Monday, August 30, 2010

Misha will make a great mother one day.

She is the eldest of the group of seven I’ve been assigned to. Misha doesn’t even seem autistic. There’s definitely something wrong with her. But she seems more intellectually disabled (mental retardation) than autistic. Granted, she does have that aversion to touch and sensitivity to fabrics, but does that make one autistic? I knew a whole family who couldn’t leave the tags on their clothes because it was too bothersome to them. They weren’t autistic.

Misha is tall and skinny as a rail. She comes from an interesting family. The youngest of five girls, Misha is the apple of her father’s eye. Her older sisters are much, much older. One has a kid that’s near Misha’s age. I can’t quite understand her family. Her father is always going to court, but he’s also always here in an instant when there’s something wrong with Misha. I’ve never met Misha’s mother. But I know she exists because I’ve talked to her on the phone.

Misha cried all of the time, but it wasn’t an annoying cry like Mikey. She cried silently and stoically. Sometimes, I didn’t even know she was crying; I’d look over at her and she’d have tears streaming down her face. Usually, it was for a cut she had gotten three days ago. Misha felt pain like none other. I felt sorry for her; I can’t imagine what it will be like when she gets her period. She’ll probably have to lie in bed for days and be drugged with Midol.

It’s hard to say that Misha was a touching child. She really wasn’t; you might forget about her because she was so quiet. And she stayed that way all year. Unlike Roberto, who turned into an unbearable child, Misha actually matured quite well that year. There were days when she took on the mother role so believably. Like the day she smacked Amy on the hand because she was so out of control. We all looked at Misha, silently, and then we corrected her. But how could we correct someone who wasn’t really doing anything wrong? She just knew how to be a mom.

Around the classroom, Misha was always willing to help. She’d hand out napkins or tie someone’s shoe. She was sometimes better than the aides I had. I really enjoyed having her around, if it was only for the extra help. I’m not quite sure was Misha had learned that year. There were some days when I’d think she’d made progress and other days where I believe she had regressed. She was a tricky child when it came to learning how to read or calculate numbers.

Did she touch my life you’d ask? I’m supposed to say yes, right? Maybe, in her own special way, but honestly I was having trouble remembering her name for this post. I’m glad I wrote about her, because I might have forgotten about her forever. Just another student whose face would be nameless. That would have been sad or tragic or something, so I’m glad I wrote about her before she was completely obliterated from my memory bank.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

“Fix your face.”

That was a favorite phrase among my aides that I eventually started using with the kids. That and “Stop making that noise.” I liked these phrases, actually they grew on me, like only the culture of the poor and those in poverty can. Learning phrases like this was fascinating to me. It was like a course in urban linguistics. I would later learn many more phrases teaching urban high schoolers…But those stories, I’m saving. Those stories are like the Seven Wonders of the World. These are more like the Eiffel Tower or the Leaning Tower of Piza. Fascinating, but not nearly as good. I’m saving the best for last, so hang in there, my dear readers.

The “Fix your face” phrase was used most on Mikey. Mikey, poor thing, was also a brat (apparently this is a thing with autistic kids), but he was cute. In fact, when my fiancé came in to meet my class, he thought Mikey was the cutest of all. I thought he was the most annoying of all. He had autism with a combination of ADHD. It was the most irritating of all possibilities; his cuteness eluded me. It didn’t matter how cute he was because every day after nap time, he would cry. And cry, and cry, and cry, until at last he’d have to be taken out of the room by one of my aides.

I guess she threatened him or something because usually when he came back he was just sobbing. I never asked what she did; I just always thanked my lucky stars when she came back with him that he was quiet. I suppose I ran my classroom like the military, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I can’t say that was the right thing to do, but it was the thing that kept the peace among us.

Mikey’s mother was a very nice woman. She was a little younger than me and that meant she would have been 24 years old. A single parent, she worked a full time job trying desperately to support Mikey and herself. Her phone was frequently disconnected and they moved a lot. They’re situation was classic poverty unstableness. It made me very sad because she was so close to my age. Even though I was not pregnant nor had a child, I knew that even without Mikey, she would never have the same opportunities as me and the only thing that separated her from me was race and socio-economic status.

I could and probably should take this opportunity to get on the soap box about the achievement gap and how urban education is actually a civil rights issue that is keeping minorities oppressed. But I won’t, I’m trying to keep this blog about my experiences and what happened to me. There have been plenty of books and articles written about the achievement gap, if you care to read those. I will say this; I got into this profession to help close that gap. After seeing the problems in DCPS, it made me realize that the National Guard couldn’t help this school system.

But I tried. Each day I tried to help these kids in the classroom as best I could. I guess it’s good that my program picked Type A personalities. You know the kind, those who are willing to ruin their health, relationships, and everything for the sake of their careers. And that’s exactly what I did for two solid years. I put my career above all things, and everything else suffered. There must be balance in life, if it is to be enjoyed. Uggh, that sounded like the Dalai Lama or something. I’ll stop, I’m sorry.

Back to Mikey. The amazing thing about Mikey is that he wasn’t all that autistic. I mean he liked to line up crayons, sort things, and do a whole lot of puzzles (but so did my fiancé, so he tells me, and he turned out reasonably fine). Mikey talked with a bit of a speech impediment, but he talked a lot, which is a good thing. I wanted him to join a regular kindergarten class, but was having so many fights with the administration about Abeba that I didn’t have the energy left in me. So, Mikey continued in my class and his mother seemed to be okay with that; even though I suggested Mikey going into a regular classroom.

Anyway, it’s hard to see any progress in a child when you work with them day after day and toil long hours with them. You think you are a failure (and you are). You think that you’ve made no difference in a child’s life and you’d be better off if that bus hit you (please, God, I’m waiting). It was Mikey who made me realize that maybe I wasn’t such an awful, terrible, no good, very bad failure. Just a failure.

I had my annual review with principal. It was the end of the year and I was praying to God or someone more and more frequently, just giving thanks and showing my gratitude. Anyway, I was showing my principal Mikey’s work in reading and writing. At the beginning of the year he could only write the letter A and he couldn’t read at all. By the end of the year, he was writing most of the alphabet and reading about 7 or 8 basic words. I was astonished; my principal was too. I couldn’t believe it; I had made progress with a kid.

Okay, so I might not have closed the achievement gap, but screw you DC Teaching Fellows. How was that ever going to be possible with my room full of autists (my fiance’s affectionate term for them)? I was proud because I did the best I could and did make some progress with each of my students.

No, I wasn’t Hilary effing Swank in Freedom Writers, but I was me, and I never quit. That’s not really the lesson though; never give up. I should have given up, when my life was going to hell in a hand basket and everything around me was hopeless. It’s when I think back to that day during my evaluation that I realize that I was just a failure, not a miserable, wretched one. And that was okay by me.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

“Raji ate a butterfly.”

Says his dedicated aide. By this time, it’s April and that he has eaten a butterfly doesn’t surprise me one bit. I should have known better than to take a kid, who compulsively eats everything (including stuff that’s on the floor), to a butterfly exhibit at the Natural History Museum. It’s my own stupid fault. God, I hope it was a poisonous one, so he dies and I don’t have to deal with him anymore.

I know that’s mean. I don’t want Raji dead. I do, however, want him in a facility that can meet his needs. We can’t meet those needs; but my special education coordinator, who lies about everything, keeps trying to convince his attorney that this is an appropriate placement, and it’s not. He needs intensive behavioral therapy; he’s very low functioning.

He does get a new placement. Can you guess when? Yup, for the next school year. So, I have Raji terrorizing my class every day for 180 days. And I think he was there for the full 180 days because his parents would send him with a fever, they’d send him puking… Shit, they might have sent him to school if he was dead.

I had to call child protective services on his parents. It is not legal to send your kid to school in a dirty diaper every day. That’s just not allowed. That’s called neglect. They also wouldn’t pick him up if the school called home sick. So, it’s my job as a teacher to report abuse or neglect of a child. Well, Raji’s being neglected and I don’t want to lose my job if there’s real abuse happening at home.

I call Child and Family Services and report the incident and they call Raji’s parents. His parents are devastated. They are really nice people, but they have too many kids. Raji requires a lot of attention and they have four other children, one of which is special ed as well (not as bad as Raji though). After the bout with social services, they invite me over to show me that Raji isn’t being abused or neglected, but also to let me know that he isn’t as bad as I say he is at school.

My fiancé and I attend this birthday party for Raji. His dad was so excited because they got him a big trampoline (very therapeutic for kids with autism, something about the bounce). They invite the whole damn family over and then some. These people are African and there are many of them. They all have a bunch of kids. Anyway, we’re there at this party, on a Saturday, for a student I can barely stand five days a week. Why do I insist on torturing myself?

Well, the party isn’t that bad and Raji is his usual self – ornery, into everything, and totally ignoring me. There was one weird thing that did happen and made me wonder about parents today. The kids at the party were shaking up sodas and then opening them and letting the sodas squirt into the air. They did this repeatedly (must have wasted like 25 sodas) and no one said a word. It was the oddest thing. If I had done that when I was little, I would’ve gotten my ass beat. Parents are so different these days.

In any event, Raji also grew on me. He was never my baby like Amy, but he was just so adorable that you couldn’t be mad at him when he was eating his poo or digging through the trash. He has a special place in my heart. I do wish he could’ve spoken sometimes though. I’d just love to know what the hell was going through his brain. When I die, I want to spend the entire 08-09 school as Raji, I’d like to know how he sees things. I know how I saw him, as a terror at first, but then as a unique 7-year-old boy, who would impress upon me the value of patience and tolerance.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Uggh, he used to be so good.

Roberto used to be a good child. In fact, so good, that we'd sometimes forget he was there. With Roberto, I learned the meaning of echolalia. “Good morning,” I chirp in the friendliest voice I could muster after fighting Amy all the way down the hall. “Good morning,” he replied. That was nice, I thought. “What’s your name?” He said: “What’s your name?” Oh, he’s being clever. “My name’s Ms. S.” He says, “My name’s Ms. S.” What the hell is going on? I found out from a friend, this is one of the many symptoms of autism that I will learn about.

Morning meeting time. This is when we all go through our routine of what the date is, what day of the week it is, what the weather’s like outside, etc. We are getting into this routine, slowly, but surely and determinedly. “Roberto, come find what day it is.” “Roberto, come find what day it is.” Seriously, kid, come on. “What day is it?” To which he responds you guessed it, “What day is it?”

What am I going to do with this child? When he’s not repeating everything I say, he’s pissing his pants because that’s better than interacting with me to ask to use the bathroom. Come on with all the piss and poop already. Oh, did I mention the scripting?

Scripting is what autistic children do when they’ve seen a television show or played a video game and I guess they like it. I don’t actually know what the reasoning is behind this. They memorize all of the lines in a certain show or game and then they repeat them, ad nauseam. It’s weird is the only way to describe it and Roberto does it with so many things.

So, Roberto never, ever, has conversations with me. He’s like Amy, except she sometimes will come out of her autistic world to ask for something. Not Roberto. So, we start him on a program based on B.F. Skinner’s, a behaviorist, work. It essentially forces children to talk. So, I withhold food from him and force him to ask for it. I must look like a real mother Theresa, right?

Let me tally all I do in a given day: Change diapers, clean up piss and poop, sweat profusely while fighting children, force children to interact with me, make children vomit, compel children to eat food, put up with parents’ complaints that I’m incompetent, the list goes on an on and it’s really beginning to exhaust my core being.

I want to say that Roberto got better, but he got so much worse as the year went on. It all happened when his mother started working and was with him less. He started to act like an obstinate little brat. This just has to be a thing with autistic children. I’m at the brat maximum in my class.

Well, Roberto picks up on all the behaviors in the classroom. He has the strength of an ox and now I also fight him to use the bathroom or to eat certain foods. He refuses to eat certain foods and will start crying and he makes his body so stiff when he’s angry. It’s positively frightening. He’s spitting like Julio now. WTF is going on? This kid used to be so good. Why is this happening to me, god hates me I swear it.

It’s called regression - when an autistic child goes from being at a certain level to a lower functioning level. It makes me feel worse than I usually do about my teaching abilities. See because I still believe I’m going to have Raji talk and Amy using the toilet and Abeba will be eating foods. Julio will get an exorcism. But I won’t because I’m not a miracle worker and I have no idea how to teach autistic children. And Roberto certainly wasn’t going to get worse, worse than he was before. But he did.

I tried working with Roberto’s mother at home, but it was pointless. She was working long hours to support the family and was exhausted when she got home. She let the computer babysit him, and I couldn’t blame the poor woman. Shit, she already had this child to deal with. We continued to work with him throughout the year, but he never returned to his baseline behavior. It was quite sad.

On a more positive note, I want to let my followers (one of which I don’t know! OMG, it’s branching out, my blog is reaching more people!) and readers know that I just found a journal from this time period that will help me remember things. I have, as of late, gone by memories that have been mostly smothered and erased by my brain. So, this should help. I also will try to post more regularly. I know my readers want more and I will give them what they want. Stories of the inner city school teacher who fights daily to keep her dignity, her composure, but most of all, her sanity.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

“She can only eat certain foods.”

No mommy, she only eats certain foods because she’s picky and you allow this pickiness. Abeba doesn’t have an allergy to foods; she has an aversion to them. It’s part of her condition. Abeba is actually an interesting kid. She’s “normal” for the most part, except that she hates to be touched by other people. Oh, and she forgets to listen to other people. She needs constant redirection or she’s going to stare off into space.

She’s so smart though. She’s reading on a 3rd grade level and she’s 5. Her math isn’t as good, but we’re working on it. It’s because her mother always read to her and I guess forgot to teach her math skills. She’s picking up on addition and subtraction very quickly. Rain man is a good description for her ability to understand reading and math so well.

Lunch is always a fight. I fight little kids for a living, have I mentioned that yet? You might have already picked up on it. I’m a champion boxer in the ultimate featherweight class for fighting little children. Abeba, you will eat the school lunch. I don’t care if you are going to make yourself gag and throw up because of the food. It’s that, or it’s nothing. I tell her mother to stop sending her lunch. She’s going to learn to eat all foods.

Well, it’s not going so well. Abeba’s winning these fights because no one wants to get puked on. So, she starves and we don’t give her the afternoon snack that everyone else gets. Oh well. I’ve never been good at tolerating bratty behavior, even from disabled children.

Mother doesn’t like that Abeba’s hungry every day when she comes home. So, she caves and starts sending her lunch. I swear to God, if her mother didn’t check on her every day at lunch, I would have thrown out the food. I’m not joking. Abeba will not starve. She’s already overweight and thanks to my bout of not feeding her lunch, she actually starts losing weight.

Because Abeba’s so smart, and so capable, I have to fight for her to get out of my classroom. I actually don’t want to lose Abeba, she’s the closest to normalcy I have. But my classroom is a madhouse. Her mother’s freaking out because she’s starting to pick up on the behaviors of the others (cursing, spitting, fighting, etc.). I’m freaking out because I know with the assistance of an aide, she can make it in a normal classroom.

Let me back up. So, in DC Public Schools, special education is like a black hole that sucks in children and keeps them forever. They never, ever get out. Well, people like me who advocate for inclusion at all costs, hate that the school system does this. But special ed kids are money and principals are greedy. Also, the “normal” teachers don’t like the sped kids. They’re bad and a lot of trouble and a lot of work.

But Ms. Sunshine is different. She’s young like me and she likes Abeba. So, after coaxing my principal and at the approval of the IEP team (special ed coordinator, mom, Ms. Sunshine, me, principal, and the speech language pathologist), she starts normal kindergarten. Only 20 minutes at first, but it’s a victory.

By the end of the year, I fight to get Abeba into a regular first grade classroom all day with the assistance of a dedicated aide. Well, it happens. Something actually goes right for once.

Abeba was actually one of my big victories. What a shitty job where that’s the greatest thing you do in a year. But that’s not the point I suppose. I championed for her rights and now she’s with the other kids where she belongs. Now, she won’t be stuck in the sped system forever. Now, she has the same opportunities as her non-disabled peers. Well, I suppose I haven’t saved the world, but I did save a little girl. I guess that’s going to have to be good enough.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

“Raji just pooped his pants, and now he’s eating it.”

His dedicated aide rolls her eyes knowing that this is going to end badly. This really can’t be my life. My student is feasting on his shit. Can’t that kill a person? I mean seriously, don’t people die from eating feces? I know I’ve read something about this (by the way, he doesn’t die much to my chagrin).

After time stops slowing down due to shock, we both grab a poopy hand and escort the child to the bathroom. Now, I know this kid has autism, but seriously, this is too much for my already overwhelmed self. Poop is the very reason why I’ll probably never have kids. It’s totally gross and I don’t even like thinking about it.

So, we get the disgusting, poopy kid cleaned up. That part doesn’t really need to be described. Have you ever changed a poopy diaper? That’s what it’s like. And if you haven’t, then you are a lucky individual and you wouldn’t want to read about it anyway (besides I go into more detail below about how to change the most completely disgusting diaper known to mankind).

I want to cry; I want to scream; I want to quit this god-forsaken job. Who has to deal with this kind of stuff at their jobs? Certainly not my friends who aren’t teachers, and definitely not anyone in my family. Why can’t I quit? WHY?

I have another poop story for you. I need to get these out of the way because I need to completely repress them after posting this. The aide that takes care of Amy is out one day, in fact, two aides are out today. That leaves me with 2 aides. One for Raji because he always needs one and one for Julio, who also always needs one. That leaves me with the other five students and Amy definitely needs an aide all to herself.

Well, right now, she stinks. She stinks horribly. She stinks like shit. Oh god, no, please not me again. Why can’t I morph into another human being? Why can’t I instantly and temporarily be afflicted with anosmia or possibly even the inability to create new memories?

This shit changing is not as easy with only one person. I have to do this because both aides have now taken turns changing her diarrhea diapers, and it’s my turn now. Fair is fair and right is right. So now, it’s my turn.

I take her to the stall and of course she’s fighting me because Amy always fights us to use the bathroom. I’m pushing and shoving her in the stall. I put on the latex gloves and pull her pants down. I take off her diaper and shit falls everywhere. All over her, all over me, all over the floor, and all over her clothes. Really, on me? Poop is on my pants. This is a little much to bear.

I first remove the diaper from in between her legs and take that to the trash. Amy is now dancing in the mirror, laughing, giggling, and covered in shit and now the bathroom sink is also covered in her foul excrement. She’s babbling something to herself. She is clearly pleased with ruining my day. I wish she wasn’t so cute because I may have murdered her and lost my job and gone to jail for many, many years. I just want to leave her like this. I want to run out of the building and never, ever come back. This is not in my job description. I’m pretty sure it’s not.

Next, I use about 58 diapers wipes to wipe her ass, her legs, and her shoes. I don’t even bother cleaning up her clothes. The child is walking back to the classroom in a clean diaper sans clothes. I next clean the poop off of myself. Amy has a change of clothes, but guess who doesn’t? This stupid girl, I should have predicted this would happen and have a back up at all times.

Lastly, I clean up the floor and the sink, de-poopifying them both. Amy is still perfectly content jabbering in the mirror. She clearly speaks a language I don’t understand. The whole clean up scene takes about forty minutes. Yes, for forty whole minutes I smelled shit. It was so gross.

I still don’t quit. I really can’t figure out why I devoted my life to this classroom full of children who apparently live on another planet and abide by their own weird rules. All I can say is that I couldn’t quit. Even on the worst days, and those two days described above are two of the worst days I had teaching a class full of autistic children.

Alright, well, I’m back to enjoying my weekend. I hope you enjoyed my crappy memories. I will try to refrain from anymore shit stories because really those are the best two and the others have already been suppressed.

Friday, August 13, 2010

I have a confession; I cry in the bathrooms at work.

Almost daily and also usually on my way to work. I hate my job. But I have a fellow teaching friend that pukes every morning. So, I feel better about myself. No, I don’t. She’s probably losing weight and I’m just getting fatter because this stupid job makes me drink myself to death every night. I know I smell like alcohol. Well, I actually I didn’t know, not until…

I got called into the office by my principal one day. “One of your colleagues has said that you smell of alcohol.” I want to slap the woman in the face. I know my job is hard, but I am not a derelict. I do have some moral standards. I might drink from the minute I get home until the minute I go to bed, but I would never drink on the job.

She smells my breath. I swear to her that the only thing in the water bottle I carry around is water (and allow her to smell it and my breath). “It’s from the night before, get a better mouthwash.” And that’s the only time I’m ever called in about my drinking problem. Man, I would have loved to have gone to rehab.

Rehab would have been better than the hell that was my classroom. By November, I was ready to murder children and put a bullet in my brain. My life was in shambles. My relationship a wreck. I was hanging on by not even a thread. The adults, who were allegedly my “aides,” were no better than the children. By November, there were three of them. Three women. It was terrible.

There was the young one; she was younger than me. I never felt bad about telling her what to do. It’s easy to tell somebody what to do when they are younger than you and have even less experience than you. In my case, I had one month more experience and felt justified in giving her the many tasks that the other aides refused to do.

There was the dedicated aide, who was awful. She had come from a school where aides read magazines and babysat children. She didn’t understand that I was in the business of educating children, even her child that she was “dedicated” to, who couldn’t speak. I didn’t care about the fact that Riji couldn’t speak. He was going to learn something. Even if it was only to tell us that he needed to use the bathroom in sign language.

And then there was the mother hen. She was a mother hen because she was the eldest of us all. Formerly, she had been a teacher with the DC Public School system, but through some series of events had lost her teaching license. She was the hardest one to boss around or give directions to. It was because she would always do it, but mostly because I felt like I was bossing my grandmother around, and that just made me feel bad.

So, those were my three. Up until January, that is, when I got a fourth aide who was a god send. He was actually the dedicated aide for a kid I’ll call Julio. Julio was the most vile, despicable child on the face of the universe.

“He’s got such pretty eyes, and such a cute face,” says one of my aides. I look at Julio again, and see nothing but Satan. Satan took form as a human on earth and his name is Julio. Julio is worse than Amy. If you can imagine. This is a child who, on my birthday (yes, I was stupid enough to work with these children on my birthday), spit directly in my face. My face. He spit in my face. I’m sorry it’s still hard to believe that happened to me, let alone on my birthday.

Julio kicked, he punched, he spit on people (usually in their faces, but mostly wherever his awful mouth decided to aim), and he licked people compulsively. Oh, did I mention his mouth? “Shut the fuck up.” Those eff bombs were dropped frequently and with ease. It’s like he had Tourette's syndrome or something. Except it wasn’t like Tourette's syndrome, because people with that just say curse words at any given time. Julio knew when to say “Oh, shit.” It was when an adult was giving him a directive to do something he didn’t want to do.

It was near Halloween when we went to the pumpkin patch. I know… What were we (the three autism teachers in the school including myself) thinking when we decided to take not only my 7, but the entire autism cluster at my school to a pumpkin patch? I think in total it was about 18 kids with autism.

That was the day Julio decided to act the worst he’s ever acted. He was throwing hay at random kids and spitting in their faces. When it was time to go home, he did his usual “Catch me if you can” routine. Well, when we (and by we, I mean two adults for one little seven-year-old) caught him, he kicked, he bit, he punched, he spat, and he cursed.

He had to be restrained by one of the aides who held his arms one under the other and had her legs wrapped around him. It’s called a therapeutic restraint. She was licensed in it. He was not injured, not like some of the kids I’ve seen get restrained at the high school I worked in this past year, but I’ll get to that.

So, I hated Julio and never saw his alleged “cuteness.” He also never grew on me like Amy did. In fact, he never grew on me at all. There were never moments when I saw him as a child. Mostly, I saw him as the devil, an evil beast who most be blotted out. But I did try to teach him, in the way only an evil demon can learn. He was good with math. That’s about all I can say about him that’s good. Moral lessons are not the theme of this blog and there definitely isn’t one for Julio.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

"You're my daughter's teacher?"

It's that look of condescension that a parent gives to a teacher. A teacher who is definitely not qualified to teach her kid. A teacher who is a first year teacher with absolutely no training in education. It's me she's looking at. Why me, God, why me?

She's so intense and she brings her mother along with her. The grandmother is even more intense. A veteran teacher in Prince George's county public schools. This woman knows a good teacher. She knows that I'm not going to be good enough for Amy, and she's right. "Are you trained in ABA?" To which I reply, "What does ABA stand for again?" They looked pissed, actually more than pissed. They look like the second they leave this parent/teacher conference they are going to call their attorney. And of course, that’s exactly what they do.

I worked for attorneys during undergrad to help pay for my degree. They used to scare me because well, they passed the bar and went to law school. Attorneys stopped scaring me after I had worked for them for almost 5 years off and on at different firms. With all their quirks, they just started seeming like normal people, and normal people don't scare me. They just get on my nerves. So, until I started teaching special education students, frightening attorneys were no longer a phobia of mine.

Well, that's until Amy's attorney started harassing my special education coordinator about my credentials. Let me first explain to you what a special education coordinator is. It's a person who is in charge of scheduling meetings, sending out the appropriate letters to parents about meetings, scheduling testing for students, filing appropriate documents, and the list goes on but would bore you so I’ll stop. My special education coordinator did none of those things. She left that all to the special education teachers. What she did do was lie like a snake at meetings about the services the students were not receiving. And to defend teachers with no credentials, like me. She could’ve been an ally, if I didn’t hate her so much.

Speaking of integrity, you should know I try not to lie at all costs, especially when it comes to the kids. When a parent would ask if a student was receiving occupational therapy, and said occupational therapist had quit two months ago, I couldn't lie about that. It's on the Individualized Education Program (IEP from now on). That's a legal document. I don't like to lie, and I really don't like to lie when it comes to the law.

So, back to the conference with Amy's mom. Who the hell was I fooling? The mom knew, the grandmother knew, and I knew. They could see right through my politeness and pantsuit. They were going to be problems. Their precious Amy was going to be an even bigger problem.

And this is how Amy and I met. On the first day of school, I was supposed to have two aides assisting in the day-to-day operations of an autism classroom. I had none. No one. Well, when Amy's mom came and saw that I had no one, she decided to stay all day and help out. She judged my every move. Everything I planned turned to, well, there's no nice way of putting this: It turned to shit. I had no idea what to do with the kids. I floundered my way through everything that day. Of course, driving home I was in tears and was ready to quit.

Amy wasn't potty trained. She was a brat on all fronts. A mean little six-year-old child, who didn't have any manners and always tried to take off her clothes (she was a stripper in the making). She had little panda ears, and I'm not referring to her ears, I'm referring to the two little bun pigtails she wore at the top of her head. The head that was never brushed or washed. It made her look like a panda bear. It was quite endearing in its own way. Now, I never said it, but one of my aides later on would describe Amy's hair as "nappy." It was really bad.

I learned quickly that with Amy it was going to be a battle of the wills. She vs. me. The panda bear versus the inept special education teacher. Well, Amy, I'm not going down without a fight. And that's exactly what happened every single day from the cafeteria to the classroom, Amy and I would fight. It'd be 8:45 in morning and there we'd be fighting against each other to get to the classroom. I'd pull, she'd pull back. I pushed, she pushed back. Some days I tried picking her up, but that always ended in her kicking and eventually wiggling out. She was a willful child; I'll give her that.

I hated those mornings. By “those” I mean the 180 mornings that I fought with Amy. Well, at the very least 90. I would dread mornings with Amy, get physically ill thinking about fighting her all the way to the classroom. Some days I would call out sick, just because the mere thought of fighting her was too much to bear, or should I say panda bear.

Some mornings, there'd be Ms. Sunshine and her perfect class of kindergarteners all in a line, and there would be me and Amy tussling around. Me, sweating up a storm; Amy, kicking, punching, screaming, and crying. You would think I was beating the child. It was embarrassing to say the least. That's when I would get another look of condescension. "Oh, you poor thing, you don't know how to control your students." Yeah, sure, you try controlling this thing. This Amy monster panda bear thing. Just try, I give you five minutes and you'll be screaming for your precious general education students. Your so-called "normal" kids. Uggh.

So, that's how our tumultuous relationship started. Amy ended up being my very special, my very favorite student that year. But it took awhile to know and understand her. She had to get used to me, had to trust me. I would also have to trust her and believe that in some strange way she would change my life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

“In my other life I would’ve been a teacher.”

Says my gynecologist after she has done the deed. In my other life, I will be anything but a teacher. In my next life, I will hopefully be a dog, like a great yellow lab that I know who eats until she bursts. That’s what I’m coming back as. No more saving the world crap. That’s clearly going to be this life and this life only.

Alright, so today I need to tell you what this blog isn’t. This isn’t going to be the kind of blog that tries to find any moral lesson. I had this discussion with a friend today and those are the worst kind of blogs. The ones where people have terrible stuff happen to them and try to “find the bright side in it.” That’s not me. I couldn’t find the bright side of a light bulb. But I will try to be as funny and entertaining as possible in my antics.

So, this blog is shaping up to be the account of a former DC Public School teacher. I can’t tell you about my new job because I haven’t started it yet. Also, it’s too small and I will have to be much more ambiguous. It seems like a great place and I’m so excited to start it at the end of the month.

Here we go. I was desperate to find a job after college and the economy was starting to tighten up. I was a media studies major, people; there aren’t many jobs for us. So, a friend was finishing up her commitment with Teach for America (“TFA”) and told me I should apply. Well, I also applied to DC Teaching Fellows (affectionately known as “DCTF”) and New Orleans Teaching Fellows (“NOTF”). I did not get into TFA (a story for another day). I got into both fellows program, but had already spent time in DC and loved it, so this is where I ended up teaching. What the eff was I thinking? That’s all I have to say.

These are the facts: I would get a subsidized master’s degree and I had to commit to two years of teaching in a high needs school. Well, I just didn’t know how “high needs” the DC Public School System was going to be. As it turns out, very high. That summer following undergrad, I was to attend a 5-week crash course on teaching, go to two master’s classes, and teach summer school with a veteran teacher. Okay, I can be a little bit of an overachiever. When it comes to personality types, I’m like a type AAA.

That summer I was so idealistic, it didn’t even matter that I was doing so much. I was going to close the achievement gap. I was going to be Michele Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds or Hilary Swank in Freedom Writers. Except I wasn’t going to be any of those things because I started in elementary education thinking (very wrongly) that it would be easier than teaching high school gang members. I’m a wimp. Well, turns out that it’s much harder to teach little kids than big kids and I did eventually end up in a Dangerous Minds-like situation. Again, you’ll hear about that as well.

My first teaching job ever was in a classroom with autistic children. Now, I had heard of autism, but I had no clue exactly how it manifested itself in a child. Well, as it turns out, it manifests itself in about a million different ways. I suppose that’s why it’s a “spectrum disorder.” Autistic children do a lot of things, some of which I can’t even remember from that first summer as an assistant teacher.

What I do remember from when we got switched from primary autism (which is grades K-2 in DCPS) to intermediate autism (grades 3-5), is when Artie (names are changed to protect the innocent special education students of course) came up and grabbed my boob the first day we were transferred. Boy, that shocked me. Artie would scream at the top of his lungs “Goodbye for now,” as he ran out the door. He did that at least 16 times in any given day. He was an interesting kid, to say the very least.

There was Larry, who was just so sweet, but could barely talk or write. I still see him every so often because he lives in my neighborhood. Such a nice kid, I always hated seeing him get frustrated. You just wanted him to be able to do the things that you could do because you knew he wanted to.

I don’t remember many of the other kids. There were 10 of them and they were a handful, but not as much of a handful as the ones I was about to get assigned to for an entire school year. One of my fellow fellows (redundant, sorry) took that class for her fall assignment. She quit by December, poor thing, and this was a girl who knew about autism. She had worked with autistic kids before and she quit.

Now, imagine how bad it was for me, little old me from Delaware. Me, who didn’t know the first thing about autism or how to help autistic children or how to teach them. Well, imagine a failure. Because that’s how I felt the minute I set foot in that classroom with seven little children who were diagnosed with autism disorder. But I was desperate for a job. I thought, “Hey, the summer wasn’t so bad, how bad could this be?”

That question will unfold over the course of this blog. Or until I get bored of writing, but I learned today that I have two followers and now just like Julie Powell (Julie & Julia), I have readers. Readers who need me or at least my self-centered brain is telling me need me. So, I dedicate this blog to my readers, but then I dedicate it to my students. Those special students who have so touched my heart that it’s bringing water to my eyes. I hate to see me go, but I love to watch me leave DCPS. Forever.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

With D.C. teacher firings, the students finally come first

I was enraged to read the article by DC School Reform Now's Board Chair, Kristin Erhgood ( Clearly, Ms. Erhgood has only read about IMPACT and not actually been affected by it. The title of her article suggests that "students finally come first." Well, Ms. Erhgood, in my experience, the students in DCPS have never come first. Especially the most vulnerable ones, namely, our special education students.

I should back up. Those of you reading are going to think that I'm bitter and jaded and like 55. I'm not. I'm 26 and I've just finished my first two years as a special education teacher in the District of Columbia's Public School System. I taught elementary kids my first year and high school teenagers my second year (in one of the worst schools, but I'll get to that later). The reason why I allow myself to be so jaded is because I was a fan of Rhee when I got here. I believed in her changes and what she did, but I truly see now that she is off her rocker and truly only out to make a name for herself.

That being said, I can say with experience that DC students have never been first on Rhee's agenda. She came here with all of her slogans and her mantras such as "It's all about the kids" or "I do this for the kids" and now people eat those words up like candy. They think she actually cares. Ms. Rhee, I hate to break it to you, but you are a liar. A cheat. No better than any other politician in this town, but I commend you on fooling everyone, even me (before that is).

Oh, this was about Ms. Erhgood's article. I'm sorry. You see finally writing about all of this is stirring up so many feelings about a system I've come to love/hate, well, mostly hate. Okay, so my favorite line in her article is "The WTU has found many allies in the media." This made me want to laugh until I had tears streaming down my face. WTU has allies in the media? WHAAT? If there's anyone with so-called allies in the media, it's Rhee herself. She was featured on the cover of Time. The Post (which is where Ms. Erhgood's article appeared) loves her. Scratch that, adores her. I've never seen such a media whore. I read about her at least once a week in the local papers. For god's sake, the woman had a PBS documentary devoted to her. Allies in the media. Whatever.

Another favorite line of mine was: "Recently, the school system fired ineffective teachers and gave minimally effective teachers notice that they need to seek additional support and training, which the school system is eager to provide, in order to improve within one year." The part I would like to emphasize is "eager to provide." Well, Ms. Erhgood, when I had IMPACT training, my trainers were pretty specific about the help we would not be receiving when they said, "If you are struggling in any of the areas of IMPACT, it is up to you to improve that." Maybe, she knows more than me, who was trained for 4 days in IMPACT. You know the whole 4 days I received to learn a brand new system with 9 different components in the Teaching and Learning Framework alone. Oh, Ms. Erhgood must have been reading one of our manuals, where it claims that teachers will "receive support to increase their effectiveness." Well, the only support I received was on our mandated professional development days (by the way, I think it was at least three that were taken away from us due to the snowstorm).

So, I can see how people who do not work at the school-level would support IMPACT, would embrace it. Because well, it seems like it's a good thing. More Rhee propaganda that is being spread by her "allies in the media." But I thank you Ms. Erhgood, it's because of you that I now have a blog.

I think that's enough for today, folks. I'm wondering if anyone is even going to read my rants.