. At night, I worked in a group home for persons with disabilities and was smitten with these wonderful people too. I knew my future was forever changed and that I was "meant" to be a SPED teacher. After my mission, I changed universities to attend the best SPED teacher preparation program in Utah. At that time, I thought I made a great choice.
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When I got my first job, I was single and without kids. A few months after I started teaching in a self-contained/severe classrooms, I thought I had made an unwise choice in my profession. My job was SO HARD!!! I had 15 students, many of them with very tough, aggressive behavior. Every day, I went to work with my heart breaking because I felt like a failure. I couldn’t give each one of them the very best and couldn’t meet all of their needs. I didn’t even know how to help some of them. I spent 10-12 hours a day and most Saturdays at school and gave my whole heart, soul and energy, and it still wasn’t enough. I LOVED these kids. They were MY kids!!! I decided I needed to get a Master’s in something besides SPED because I knew I couldn’t do this job for more than a few years, let alone until retirement. I started a night program in Vocational Rehabilitation and Counseling (I was passionate about helping people with disabilities be productive members of society.) Anyway, after Christmas vacation of my first year, some new students moved in and my class with split. Things finally calmed down and I started to LOVE my job. I loved my job from then on, but I will tell you that being a “good” SPED teacher is one of the most difficult jobs I can think of!!!
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That is what scares me about going back in a few years when my 3 kids are in school. I will not be able to do the job that I did pre-kids. I can't let teaching be my life with raising a family on the side. I will have to keep my priorities straight and that will be hard on my heart.
As a SPED teacher (especially after I got married), I had a life outside of the classroom. My husband would call me if I was still at school after 5pm and tell me it was time to come home. He would let me go in one Saturday a month instead of 3 or 4 Saturdays. To be the "best" SPED teacher, it is overwhelming, exhausting and consumes your life. I realize that many SPED teachers are not like the first 3 years of my teaching. I gave it my all! Some are lazy. Some refuse to let their job become their life and some just don't know what to do for each student. And then there are those SPED teachers who are amazing and have found a balance between having a family and a job. I want to be one of those!!! For those that continue teaching for more than a few years, they do what they have to do to survive the job. It is a HARD job. When I hear of someone going into SPED because they love people with Down’s Syndrome or those "cute kids with disabilities", I tell them it isn't all roses and fun. It is rewarding AND difficult! The burn out rate is around 5yrs!
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Some of the things I had to deal with as a teacher that I didn’t expect when I went into the profession was diapering 21-yr-olds, being physically attacked, learning how to restrain out-of-control kids/teens, being spit on and bit, having my hair pulled, explaining why a kid got a bruise from me or an aide (to a parent), distributing medications, giving shots, changing feeding tubes, putting false eyes in a student’s head, being prepared to give an Epipin(?) shot to a kid if he had an allergic reaction that could turn deadly to one of many things, reporting neglect and abuse to DCFS multiple times for multiple students, threats of lawsuits, working with group homes, teaching a student with an intellectual abilities who was blind to read and do math using Braille, learning a good bit of sign language, etc. I had to be a "boss" to aides – some of whom weren't very good. I had to hire and fire people. I had to work with reg. ed teachers who didn't want my students to come in their class or tried to exclude them from programs and activities. I made enemies in the school because I advocated for my students. Every kid is very different. Every academic program is different. Every year has to have different units, activities, and curriculum because I had the same students for 3 years. Thinking about my job brings me happiness and heartache at the same time.
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Oh, I could go on and on and on. It is a very tough job. And yet, my love for those kids, MY kids, overrides the heartache. That is the main reason a SPED teacher is successful. They love! They have big hearts! And they have skills (organizational, multi-tasking, interpersonal and decision-making skills) that help them through the tough parts of the job! I love teaching kids to read and write and count and add and introduce themselves and talk and regulate their own behavior! I love hearing kids talk for the first time or learn to communicate via a computer. I cried when I saw one of my students take 4 steps without her walker! My heart about burst when one of my very low-functioning students hit a switch to request a treat. I love seeing the progress from one year to the next. Oh to experience the joy in progress! It makes all the difficulty worth it!
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The students say and do the funniest things. When I need a good laugh, I think back on the time one of my 4th grade students told me he was an undercover member of the CIA , was investigating me and was going to have me thrown into prison. Or the time I was chasing this same student outside on the sidewalk as he was screaming to passing cars “Call the police. She is abusing me.” There were many times my aides and I had to turn our heads so the kids wouldn’t see us crack up over something hilarious they would say when they were mad. I have kept many notes students have written me saying they love me. I also can’t help but remember one student’s love of vacuums and another student’s love of motor homes and yet another of WWF. The quirks and interests the kids have bring nothing, but smiles!
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Melinda wrote: “What do SPED teacher expects from parents? I always feel annoying to her but that's my job!”
*If there is a communication notebook, read it and any notes that come home nightly and answer them. If you have quick, easy questions or just a comment about your child, write it in the notebook. Getting phone calls every day that aren’t necessary can be distracting to the teacher and the students. If there needs to be a lengthy, detailed conversation, then call –preferably before or after school or leave a message to call you back at a convenient time. If your child’s teacher doesn’t have a communication notebook, you may want to start one to send back and forth each day. Also, I loved it when parents would write something funny things about what their child did or said at home – especially if it involved school.
*If you need paperwork/reports/forms filled out, please give the teacher at least a week and send a gentle reminder to the teacher in the communication notebook about it getting done by a certain date.
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*If/when you are discouraged or having an issue with something that is going on at school, approach it kindly. Do not come out threatening to sue or get someone fired. That kind of language is going to put the teachers/administrators in a defensive mode , cut open communication and will most likely cause the teacher to walk on eggshells around you most of the time. Tell of your concern, why it is a concern and have some suggestions ready (if you can.)
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*Be involved in your child and their education. Advocate for them. Give input about what you would like to see on your child’s next IEP, if you have any requests. Show up to meetings promptly. If you have lots of questions, ask some before the IEP meeting so teacher’s can prepare or get data. If there is something you don’t like, say it (kindly.) If you want to feel more support at an IEP, bring a spouse (heavily encouraged), a friend or someone you rely on. Speak up when you feel strongly about something. Ask questions if you don’t understand something. As I teacher, I always sent home goals I would be proposing BEFORE and IEP so I could get feedback/input and it wouldn’t be a surprise to the parents. Most parents really appreciated this. You could request this being done with your child.
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*Be reasonable. Please realize that most teacher have 9-12 students on their caseload. We have lives outside of school. Certain demands can be unreasonable due to time, scheduling or money. Don’t ruin the relationship you have with the teacher and district personnel over something that may not be possible. Don’t be a pushover, but don’t be unreasonable either.
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*Feel free to invite the teacher to extra-curricular events (baseball games, baptisms, performances, etc) for your child if you want, but don’t expect them to come. I was able to attend a few and I loved it, but sometimes I had to say “no.”
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*Regular communication with the teacher is healthy. Let the teacher know if something has changed in your child (medications, behavior, routines at home, etc.) If you know there is some “big event” that could affect your child’s performance or behavior or something is not working, let the teacher know. Teachers only know what goes on in a student’s life at school unless you let them know more about what goes on at home. Communicate, communicate, communicate (nicely).
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*Most teachers don’t expect to hear “thank you,” but it sure helps them feel appreciated and like they are making a difference. I still remember a couple of parents telling me that I was the only teacher that actually tried to teach their 5th grade children to read using decoding (not just sight words). They thanked me for the difference and improvement I was making in their child’s life.
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Melinda wrote, “I would love to hear the truth about what educators really have to think about when making decision for kids. I love that the educators form a team and say it's all about what's best for the kid...but I know educators have more to think about than just the kid. At times, in the meetings I went to, I felt I was the ONLY ONE truly there for my kid.” This is difficult for me to answer because it is one of the things I dislike about SPED. Melinda was right that there is more to a team decision that what is best for the child. Sometimes what is best for the child is either WAY too expensive or just not possible in public education. Sometimes, we think we are doing what is best with the information we know. That is the truth! I had one set of parents that thought their special child (who I dearly, dearly LOVE) was my only student. I spent about 10-12 hours at school a day and it still wasn't enough to meet the needs of every kid in my class. I had 11 other students on top of their wonderful son. I spent more one-on-one time with him than any other student. His IEP lasted 17 hours over 4 days with the District SPED Director at all the meetings. He finally took the SPED law book and pushed it across the table and told the parents, "Here is the law. If you don't think we are following it, then take us to due process." It was tough knowing that I couldn't give this student and his parents everything they wanted and everything he deserved (in a perfect world with millions of dollars being allocated to every child with a disability). It was stressful for me to work with this family. But at the end of the day, I knew that they were just trying to get the very best services for their child. I try to do the same for my own kids - but it isn't really possible to have every lesson catered to them or have every resource in the world available to them. We are talking about public education. On many occasions, I helped fill out grants and tried to get equipment from third sources for students, but it never seems to be enough. There were times that our team was successful in doing that, but not always. Some parents wanted one-on-one aides and sometimes that is not the best thing for a child (in my opinion) and sometimes there just isn’t money for it. There were some programs the school psychologist or behavior specialist wanted me to implement for one student and I just couldn’t do it with the staffing I had and in the best interest of all the other student. It's hard. All I can say is that I tried to do the very best for each student with what I had!!!
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A resource: I highly recommend that every parent of a child with disabilities buy the children’s book called “The Crippled Lamb” by Max Lucado. It is an amazing book that brings tears to my eyes almost every time I read it. It does mention Jesus Christ in it so it is probably most appropriate for Christians. It also makes a great gift!
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One other thing I would mention to parents of my students’ when they were having a hard time is that parents who have a child with a disability often go through the same grief cycle as parents who have a child die. And they go through it over and over and over again. It is normal to feel denial, guilt, shame, bargaining, depression and anger and other emotions even when you love your extraordinary child. When parents would lash out at me over something that I felt was out of my control or a misunderstanding, I often thought back to the grief cycle and gave them the benefit of the doubt that they were just experiencing one of these emotions and I happened to be the one they expressed it to.
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I really could write a million more things. But I just want to leave with this thought. I have felt the extraordinariness in every student I have taught. I have loved their spirits. I always felt that I was in the presence of very special spirits! I know that to be true. My students are earthly angels! I have felt the following quote to be so powerful in reference to all people, and especially those with disabilities. They have great potential.
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“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would strongly be tempted to worship, All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
- C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, 14-15 (edited)
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Thanks for having me, Melinda. I hope I have helped at least one person with what I have written today. If you would like to contact me about anything here or have a different question, you can email me at somedaycrafts@gmail.com.



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Thanks again Michelle!  Someone once commented to me "the squeaky wheel gets the oil".   It's true.   One of my tips of being a mom of an extraordinary kid that goes to public school is to keep on top of it. By that I mean you have to go to the school, call the school, write to the school/teachers all the time if you want to know what is going on.  Be the squeaky wheel. There will be times when teachers &/or specialists want to do something that you disagree with. Follow your intuition. You know your child best. When dealing with teachers treat them with the respect they deserve. When you walk away they are still the one teaching your child.

5 comments:

  1. I have a sister that works in Utah county with extraordinary children. I know that she deals with more in a day then I do in a month. I am grateful every day that I only have Asperger's in my home. I admire the strong, wonderful people that are able to work with my children and others every day when they at school. Thank you to Melinda and those like her who are willing to take this on.

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  2. Thanks for posting that! While I don't have any extraordinary kids, I have taught some in church. We taught CTR 5 class, we were new to the ward and our very first time teaching there was this "hyper" boy in class, I was frustrated to say the least until someone came over and explained the situation to me. I immediatly put all those feelings aside and felt super guilty for feeling them. It was hard for me (because he looked "normal") to be patient with him those first few minutes in sharing time, I just thought he was a rowdy, out of control boy. I wish sometimes I would have known before we got to class, I was almost mad because I thought if I had only known I wouldn't have had those feelings and I would have known how to handle things.... but now I know it was better for me not to know because it makes me more "aware" if thats the right word, but was less judging when I see what is perceived to be miss behaving, just might be a extraordinary kid. They are very special spirits, he ended up being my favorite in the class, I miss teaching him and being taught by him.

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  3. Wow...thank you for spotlighting this. I came over from Someday Crafts...and I'm now a follower of your blog. I am currently a special ed. teacher (I teach Kindergarten Autism Support - all boys) and I feel like I could have written this. I am in my third year, and it DOES consume my life. My kids (the students) mean the absolute world to me...they make me laugh and cry almost every single day. THANK YOU for shedding some light into this.

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  4. Michelle, you are truly amazing.

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  5. I agree with so much of this! I taught Resource for 7 years pre-kids and I don't know how I could ever go back to it and do the job the same way. I have my own kids now, and they have to come first. It's something I've been struggling with so this post was great for me.

    One thing I would add is that SPED teachers want their students to succeed and become as independent as possible. I've had to look at parents who love their kids and want so much for them and say "There is no learning disabled line at the bank, they need to learn to do somethings on their own." I taught Jr. high Resource so their challenges were different than those in this post, but alot of the feelings were the same. Thanks! I love this series!

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