When I became a teacher I knew overall conditions certainly hadn’t improved any since my Chicago days. And to use a hackneyed expression, I was warned during teacher training to become a Special Education teacher. The warnings often went, “Don’t go near that school, the kids are downright dangerous.” Or, “You’ll see, you’ll spend all your time on classroom management.” None of the cautions clued me into the source of the worst problems, other adults.
Imagine public school as a tree with students as the roots and the support staff as the trunk. The problematic adults perch on three branches that can be labeled Administrators, Parents and Other Teachers. What falls off these branches (think perching birds here) falls willy-nilly on the nourishment-seeking roots. Some of what falls is fine, and some…well keep reading.
I soon learned that school is experienced very differently by anyone connected with Special Education. The problems in Special Ed. powerfully affect the students but mostly don’t originate from them–not from the ones who actually qualify for the program, as I’ll explain. Special Ed. students, on average, are no harder to teach or to deal with than the so-called “normal” students who fill the classes of any urban public high school. (They just stand out more because 1. They’ve been labeled and 2. They might look or act a bit different.)
Example: The student who set the back of my hair on fire—fortunately stopped by another student—did not really qualify for Special Ed., and should never have been placed into it. After that incident, he was finally kicked out of the program. The student who stopped him before my whole head of hair went up in flames was the one with genuine mental health issues. This is the same kid who at a younger age used to climb trees to avoid going back to class after lunch. Perhaps it’s hard for you to see who the “normal” teenager is in that duo, but I’ll take the tree climber.
So, why pyro kid and his cigarette lighter in my class to begin with? Tree Branch numbers one and two at your service. Administrators tend to siphon their most problematic students into Special Ed., thinking they won’t have to deal with them thereafter. If a Special Ed. student causes a problem, school administrators often get on the phone to the downtown Special Ed. branch asking someone to drop everything and rush over to deal with their student. Afterward, the same administrator will decline to participate in any suggested strategies that might cause a positive change in the student’s behavior. To such administrators, Special Ed. kids aren’t real students and don’t deserve the resources or the time they use.
Branch Two now. Let me say that most parents are respectful to teachers and do what they can to help, even if they don’t always understand what the teacher is doing. Teachers sometimes don’t try hard enough to explain. Sometimes parents are so desperate they’ll accept the advice of anyone they think is a “professional” even if it’s bad advice. So, parents are sometimes responsible for incorrect placements. Some have been made to believe that placing their troublesome kids into Special Ed. is the best way their child can avoid disciplinary measures at school. These parents may even have given up on their child or lack confidence in their own capability to positively change the child’s behavior. They are sold the story that giving their kid a label will magically create change. Sadly, some parents seem to think that once the placement in Special Ed. is made, parenting responsibilities are duly transferred to the teacher’s shoulders. For this type of parent–who want to work the system–all problems become the Special Ed. teacher’s responsibility and if the parents have an attorney, if problems arise, the administration will wholeheartedly go along and blame the teacher. In the incident I described, only the fact the principal personally disliked both the fire setter and his mother got the kid removed from my class list and later, expelled. The fact my hair burned was hardly a factor in the decision process.
Now to the third and perhaps the most gnarly Branch: Other Teachers. I could write pages (and I did, heh heh) about how some “regular education” teachers treat Special Ed. teachers. If they can’t ignore them (which is preferred because acknowledging one might mean being asked to mainstream a Special Ed. student and everyone knows those kids are hellspawn) they resort to overt hostility or even worse, obsequious flattery. While passing the Special Ed. teacher at one hundred miles per hour in the hall so as not to get cooties, the “regular” teacher calls out, “You’re a saint for teaching those kids.” If I’d earned a dollar every time I heard that I wouldn’t need my pitiful retirement account.
You’d think, given such hostility coming from the world of “normal,” that Special Ed. teachers would band together and support each other. You’d be wrong. Some of these stories are told in a darkly funny way in my novel, School of Lies. The first chapter can be read here: http://secondwindbooks.wordpress.com/2009/09/19/school-of-lies-by-mickey-hoffman/ It’s a novel because who’d believe any of that stuff? And, of course, because a murder mystery was the only way I could safely pillory some deserving souls.
Mickey Hoffman is also the author of the mystery Deadly Traffic. For more info go to www.mickeyhoffman.com