Sunday, December 30, 2012

I Got Skills

During my typical family gathering on Christmas Eve this year, a long-buried tradition was resurrected: the game of charades.  After I had acted out my charade and had it successfully guessed by my team, a couple family members immediately remarked how good I was at the game.  I humbly chalked it up to my years of experience playing with the family years ago, but someone had a better explanation: 

"She's a teacher!"

While I would have preferred, "She's a pantomiming genius!", I knew this person was on to something. There are some things I was born with a natural propensity towards, but there is also another set of skills that have been honed quite unintentionally and without any concerted effort as a result of living my life as an educator day-in and day-out. 

 For better or worse, here are the top 4 teaching habits that have translated into semi-useless daily life skills:

1. Multitasking

It isn't unusual, any given day, to find me writing a pass for someone while giving a lecture to a student about his lack of homework completion, all the while ensuring the rest of the class isn't swinging from the rafters.  Accomplishing multiple tasks simultaneously is a necessity when dealing with children, and it's a hard habit to lose once at home.  If I'm watching television, there's probably some other productive activity going on like online shopping or painting my nails.  I've started a new competition with myself in the mornings during the approximately 35 seconds it takes for the coffee to pour from my Keurig to see how much I can accomplish by way of packing a lunch and making breakfast.  It's a pretty worthless aspiration that only buys me a couple more minutes a day, but don't worry. I won't be taking it to the extreme like the people who brush their teeth in the shower.


2. Flying by the seat of my pants

I'm almost ashamed to admit how little long term preparation goes into the units and lessons I teach, but it comes with the territory of being a special education teacher.  Sometimes, I don't find out the regular ed. teachers' plans until mere periods before I have to teach. Sometimes, half my class is gone or the students are being such psychotic hosebeasts that I have to scrap my plans.  Sometimes, I'm an idiot and plan an instructional lesson the last day before Christmas break and then I get a clue about 30 minutes prior to the class and have to scramble for a fun-yet-educational holiday themed activity. 

Though it flies in the face of everything I ever learned in teacher prep, and it's not going to score me a Golden Apple Award, teaching on the fly has become somewhat of an art for me, and I'm darn proud of the ability. Also, it is another skill that has followed me into the rest of daily life.  I'll never forget a few years ago when my small group was volunteering at a church-based after school program.  Some of us were relegated to cooking dinner in the kitchen, or setting up equipment for games, but I was assigned to the bible lesson session.  Figuring I would just be helping with some good old bible crafts, I was pretty astounded when a kids bible was shoved in my hand and I was told I'd be teaching the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector.  There were probably a few short seconds of panic, but as any teacher knows there's no room for panic when you have a class full of children staring up at you expectantly.  I threw that kids bible open, sped read through Luke 19 in 20 seconds flat and delivered that lesson without a hiccup.  

3.  E-mailing Expert

I probably average 10 e-mails a day at work to parents and colleagues.  One of my neuroses in life is the inability to let an e-mail go unanswered for more than even a couple hours when I know there is someone awaiting my response, but that is complicated by the necessity to tend to my students for 90% of the day.  So how do I reconcile the two?  I Super E-mail.  Using my previously acquired typing skills, I roll out itemized, multi-paragraphed messages free of grammatical and spelling errors and goodness gracious are they well worded! (Okay, I'm really tooting my own horn here, but I'm talking about my e-mailing skills. I think we can both admit it's pretty pathetic).  I've gotten so good at professional e-mails that I tend to all but black out when writing them.  Many times I have to check my "Sent" box to confirm that I composed the intended response, and occasionally I'm quite surprised at the content as if I'm seeing what I wrote for the first time.

4.  Yelling at other people's kids 

Whether it's the community pool or the Sunday school halls at church, when I come across unsupervised children acting like screecher monkeys , the need to behavior manage is ingrained in me.  I was recently at a Starbucks waiting for someone when it was overtaken by about 8 high school boys who proceeded to all attempt to pile onto one seat, wrestle each other, and whoop and scream at the top of their lungs.  My eyes went from huge saucers of disbelief to narrow slits of loathing as I resisted the urge to give them a lecture on human decency and consideration.  It was when I looked around the rest of the place to find no one else bothered (in fact, one older man who was in danger of being crushed by the pile of teenagers was actually amused) that I decided it was time to put away the ruler and let kids be kids.  Still, if ever there's a band of young hooligans in need of silencing, I'm ready to come swooping in with a loud voice, bleeding sarcasm, and a mean stink eye. 

And there you have it.  Not exactly the items I want listed under my legacy as a teacher at my retirement dinner in 2040, but one day you just may be in dire need of a super e-mailing, multi-tasking, improvising disciplinarian, and you will thank me. Just maybe. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012


So, Leon--of stuffed animal fame--is pretty good for a laugh, or five, on a daily basis. He's pocket-sized with an elf's voice, five years behind socially, but also has a finely tuned sense of humor that goes beyond his years.  Lately,  his mornings have gotten exceedingly more difficult in terms of focus until around lunch time when the, er, "necessaries" as we ED teachers code them, kick fully into the bloodstream. 

While this has been a source of frustration for work production, it has been quite the blessing on the comic relief side.  If I had a journal nearby at every minute of the day, I'm sure I would have logged hundreds of quotes or notable events by this point, but I think the last 3 days of the school week were really the most worthy of mention. 


Not surprisingly, homework has been a major issue for the crew lately. Leon seems to be the one exception who rarely misses an assignment.  I attempted to make an example of him this week in Resource class by engaging him in a conversation in front of the whole class about the positive effects of following through with student responsibilities.

Me: "Leon, how does it feel that you get your homework done every night and turn it in on time?"
Leon: "Um, okay?"
Me: "As a result, what do you think your grade is in Resource?"
Leon: "I would say a 1...2...3?"
Me: "What? No, no. Your letter grade. You know 'A', 'B', 'C'..."
Leon: "....ABC...It's easy as 123...oh, oh God. I can't believe I just sang that."
Me: "Okay, Leon focus, here. I asked you what you think your grade is in Resource."
Leon: " A?.. ABC...It's easy as...oh, God. I did it again!"
Me: "Nevermind."


Since he had nothing to work on in Resource, I let Leon start a game of Yahtzee with the substitute aide for the day.  I heard him throw the dice into the cup and begin to shake it.
"Shaken or stirred?" he cried to the aide.  Imaginably a little taken aback she didn't answer. "Shaken it is!" And he tossed the dice onto the table.


Already quite revved up for the morning, I was surprised when Leon went to the bathroom a few minutes into class. This is not part of his typical routine.  I should have known.  Two minutes later he returned, without a peep,  a foot of toilet paper wrapped around his head in a ninja-style headband.  All the adults in the room silently cried tears of laughter, Leon merely smiled and returned to his seat. Class went on. 

The kid had a pretty solid 3-day streak going. I'm almost sorry the weekend interrupted it...Almost.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Teacher Haters Club

Last weekend I traveled to a pub with a friend to meet up with some of her old friends, and immediately engaged in some conversation with one of the attenders who had clearly had a few prior to our arrival.  When he found out I was a teacher of yet another district with contract agreement woes, he began an assault on the teaching profession, informing me that most teachers make $80,000 a year, and that when a teacher gets his/her masters, he/she immediately makes $60,000 a year.  "Nope, don't make $80,000...Nope, don't even make $60,000 with my masters," I attempted to calmly interject as he went on telling me how teachers have it made, and ultimately spewed out the core issue of the problem (as an ED teacher, I've become quite versed at getting past all the verbal vomit to arrive at the real problem) which was he is miserable in his current job in finance.  I knew there was no point in attempting to defend the long hours, emotional stress, parental strife, etc. because the guy had "ALL ABOUT ME" scrolling across his forehead at that moment.  So, I went for my little back pocket trick reserved for just such moments when friends or acquaintances start whining about teachers' summer breaks and 3:30 PM releases: "So, why don't YOU become a teacher?"

My conversation partner stumbled for a second before sharing that he had actually thought about just that, becoming a professor or something, but nothing below seniors in high school.  If I had been a real snot, I would have prodded  him as to why he wouldn't be able to teach younger children until he submitted to the fact that teaching is a difficult job that deserves some rewards.

As it was, I don't think I would have time, because seconds later others at the table had joined in on the mob action to whip the teacher.  "Blah blah blah teachers make over $100,000 a year...if they're a gym teacher they don't even do on, so on."  I was starting to get a bit heated at this point, but I managed to calmly throw out that conversation ending, "So become a teacher if it sounds so good!" Finally, I managed the victory of silencing the conversation after the second round.

But I was steaming for several minutes after the whole exchange, and I had to admit that my pride had been hurt just a smidgeon.  While I feel very blessed by my salary, I'm not exactly living like a queen. Furthermore,  I know plenty of teachers who make far, far less than I do to perform the same job, perhaps even a harder one. Also, while I know firsthand that I have a difficult job, I lay no claim to my job being any more stressful or time consuming or unpleasant than anyone else in the working world (except maybe dolphin trainers. I mean, that is a sweet deal right there.)

So, when did this nation decide, amongst all its many economic ills and struggles, that teachers were the greedy, ungrateful, lazy bottom feeders behind it all? Yes, the wave of teacher strikes in recent months seems like an understandable reason to begrudge teachers if one does not know what they are fighting for, but these strikes have not been the catalyst, rather the backlash to the nation's finger pointing.

I don't need to have people lauding me for my career choice, and I don't need my name or the teaching profession in big bright lights.  But I also make an effort not to roll my eyes and baulk when someone else shares with me their line of work, and I would expect the same from other strangers I happen to meet.

Please be kind to your local teachers, everyone.  It's very likely they've already plenty of abuse from an ill behaved child or two that day while simply trying to help and care for him.  They don't need another dose of ungrateful and disrespectful whining.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

We Inherited a Zoo

So, I haven't written something here in awhile.  I considered many different weighty, profound topics for my next entry, because it's been sort of a weighty year.  I contemplated the issue of how the smartest group of students I've ever had makes for the most stressful year, the woes of unhappy teachers unions, and life under a microscope as a teacher.

It's been a busy year so far, what with attending far more teacher meetings than I ever have, and also plowing through a 6 week middle school endorsement class.  I just don't have the mental stamina to write one more scholarly article with APA citations, I tell you!

Instead, I will resort to the brainless and comical as it pertains to my school.

So here it goes: my school is a zoo.  Whether it be the result of the drought, elevated animal reproduction rates, or the exterior of the school eroding, all I know is there are more beasts than children in the school right now.

Here is the current line up for the Animal Kingdom Parade!

 The Box Elder!

                                                                             The Centipede!


 The Wolf Spider!


                                                         The Mouse!

Okay, so the mouse hasn't made an appearance in a couple of years, but we still find remnants of the past in the form of tiny shreds of Hershey's Kisses wrappers. I'll never forget the time I turned around from my computer to find Ralph--sans motorcycle--sitting a few feet away just staring at me. I think there were a few moments' confusion as to who really belonged in the room.

The mouse is a distant memory, but the three aforementioned critters are alive and well and terrorizing our school.  Spiders have scurried over children's feet mid-class; a box-elder landed directly in my hand while I waited for the copy machine the other day; bookshelves have been broken in attempts to apprehend the intruders.  Teacher pleas for pesticide have not been well received, so I'm thinking it's about time to go vigilante on these mugs.

So I've done some research (would ya look at that?  The brain cells aren't all used up yet!) and here's what I've found out. Some home remedies for repelling wolf spiders include hummingbirds, lavender, and diatomaceous (???) earth. Also, wolf spiders just love trees, logs, brush, and other foliage.  So, I will probably pave the prairie in the school's backyard and put up a parking lot.

For centipedes, one website suggests setting out a sticky trap and catching multiple at once.  The image of a sticky trap full of centipedes has just insured at least one nightmare tonight.

Apparently box elder bugs can never be completely killed off as they have an "unlimited source" and migrant box elders will come from neighboring places to replace the dead ones. Great.

Probably the best way to handle any future mice infestations is to get them on a motorcycle.  I hear those things are pretty dangerous.

This school ain't big enough for all of us. Either all these guys get wiped out soon, or I have a feeling us teachers are going to be carried off by an angry mob of many-legged creatures.

The war begins.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

No Superstar

Norman, one of the pocket-sized 6th graders I inherited this year, is a friendly face in the crowd. Literally.  If you happen to lock eyes with him, even accidentally, you are probably in for an ear-to-ear grin and frantic wave. Even if it is a manifestation of extreme social discomfort, it's so precious.  Norman is also the only student on earth to ever fist pump at the mention of a math test. Even his weirdest quirks are adorable.  During his weekly meeting with Brandon, the Social Worker, Brandon had to step out for a moment.  "Okay," Norman replied. "I'll just wait here and do my favorite thing in the world." "What's that?" Brandon inquired. "Talk to myself," Norman answered matter-of-factly.

And talk to himself, he does.  I was fortunate enough to eavesdrop on one of these intimate conversations between Norman and Norman this week as he was creating a title page for a paper.

"Let's see," he pondered, mulling over the directions on the proper format for the title page, "should I put my last name?"

"Yes, yes," he replied, confidently. "I should put my last name. I am NOT a superstar."

Oh, Norman. So wise. If only every middle schooler was as self aware as you.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Getting Mine

To this day when I am reminded of my student teaching semester, nearly 6 years ago now, I nearly vomit in disgust.  I h-a-t-e-d it with a vengeance. After becoming quite the professional at acing papers, and being surrounded by fellow teacher candidates all getting our hands held through fake teaching experiences, I was spit out of the cozy college life back into lousy Lake County all by my lonesome to get my first true taste of the teacher life.

It sucked. I was thoroughly overwhelmed by big, scary, confusing projects on top of attempting to play teacher to kids who were as little as TWO YEARS younger than me in a student teaching assignment that really was not conducive to my program requirements (Way to go, Uni. STILL holding a grudge on that one.)  I'll never forget the post-observation conference I had with my supervisor, when she shared with me that as far as my written knowledge of the teacher profession went, I was solid.  What I needed to work on was the teaching component.  In other words, what I had set out to do all along was not working so well for me.

Okay, she wasn't exactly calling me a failure; and looking back, I'm sure I looked terrified up there, still in the mode of perfectionist honor student, rather than passionate educator.  But I remember being so frustrated at the discrepancy between the potential others saw in me and the potential I knew I had.  I was so confident in my calling and so self-assured in my abilities that it felt like total injustice to be told I just wasn't that great.

I survived student teaching, but my pride wasn't done taking severe blows.  Next, it was the administrators at several schools who failed to see my potential and passed me by on employment.  The only school who seemed willing to take me--my first career experience--was so hard up for teachers they would have hired an armless chimpanzee if it had a valid teaching certificate. Meanwhile, I watched old college classmates who had exerted far less effort and seemingly far less teaching potential, score jobs in really great districts, and my one person pity party continued.

When I was going to get MINE?!

Then, my shining moment came.  I was finally deemed a good fit for a wonderful district and the skills and quality attributes I knew I had to offer were finally put to good use!  I pinched myself to have gotten something so good, and I felt so spoiled that I was content to be low on the teacher totem pole, watching my P's and Q's and playing by the book so as not to lose the best thing that could have come along.  Being employed here was reward enough.

I have to say it really wasn't until very recently, under the perfect combination of achieving tenure and the right supportive administration I finally felt acknowledged. Originally, I intended to come here and gush about how affirming and refreshing and encouraging it is to be told by someone who really counts how valuable a teacher I am; how satisfying the reward is for honest-to-goodness hard work.

Then, I got served a couple helpings of humble pie in the form of two sermons from two different pastors in one day...two weekends ago. 

The first message painted a metaphor of our earthly struggles as an Olympian's grueling training and pursuit of a medal. The only difference: ours is one that can't be earned in this lifetime. The second message was a call to evaluate our lives and identify the aspects that we tend to claim as ours, knowing full well nothing in our lives is truly ours to own--tangible or intangible. To me, the message was loud and clear:  forget the reward, Miss T.  You aren't in line for one this side of heaven. 

I've been so preoccupied with achieving my personal success story in the teaching world that I've failed to remember that it's pretty meaningless as far as my worldly existence is concerned.  And my current circumstances are proof of that fact. Has the figurative pat on the back from administration made me any happier? Has it made my life any more easy and care free?  Nope.  As well it shouldn't. 

The approval of man can only get us so far, and I set out long ago on this career path seeking something far greater than the acknowledgment of others or even myself.  Pride and selfish gain just seem to get in the way of the truth from time to time.

Thank goodness for the "little darlings" in my classroom who remind me quite frequently I'm not so magical as I may think.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Haters Gonna Hate

As previously mentioned, I am surprisingly good at leaving any high emotions of the teaching day at the door, or at least ridding myself of them on the therapeutic drive home.  But there are some days when the frustrations remain with me, set to "Continuous Play" in my brain.  I find myself replaying dreadful scenes from the day and repeatedly curse crazy parents, or the inventor of whatever technology failed me and thwarted my plans of for the day.

Today was definitely was one of those days, but nothing that a good 40 minutes of speed walking couldn't fix.  Even better, as I was in the homestretch of my quasi-workout, I was suddenly reminded of the very best moments of the school day which had occurred first thing in the morning, and had been buried under a load of "junk" meanwhile.   How unfortunate the way the burdens of the day had nearly erased a refreshing moment when I was reminded why I love my job!  But, no matter, the good memory was salvaged!

My student, Leon, should be the star of the next movie about a mischievous, but irresistibly adorable child and his antics to befuddle the adults in his life.  Also, he could voice Ralph in a re-make of the movie "The Mouse and the Motorcycle." He is physically on par for a seven year old, and his emotional capabilities are not far behind.

That's why I wasn't all too surprised when he came into first period today proudly clutching a small, sort of dirty stuffed dog.  Knowing Leon's propensity to throw mini temper tantrums when he's not getting his way, I began to slowly and tactfully lead him to the conclusion that stuffed animals--even cute stuffed pugs named Indiana Jones (Indy for short) were not appropriate in middle school.  Whether Leon was fully listening or not was unclear as he removed his glasses, put them on Indy and began making him dance to a cheerful little tune.

A polite hand went up at the other side of the room.

"Uh, Miss T?" Westin chimed in. "I think I have something that might help Leon with this situation."

Having already proven himself incredibly articulate and profound for a 6th grader, I welcomed Westin's input.

"Well, when I wore my 'My Little Pony' belt to school yesterday..."


"...well, I got some nasty comments, but I just said to myself 'you know, I don't care because, you know, haters gonna hate..."

My eyes shot to the three other adults in the room hoping I was transmitting the message: Is this a dream come true, or what?

Out loud, I simply said, "Haters going to hate".  Instantly, I regretted my little too precise, white bread pronunciation of the saying, but figured I safe in this room.

  Au contraire. Of all people it was Leon, still loving on his stuffed animal at his desk, who corrected me.

"It's haters gonna hate. You have to say it right."

Was I really just out-streeted by a kid with a plush toy and a "Pony" belt.

After the initial shock at this interesting turn in events, the class launched into a fruitful conversation about the fine line between being unique or young at heart, and setting yourself up to be a target and undesired by your peers.  The students were surprisingly receptive to the information; some of them clearly craved it as it were groundbreaking for their social lives.  My heart began to break when students earnestly raised concerns about their inability to make friends, or their awareness that they just weren't well-liked by most students.  But there was such joy in being able to begin unpacking this scary new world for them.  This was what I had set out to do in my job:  help the helpless--those not running on all cylinders from the start.

And God bless these kids, they're starving for the basics, right now.  They're just peeking into the world of social norms for the first time to find out that the people you play on X-BOX Live are not your real friends, and failing to bathe will ruin your relationships with others. 

Sometimes it's refreshing to get back to the basics, but being reminded that even then, haters STILL gonna hate.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Summer break is tough

I already sense this post's title is not getting any of your sympathy. You can stop growling at me now.

 I acknowledge the gaping hole in my work calendar each year is a a luxury that the greater part of the working world doesn't enjoy.  But,  too much of anything is never a good thing and I am reminded of that each July when my short summer school stint comes to an end and my annual travels are still far on the horizon.  With no wake up time, no schedule, little to no obligations, and not very much company, I inevitably fall into a restless funk where I throw daily pity parties for myself and do everything short of jumping in my car and driving aimlessly just to stay busy.

This lack-of-routine-itis is easily cured by an international journey--somewhere around the end of July--which reminds me how darn blessed I am to be afforded such an opportunity, then thoroughly exhausts me and gives me a new found appreciation for the lazy comforts of home.  By the time I return in August, or thereabouts, I'm struck by the realization the new school year is only weeks away and my mind is consumed with thoughts of planning, organization, and anticipation (err, anxiety more like it) of my new "little darlings" for the year.

It isn't until the final full week of summer break (which, if you're keeping count, is right now) that I fully appreciate and truly embrace the gift of summer break.  My only explanation for this phenomenon is the understanding that life will be hectic again in a very short time and, as a result, I feel much more entitled to and deserving of my freedom in the present moment. 

If the close relativity of my summer break to the beginning of the school year is what breaks me out of my summer break funk, it makes me toy with the idea of endorsing year-round schooling (I think I just heard a teacher somewhere reading this scream).  In this format, teachers still receive the same quantity of days off, they are just much more spread out, in much smaller increments.  If this were my situation, I imagine I might have greater access to the contentment of blissful nothingness for days on end, knowing I'll be back to the grindstone very soon.

But, no. I am left to the miserable fate of 80 days' break for now.  At least I don't have to worry about lack-of-routine-itis again until December when I get another 2 weeks off.  Sigh.

You may commence throwing tomatoes, now.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Easy Street - Part II

In my last post, I was busy counting the blessings of holding a job that many people, at the mention of, may run and cower 

Looks can be deceiving.

So far, I've hit up 3 of 5 very good ways my job can be easier than the typical middle school teacher:

1) The evils of Inclusion: 2) Academic freedom:
3) Isolation--the good kind


4) A good excuse for bad behavior
Any given day at my job promises some sort of behavior abnormality and/or dysfunction amongst the students.  A day free of that would be, frankly, a little bit scary.  But I signed up for my fair share of bad behavior when I signed my name on the line to an ED position.  Though I'm not saying I'm always going to handle the run-of-the-mill outburst, shut down, or work refusal with total grace, my tolerance runs quite high for it because these kids are coming in the door with a piece of paper (the IEP) that's a license for deviance. 

What really tests my limits?  The kids who act much the same way but without the piece of paper that says their behavior is medically/psychologically/intellectually proven.  They're just plain old bad boys and girls. Degenerates, menaces to society, what is this world coming to? When I was their age....!  Yeah, regular education kids quickly turn me into stubborn, crotchety old man convinced the world is going down the drain with every new generation of kids.  They're the future of America, for crying out loud!

And my kids?  The ED population?  Well, they get a free pass.

And finally, the ultimate reason my job is better than other teachers'...

5) Blondes (from a bottle) have more fun--particularly when they're special ed. teachers
With all the freedom and isolation and good excuse for bad behavior, Annie and I really make those lemons into lemonade as often as we can. 

I ask of those in the mainstream teaching profession:  When was the last time you helped out a student too nervous to present in front of the class by giving him a pink handle bar mustache to wear while he did it?Or how about required everyone to end all of their sentences with "Meow".  Taught a lesson on how to express emotions using finger eyebrows and mustaches? ( Mustaches are a pretty big deal in Room 501).

While using humor in the classroom is sort of an afterthought in the good teacher textbook of your undergrad years, it's pretty much a prerequisite to developing solid relationships with students and getting things accomplished.  I don't know about you, but a job where inciting laughter is mandatory and you actually get a decent salary and benefits to do it (sorry, stand-up comedians), sounds like a sweet deal to me.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Easy Street--Part I

"You are an absolute saint for what you do."
"God bless you, Miss T., because I don't know how you do it."

It's not uncommon to hear such praise and lauding from friends and family who learn of the population with which I work, or a neighboring teacher who catches me giving a run-of-the-mill discipline lecture outside of my classroom in my most patient but firm tone of voice.  The sentiments come much appreciated, particuarly when I become so entrenched in my job that I forget that it is outside the realm of normalcy for a public school teacher (yes, I've actually forgotten that my students are considered "weird" by most standards).

But, lately, I've begun to ponder if such kind words are undeserved. What's more, should I be the one bestowing them on others--namely the teachers with the normal population?

I just may be inclined to believe that when you put my job side-by-side with that of a typical middle school regular education teacher, I've got it infinitely easier.  Here's just 5 of the reasons why...

1) The evils of Inclusion:
Whoever masterminded the idea of Least Restrictive Environment for students with disabilities, clearly never experienced the joy of teaching a science class of 30 students, 5 of whom are diagnosed with some form of emotional disorder or pervasive ADHD disorder.  My personal instructional classes can get a bit batty when Joe Schmo has shut down and Sally Sue is crying and Billy Bob has forgotten to take his medication.  But, I have the luxury of bringing my class to a halt until I've got functioning students again.  For a regular education teacher with no aide, there's still obligation to 25 other little brains.  Oh, yeah, and you still may have to answer for that "F" you gave Joe Schmo even though he didn't do a darn thing in class. 

2) Academic freedom:
While collaboration and team work and all that stuff valued by the Professional Learning Community is fantastic, it often gets taken to the extreme when teacher teams feel bound to teach the material in an identical manner, at an identical pace, with an identical test taken on an identical day.  Then, there's the recent roll out of the Common Core teaching standards which will soon become the material of standardized testing, and is so specific and rigorous in nature that it is bound to quickly fill every teaching moment of the school year with non-negotiable and requirec content.  Whatever happened to the days when Mr. Jones could throw an extra day into the Tom Sawyer unit to come to class in the character of Mark Twain and let the kids interview him?

Now, it's not to say that my little island of students is immune to school and federal policy, but as an instructional special education class, it's sort of a given that we are going to take our own routes to the same destination.  We'll stay on the same lesson 5 days in a row if we have to, and if yoga or a dance off or spending the whole class speaking in different accents seems a necessity, well by golly...My room is where Academic Freedom comes to party.

3) Isolation--the good kind
There's nothing like the delightful solitude that comes when you are left alone by administrators, fellow teachers, other students--pretty much everyone.  Remember your school days when the BD kids were banished to the basement or the untraversed wing of the building--a mystery and enigma to the masses?  Well, that's not us exactly.  Sure we've adoringly nicknamed our windowless room-formerly-known-as-a-closet "The Cave" or "The Dungeon" or "Hell".  But, it's got a rightful spot in the same hall as the normal classes and, by all appearances, is just a mini-me version of the other classrooms (minus any glimpse of daylight). 

Still, at times, I wonder if it is only visible to those who need it (a la the Room of Requirement from Harry Potter), and I have to say I like it.  It's a little bit of a terrifying realization that I could be alternating my days playing "Twister" and reciting Mother Goose rhymes to the kids without anyone ever knowing the better (and it sounds like a whole lot of that was going on in here prior to my hiring), but since I'm actually working my butt off, being left alone makes me feel very confident, self-assured, and self-sufficient. 

Recently, Annie inquired with our principal how some of the sweeping changes in the school would affect our classroom and program next year.  Mr. Principal responded, with arms open and shaking head, "We just want you and Ms. T. to keep doing what you're doing."

If ever words were music to my ears...

[Stay tuned for Part 2 of the List]

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Made It

I'm pretty stoked.

Two Fridays from now, after my work day is done, I'll be getting all gussied up, heading over to the local country club and enjoying a $50 meal at no expense to me, and schmoozing with both the big wigs and my induction "class" in honor of my impending tenure. It feels equally awesome and surreal.

[We'll omit, for the time being, the fact that tenure is about to lose much of its significance in the state of Illinois and will probably be eradicated all together within the next five years. Let me have my moment of glory, gosh darn it.]

There were plenty of moments in the first two years at my current job that I feared my every move held the potential to get me fired. It's just common knowledge in the teaching community that you lay low and don't make any mistakes those first four years, because schools are within their right to let you go if you so much as look at an administrator the wrong way. No justification is needed for employee release prior to tenure.

But, I gained boatloads of confidence and reassurance heading into my 3rd year that I was wanted and proficient in my role, and for the past year or so, as life has roller-coastered a bit around me, the job has become sort of a given--an assumed part of my every day existence.

I fear I've started to take it for granted. Can it be that, amidst financial turmoil and economic chaos, with unemployment rates soaring and hardly any teaching positions open for my newly graduated/graduating friends, that I have forgotten just how blessed I am to wake up to a job each and every day? And what's more, a job that I actually enjoy? It wasn't so long ago I absolutely dreaded the morning alarm and another unpredictable day in the school from hell. Though I promised myself 4 years ago I never would, have I lost sight of how good I've got it here?

That little "T" next to my name on the evaluation list will make it less likely that this privilege will be taken from me (not that it has been all that likely up until now, anyways), but more importantly I think it will be a good reminder that I'm right where I'm supposed to be with little thanks to me. Sure I've put in the hard work and passion to get this far, but in many ways I feel like I don't deserve much credit at all.

Ten years ago, when I first decided I wanted to go into special education, the LAST sub-group I imagined I'd want to teach was these kiddos. Yet, here I am, feeling like the perfect job was dropped into my lap, constantly waving off exclamations of others to the effect of, "It takes a special person to do this job. God bless you!" Yeah, I honestly don't see it that way. I'm not really sure what else I'd be doing at this point.

So, did I earn the accolades? I suppose. But I'm of the mind that nothing that ever happens to us is truly in our control. So, there's nothing else that I can choose to be but grateful.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lasers Make me Sad

There aren't many 4 letter words that scare a teacher, particularly one in the BD/ED population. But, there's one in particular I think my colleagues and I agree can cause us to recoil in dread:


No one in their right mind enjoys standardized testing season, but it's been especially offputting this year as our school scrambles to recover from some deficits in test scores from the past couple years. Instead of lumping the test sessions into a couple days as usual, they were spread out over two whole weeks just one hour a day, making teaching any normal lessons the rest of the day very painful for all involved. Then, there were the highlighter yellow "Rah rah for ISAT" (well, that's not EXACTLY what they said) t-shirts that we had to wear 7 days, nearly consecutively. By the time the make-ups were over, test booklets were turned in, and t-shirts ripped to shreds (oh yes, there were teachers that tore them to shreds) everyone--adults and kids alike--was ready to be locked in the looney bin.

The natural progression from this point was to begin an intensive one week poetry unit with my 7th graders, squeezed between gruelling ISATS and a long overdue spring break, and complete with an extended writing assignment, right? NO! Of course not! Worst teaching practices ever!

But I really didn't have a choice. Due to the quite exceptional needs of this group of students, we've been trailing behind the rest of the 7th grade English classes the entire year, and right now it's imperative that they catch up because their next writing unit is tied into another class's project.

Amidst the madness, I had to miss my English class one day this week and I was forced to assign a 20 line poem with a sad mood and several other required elements (figurative language, sound devices, and so on) that day in my absence. When my meeting got out right at the end of 8th period, I caught Alejandro walking out of the media center where he was to be working on the poem.

"How did your poem writing turn out?"

"Good [trademark Beavis/Butthead laugh]."

Alejandro skipped town before I could inquire any further into the progress he had made while I was gone. But I gathered a better understanding once I returned to my room and found a typed, finished first draft of his poem on my desk.

And now, for your viewing pleasure, an Alejandro original:


Not a lot of things make me sad

People dying is one

It is sad

In movies they die dramtic deaths

In some movies, when people die they make people bbreathe heavy

It is like they just jogged

It is sad when I lose at a video game

When I lose I practice more so I can own and p'wn (gaming term)

And then I eat a scone and break a bone

It sounds like a crunch

It is sad when people get cramps

When they keep eating beets

They want to cry

When they cry they go boo hoo!

Instead of swimming they should ride their bike

It is sad when I get in trouble and get bad grades

When I get bad grades the school building gets mad at me

The school throws pencils and carpeting at me

It is sad, and I feel awkard because schools should not do this

There are the things that make me sad

There you have it ladies and gentleman: the tried and true cure for standardized teaching exhaustion and general teacher burn out. Thank you, Alejandro. Thank you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Bad Teacher

We all have that person in our life... An acquaintance, or friend of a friend's friend, or perhaps a virtual stranger who keeps popping up at the most random of times in the most random of places. It's a person who appears as a blip on your life radar every few years seemingly by happenstance.

That person for me first came on my radar my senior year of high school when a lunch buddy of mine become engaged to that person, who was six years her senior. The relationship dissolved quickly, but I continued to see that person randomly every couple of years around the local gym.
Then, fast forward to my fortuitous interview opportunity at my current school of employment. I'll never forget the shock I received when I logged onto the website and found that person occupying the position I was vying for. I reserve no right to pass judgment on that person's character or mistakes or shortcomings while employed at the school, but all I know is that for the first several months in that person's previous position, I had co-workers approaching me regularly to remark how surprised they were to hear actual teaching going on in my classroom.

Fast forward to a text message I received this week from friend and fellow teacher informing me that that person was observing her classroom, likely because he wasn't cutting it in his own position and needed good models. Also, through friendly conversation with my friend, that person revealed that he never even made it through the teacher program at his college the first time round due to its level of difficulty. Teacher programs...difficult...ahem.

Add to this rap sheet the knowledge that that person has been in some trouble with the police as well, and I find myself even now having to slap myself over the wrist at my propensity to judge someone's mistakes (however many and frequent they be) without ever reserving the right.

BUT beyond my sinful desires to belittle someone, I think there is an ounce of rightful anger at the injustice being done, here. From a sort of bird's eye view, I've seen that person make mistake after mistake: hurting others and neglecting responsibilities and making life difficult for others. I have to wonder, at what point does "BAD TEACHER" get stamped on his forehead to prevent any more people and districts to be fooled by a charming facade, thus allowing children's lives to be mismanaged and co-workers to shoulder the weight of someone's ineptness.

STILL, I have to wonder if that's any concern of mine. People grow and, with God's grace, sometimes they do a complete 180 in life. Should that person run out of chances and be kicked to the curb, never to step foot in a school again? Or should he be allowed the opportunity to be mentored and refined time and time again until he gets it right?

I guess either way, it's not my call to make. Lord knows I've been offered a second chance, and sometimes a third, fourth, and fifth one before I finally got it together. It takes a lot of wisdom and strength to acknowledge someone like that person deserves it just as much.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Got My Goat

Most people are familiar with the old expression, "got my goat". It is used to express how someone has caused annoyance to one's self on such an extreme level that reasonableness and logic begin to go out the window. If I were to share with one of my co-workers right now that one of my students, Alejandro, has really got my goat, they would probably flash me a sympathetically exasperated look and await tales of relentlessly repulsive behavior that is steering my class towards disaster.

But, I've found a new definition for this timeless saying. While I'm experiencing the same loss in reason, and my classroom is not running as smoothly as a result, I guess you could say I'm dealing with a different kind of goat...

A Hilarious Goat

There was a time that Alejandro didn't have me constantly in stitches--in fact, quite the opposite. The most impulsive case of ADHD I've ever seen with a nice dose of Aspergers to dull his social awareness, it was quite the challenge to transmit any knowledge of English with the spontaneous pacing of the classroom and endless string of jungle sounds emitting from his mouth. I suppose the saving grace that prevented me from secretly begrudging his very presence in my classroom was that, despite his never-rending disruptions, he truly wanted to succeed and much of his impulsiveness was just plain out of his control.

I think the day the day Alejandro started to get my hilarious goat was when he was working in my room, but I was on plan period and, free from supervision duty, I was free to sit back and just watch the show. One of his most winning qualities is his insanely infectious laugh. A perfect cross between Beavis and Butthead in pitch and cadence, it is just as easy to get one out of him as the famous MTV teenagers. As he worked on his laptop, Annie and I--feeling a bit squirrelly--attempted to replicate his laugh. Without missing a beat, he responded with his own laugh as if it were a triggered reflex. I have found other triggers to be the mention of any food or animal, and the conjuring of random, bizarre mental images--particularly mental images involving animals and food. (Example: A cat eating a hotdog. That would have him in hysterics instantly.) With time, I find the tables are turning to where Alejandro's laughter automatically triggers my own, and I'm powerless to stop it.

As I began to appreciate Alejandro a bit more for his quirks, I one day stopped my normal frantic bustle preparing for English class to soak in his trademark entrance to the classroom. I promise there has not been one day this year Alejandro has simply opened the door, walked through the threshold and headed straight for his desk in the normal fashion. Some of his many variations on the expected behavior include jiggling the door handle wildly before opening the door, thrusting the door open and then disappearing from the doorway to feign the appearance of a ghost, bursting through the door screaming indecipherable absurdities, and/or walking in and throwing himself across his desk or chair that requires a greeting of: "Alejandro, get down." The most "normal" arrival in recent memory was sitting down at his desk after several requests to do so, folding his hands in front of him and saying in a perfectly neutral tone, "Shall we proceed?"

That leads me to Alejandro's notorious utterances. As previously mentioned, much that escapes his lips is pure nonsense. He is highly adept at combining random syllables into gibberish, then neatly inserting the gibberish into a grammatically correct sentence. His default gibberish is "Wombo Fish" and it may make an appearance at any time.

"A verb is a Wombo Fish."

"6 to the Wombo Fish equals 36."

"Miss T, I can't do my work, I don't have my Wombo Fish."

His impressively extensive vocabulary often aids in the hilarity of the nonsense. Just this past week, frantically in search of his pencil, Alejandro exclaimed: "Where is my babushka?!?"

I could go on for ages with little anecdotes like these, but the core issue here is that Alejandro has accomplished something that only one in about every 20 students is capable of. He has cracked my stoically professional facade and ruined my objective treatment of the students as far as classroom rules goes.

Lucky for me, Alejandro is marching to the beat of a drummer that bangs so loud he doesn't realize his opportunity to take advantage of his power over me. Even luckier for me, the others in my class have the maturity and intuition to understand the exception I have made for their classmate. The other day, after responding to Alejandro's disruptive exclamations with a helpless giggle, I sobered up and reminded everyone this was not a precedent for allowing silly antics from the rest of them. One of the others, Nick, reassured me, "We know, we know, Miss T. We probably couldn't pull it off the way Alejandro does if we tried."

Wise words from a student with major emotional difficulties. Perhaps we all have something to learn from Alejandro and his Wombo fish.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When Ms. T becomes Mother T(heresa)....

In my handful of years teaching my particular population of students, I've come to find they generally fall into one of three categories.

The first--and most rare--is the category of students with issues in isolation from the rest of their family. In other words, their parents are normal. Perhaps their child's perplexing behaviors have driven them a bit batty over the years, but who could blame them? They are totally cognizant of the problem and they do their best to care for him/her while handing the reigns trustfully over to the teacher during school hours. Again, this scenario comes along about once every 10 kids.

The second category of students--the most common--are those with emotional issues congruous with the rest of the family. They're the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree" kids, or better yet, the "apple is just a smaller version of the tree". These are the families, Annie and I joke, could all benefit from being placed in our ED program.

These first two categories of students I believe I was born to teach. Somehow, despite even the most ludicrous of situations, I'm generally able to approach teaching and managing these students with a great deal of objectivity and emotional detachment.

Now, I'm not saying there aren't some days when I think my head is going to burst into flames. I'm also not saying that ice water runs through my veins and I don't feel any sort of emotional connection to my students. I just believe that, in general, I've mastered the proper degrees of investment and detachment to ensure some longevity in my career.

But then comes the third category of students--the deal breaker. These are the students who lost the lottery. If born into any other family where they were loved and encouraged and provided for, they would be, for all intents and purposes, normal. But they haven't been so lucky. They've been broken. They're bright and seemingly so full of potential; you see glimpses of love and that child's innate desire to please, but it's clear that much of that was sucked out of them long ago, and by no fault of their own. It was this situation on a very large scale that drove me from my first job--a urban, impoverished community where ignorance and depravity beget more and more of the same in a never-ending cycle. It infuriated me and I knew I was not doing myself or the students there any favors.

Teaching in the context of a much healthier community, now, it's a less common scenario. But, it is still one that gets my goat every time. When tales of abuse and neglect emerge from a child's background, it's all I have not to take them home with me that very day and start showering them with the protection, love, and affection they so dearly need. I'm sure I wouldn't fix the kid overnight, and I'm no miracle worker; but I'd like to think some proper nurturing is all it would take to nurse these poor kids back to some semblance of normalcy.

Talk about your emotional investment. When I'm ready to bring home troubled 12-year-olds and become their surrogate mothers, I know I've gone off the deep end.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Control Freak

Less than a month into my unofficial training and I'm already up to 7 miles!

I've been surprised how impressed some of my friends have been with my accomplishments--in particular, those friends who, from all appearances, are more fit than I am. I'm relatively in shape, but I'm no Olympic medalist, nor do I look the part. I had a very thin, athletic friend remark the other day that he could barely run 3 miles these days, and that made me realize that perhaps my progress is more noteworthy than I thought.

I'm starting to understand that long distance training, like any challenging pursuit, is a great deal more a mental game than anything else--the proverbial 1% perspiration, 99% inspiration (a partially inaccurate equation when you take into account how soaked my clothes are after a run). If I wasn't so dead set on going all the way and making some real changes in my health, I probably would have petered out after mile 5 when my hips were screaming and I started to think I might upchuck.

Yeah, yeah. Go me and my incredible willpower. I'm proud and pleased with what I've done so far, but I think a ton of credit goes to the simple fact that this kind of challenge was made for someone exactly like me--THE CONTROL FREAK.

There are so many aspects of my life in which attempting to attain a goal is a painfully slow, often confusing and turbulent process; sometimes, only with hindsight can success then be measured. This is difficult and incredibly frustrating for the analytical mind which craves a step-by-step formula to reach the desired result.

Thank goodness for the tangible rewards of a running plan, measured in miles run, calories burned, and firmness of booty muscles (yeah, I said it), and the power I have over achieving those rewards simply by making the choice to lace up and swipe in at the gym.

Ah, but, see, life has taught me some valuable lessons about my compulsive need for control. That lesson is this: Just when I think I've harnessed it, some sort of rude and often unpleasant awakening comes to remind me just how powerless I am.

In my mind, I've already set the course for the next 6 months of training, discounting any chance for a sprained ankle or illness to set me back, but who's to say? The occasional reminder to myself that I am, in fact, NOT a machine may prevent any rude awakenings in the near future.

James 4:14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

God helps those...

The first day back from Christmas Break, I opened class with the obligatory question, "How was your break and what did you do?"

Of course, the kids interpreted this question--as they do every year--to mean, "What incredibly awesome gifts did you score for Christmas?"

The responses, as far as the typical pre-teen goes, were not very surprising: new video game systems and Apple products galore. What was surprising was the nature of the students who received these gifts. More than one of them has documented need for financial assistance through the school's free and reduced lunch program; yet, here they were acquiring video game systems worth 50 days worth of school meals. Clearly, something didn't add up.

This is far from the first time I've experienced frustration with the discrepancies between the expressed needs of the students' families and their lifestyle choices. Sure, we all have difficulties prioritizing our money. I freely admit I skimp on quality grocery products sometimes so I can buy some higher-end threads to parade around in. Popular culture easily persuades us to value some silly things.

But, I find myself becoming bitter when I witness extremely poor financial choices, and on a repeated basis, among families of children I care for. I put much of my yearly classroom budget to basic school supplies for those who can't acquire them. I donate money to school families for the holidays or give anonymous gifts throughout the year to under-resourced students. I don't do it to check "Be Generous" off my bucket list for the year. I do it because I want them to experience at least an ounce of the privilege I've been so blessed to have. So, it doesn't bode well when they come to school rocking brand new $100 shoes the next day.

"God helps them that help themselves."

Amen, Ben Franklin! I mean, the declaration definitely has some merit to it--particularly from the perspective of the teacher. Our students would get nowhere if we handed them every answer, every step to solve the problem, every ticket to the "Fast Pass" lane. So, instead of giving them a fish to eat for a day, we teach them how to fish so they can eat for a lifetime (Chinese proverb) .

My angst over individuals playing the welfare system and/or charity stems from more than just the desire to help the disadvantaged become self-sufficient. I fear it's something much more primal and not so noble in me.

There's this song by Christian artist, Matthew West called "My Own Little World" about learning to be selfless and reach out to the less fortunate. In one part of the song, the lyrics describe finally taking notice of a homeless widow on the side of the street and giving her some money. Every time I hear the song, my mind screams, "No! Don't do it! She's gonna take your cash and blow it on a 40 at the liquor store!"

And you know what? My concerns have some validity. Let's not kid ourselves: there's a reason a lot (not ALL, mind you) of these people are destitute and it doesn't result from throwing away all their money on infomercial products or brand-named groceries. They have some nasty and expensive habits that I don't particularly want to sponsor with my pocket change.

With this cold-hard truth in mind, the sink-or-swim, every-man-for-himself side of me does a mental fist pump when I hear Big Ben's quote.

But then, another side of me starts to kick in. The side that rejects what is culturally accepted, or what is "fair" by world standards, or what suits my selfish heart. It's the side that acknowledges the Truth.

The belief that the quote, "God helps them who help themselves" is straight from the bible, is a misconception. In truth, not only is it not found in the bible, but it is refuted.

Psalm 46:1-3 God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

God gives grace (favor, blessing) to the humble. 1 Peter 5:5

True, there's nothing there about God favoring the free-loaders and the parasites, but there are some pretty important verses about not judging others when we have our own share of issues.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? Matthew 7:3

So, there's a danger that my charitable giving is not being taken advantage of appropriately. What am I to do? Keep on giving as I've been called. It's not up to me to determine who is most worthy of the gift.

After all, Lord knows I've been given something a time or two of which I didn't deserve...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My Big Bang Theory

My flavor of the month, lately, has been episodes of CBS's The Big Bang Theory. It's not always the most well written and you find after watching several episodes back-to-back, that they don't vary much in their basic formula. However, I'm pretty "tickled" (who uses that word anymore?) by the character Sheldon Cooper.

Yeah, yeah, everyone thinks he's great and hilarious and Jim Parsons has won about 3 million Emmys for the role if that's any proof. But the reasons I love him may differ from most. With his debilitating social challenges, lack of ability to express or perceive emotions, extreme OCD tendencies (same seat on the couch, always knocking on a door 3 times, strict food preferences), impeccable math and scientific reasoning skills, and love for all things nerdy, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the character of Sheldon Cooper is based off of someone with autism. Rarely am I watching the show thinking these geeky scientists are "so ridiculous!". Most of the time I'm thinking they are "so every kid and adult with an Autism Spectrum Disorder I've worked with in my life!"

There are students in particular that come to mind when I think of the show, and they're none other than my favorite English class alumni, Ryan and his best friend, Allen (not previously mentioned, I'm surprised to say) . The very best of friends, and undoubtedly cut from the same cloth, Ryan and Allen travel the halls together perpetually engrossed in conversations about Star Wars, Pokemon, and Kirby for Wii. They walk into class tossing around "Lord of the Rings" themed jokes and are silenced only at the teacher's request. In unison they break into hysterics over the teachers' puns or simple wordplay (once again, I refer you to the "Eggs Benedict--Good Speaking Eggs" incident). The end-bell hasn't even finished ringing before they're out of their seats and throwing around theoretical scenarios for Mario and Luigi in non-existent levels of the video game.

Before I even ever invested in the story line between Leonard and Sheldon, I vowed that Ryan and Allen would be room mates some day. More and more now I find myself connecting the dots between my former students and their television complements.

The first day back, I had the honor of getting caught walking right in front of the boys during a passing period. Their conversation was true-to-form.

Ryan: Hey remind me to bring the "Physics of Star Trek" book tomorrow.
Allen: Oh yeah, and I'll bring [nerdy graphic novel, the name of which I'm blanking on].

At that point, Ryan spotted me ahead walking in front of him and caught up to my side. For the following exchange, feel free to substitute a mental image of Sheldon Cooper.

Sheldon--I mean Ryan: Why should Windows XP be a prison guard?
Me: Oh, well, hello to you too, Ryan! Nice to see break was GREAT! Thanks for asking!
Ryan (no emotion): I'm trying to tell you a joke.
Me: Okay, go for it.
Ryan: Why should Windows XP be a prison guard?"
Me: Why?
Ryan: Because it always locks up.
Me: [forced laughter] Good one
Ryan: It's true.

If only I could the kid to finish with "Bazinga!", we'd be golden.