Thursday, May 19, 2011

Once You Know the Truth, Can You Walk Away?

I had happy hour with two friends from my former fellowship tonight. It was great seeing them and catching up on old times, sharing tales, and discussing education policy. **News flash** I love talking about educational policy. I live and breathe urban education. I love reading about it and I even more thoroughly enjoy having someone to talk to about it.

The only people that get it are the people who work in it. I guess in that sense, it's like any job. The ones who work in this field are the only ones who understand or care about what I do. It was the same when I served tables or worked for a law firm.

So, here I am writing about happy hour when I should be sociable to the guest that's visiting my new apartment. But I can't help it, I'm obsessed. Still obsessed, what is my problem?

Tonight, we talked, among other things, about DCPS's decision to close down Shadd and Hamilton and send severely, emotionally disturbed students back to their neighborhood schools (Ballou & Prospect, respectfully). Granted, the students will be in self-contained units, but the change in placement is significant.

DCPS just cleared up the Blackman-Jones suit and now, it feels like they've taken a step back in special education. Someone at the top made a seemingly harmless decision (based on the budget) for the students down at the bottom. Who suffers? The kids of course. What is going to happen to these students who continue to be ignored and treated like bastard stepchildren? My guess is another class action lawsuit based on discrimination, if the students are lucky.

Knowing that poor, black students in the DC area are continuing to be discriminated against based on their race and disability, the question I ask myself is this: "Can you walk away? You know the truth now, can you just abandon them?" Even as I write that question, tears start to form in my eyes as I think of the many students I have come into contact with over the last three years. Can I walk away from them? Knowing all the discrimination, pain, abuse, and suffering they have endured?

I contemplate this as I examine whether I can teach special ed students in DC for a fourth year. I feel as though I need to be in a different role, but what is that role? I haven't decided, but (much to the chagrin of my husband and loved ones) I don't think I can just leave it for some lousy desk job.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Well, When You Read This Article, You Will Know Where I Used to Work

So, I'm commenting on this article by Washington Post's, Bill Turque, much too late, but I've been busy and also I've been trying to digest DCPS' decision to move Transition Academy at Shadd to a self-contained space at Ballou High School.

My first thought was: They'll burn the school down. The Shadd kids will literally burn the school to the ground. What was the former sad, shithole high school in Southeast will be reduced to rubble and ashes. I guess it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

The students at Shadd are in a self-contained environment for a reason. Their behaviors are intense and extremely severe. Many were students who grew up in self-contained special education classrooms and haven't been with their non-disabled peers for years. Other students came directly from residential treatment facilities that had been shut down. Shadd is like the "Lean on Me" school times 1,000. My former colleague and I used to joke that it was "THE inner city school." The mother of all horrible urban school settings.

My second thought upon reading the above article was: How in the world do they plan on servicing the needs of these students? Don't get me wrong, Shadd was not the therapeutic setting that it claimed to be. In fact, there are many things that went horribly wrong at Shadd in the one year I worked there. But there were enough staff members to help maintain student order and most students felt they had a slight connection to some staff member in the building.

I've read that they are reducing the staff at Shadd from about 60 or so to approximately 14. I had to read that a few times because I can't imagine how 14 staff plan on containing the behaviors of 70 emotional disturbed students. I spoke with a former colleague yesterday and we were discussing the other students that aren't going to Ballou. I asked where they were going and he said that he didn't know. Where are all these disturbed kids going in DC?

Until DCPS recognizes that students in special education have unique needs, they will continue to get sued by advocates and educational attorneys. If DCPS wants to throw emotionally disturbed students back to their home schools, they are going to have to deal with the consequences of those decisions. I hope that DCPS can take a step into the future and begin to comply with the laws that protect our most vulnerable and fragile students.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What Motivates You to Get Up in the Morning?

For me, it's my alarm that continues to ring, even after I've long silenced and snoozed the thing. I contemplate throwing my phone (which serves as my alarm clock) every single morning because I hate waking up. I don't know if I would get up more readily and easily if I had a job I enjoyed, but in the last three years of teaching, waking up in the morning has been unbearable.

So, it's not my job that motivates me to get out of bed, so much as the paycheck I get from working at this job. Oh, and now the harsh judgment passes on the faces of those who despise teachers who just educate for the paycheck. Well, yeah, I like getting paid and it's not much for the 60+ hours a week I put in, but it's still nice when it hits the bank and I'm not broke, as usual.

Okay, so it's partly the paycheck. Most special education teachers that I know aren’t teaching for just the money. In fact, when I figure in all the hours I work, it's usually something along the lines of like $6 an hour (that about $2 under minimum wage in the DC area, FYI). I also do it partly because I continue holding out hope that maybe today will be the day that I get to actually teach students.

Gosh, that's a great feeling. You teachers out there know what I'm talking about. It's the moment when you've engaged students in the classroom and captured their attention. This feeling is what I hope for each and every day when I come in. I guess after all this time, I'm still an optimist.

In any event, I began this post about what motivates me, which naturally has to lead into the question: what motivates our students? Especially inner city school students, because the middle-class and rich kids in the suburbs have a different motivation entirely. But what motivates urban youth who come from generations of poverty?

I often wonder why my students even bother coming to school at all. Some come and do nothing. Some come and are a complete disruption to class. Why are they here? I think they come because they have built a connection with their teachers. They are holding out hope (just like me) that maybe today will be the day they learn something. Today will be the day that it clicks in their brains.

Well, here's to another day of teaching. There's only about 24 left in the school year for me, so I'm going to continue to fight the good fight while I'm still in the battle.

Monday, May 2, 2011

"They aren't going to take my America. We have the best food here."

This was said by a student today in response to a class discussion we were having about the death of Osama bin Laden. I am always caught off guard by some of the funny things students say. They blurt out nonsense sometimes and it's the most amusing thing in my day. I've often thought of writing down all of the funny things students have said to me and just making a book of those quotes. But maybe that would only entertain me.

Today was a pretty good day, except my homeroom class (which is a class I teach in the morning and is also my last class). They were quite silly. I think spring fever has hit these kids. They've been coming back from lunch high and for some, this helps. Others, just get stoned and silly. Really silly.

Bill, who was very high today, was claiming that he was having muscle spasms in his legs. This turned into him eventually dropping and rolling on the floor due to the agony of the spasm. This kid weighs at least 250. I, for one, think he was being a drama queen. I was so annoyed. This kid is 20 years old and he's rolling on the ground writhing in pain. He loves drama. Of course, his actions have the entire class in hysterics and I'm forced to be the mean teacher. Grasping and trying to maintain control of my classroom.

Speaking of control (or lack thereof), I know that every teacher knows the feeling of losing control of his or her classroom. It's that feeling of desperation, where nothing goes as planned and everyone is going absolute ape shit. It's when you are shouting, nearly crying, and doing everything in your power to get the class back on track. Those are the days when I want to run out of the building screaming bloody murder and never, ever return to the classroom.

I hate those days. I fortunately only have them once in a blue moon. But it's the worst feeling in the world. I think the kids know when it's happening too and they feed into it. Does this make me a bad teacher? Who knows? Probably, but then again, I've never claimed to be any good at this job. In fact, I usually feel like a lousy teacher, but at least I care. Also, I keep showing up, that's got to mean something. Maybe one day, I'll get the hang of this teaching thing.