Three IEPs in a single week. Students involved in custody battles. Parents informing me that their children cry every Sunday night before school resumes on Monday. Two eligibility and reevaluations to complete. A disastrous, rainy field trip to the annual county fair. Behavior plan backfires. And all of that in the past two weeks.
I know that being a special educator is difficult. I understand that there are days, weeks, and even entire school years that don’t go smoothly. But when you love the students you teach and are passionate about their success, tough times take a toll on you. If my kids aren’t doing well, I’m constantly evaluating and processing what I can do to fix the problem.
The questioning begins: have I been inconsistent; am I pushing them to hard; is it all rooted in problems at home; are my assistants and I not on the same page? My mental inquisition carries on non-stop. I find myself talking to the after-hours custodian everyday because he comes to take out the trash in my classroom at 5 p.m., and I’m still there sorting through what didn’t get done and brainstorming potential remedies for my ailing classroom. For the first time in my nearly two years of teaching, I find myself not looking forward to work.
Last Sunday, my fiancé, Derek, had been asked to preach at a local church, and I attended. Even though it was the weekend, my students and classroom were still at the forefront of my mind. I forced myself to block everything out and focus as Derek began his sermon. The topic was “Choosing to Stand.” I felt like I was the only one in the auditorium as he relayed a message I desperately needed to hear.
He talked about standing for what’s right, standing for what’s true, and standing for the defenseless. He also shared about times in our lives when we need others to come alongside us and help us stand. I walked in that service feeling like I was carrying my 13 students with all their individual needs and issues on my back; I was burdened. But Derek’s sermon refocused and recharged me; it also reminded me that I can’t do it alone. He helped me stand.
Obviously, my outlook was much more positive as I headed back to school last Monday. I had previously planned with the health teacher at my school to teach our disability awareness lesson in her sixth grade classes that day. In these lessons, we discuss that a disability is not something that makes a person less capable or worthwhile as an individual; it simply means having to do something differently than a student without disabilities.
We teach the students about people-first language and give them an opportunity to sign a pledge to not use the “’R’ word”. The main focus of the lesson, however, is encouraging general education students to get to know and make friends with their peers with disabilities. We explain that it’s no different from making and having friends who don’t have disabilities.
As part of the lesson, we ask students if they have friends with disabilities and, if so, to share about these relationships. In the first and second period classes, we got very few responses to this question, which is typical. However, something very unexpected occurred in the third period class. Almost every student in the room raised their hand to share about a friend of theirs who had a disability. The stories were very personal, including talking to each other at Wal-Mart, doing class work together, and passing notes. Students in this third period class also had much different ideas of what a disability is. For example, one student explained that having a disability “doesn’t mean you can’t do something; it just means you do it in a different way or at a different level.” Another said, “Students with disabilities can do the same things we can, they just may need a little more help.”
The health teacher and I were shocked at the difference between the first and second period classes and this third period class. What made the difference? Third period is the health class that my seven sixth grade students attend everyday! These students were more aware because they had been given first-hand opportunities to spend time with and learn alongside my amazing students! Mrs. Watson, the health teacher, and that accepting class of sixth graders, helped me stand that day.
Thursday and Friday of last week, I got the opportunity to attend the West Tennessee Special Education Conference in Memphis. There were more than 500 special education professionals from across West Tennessee in attendance. On Friday morning, Mrs. Watson and I had the opportunity to present on our disability awareness lessons and the successes we’ve seen from them. It was thrilling to share about how we’d seen social interactions increase between students with and without disabilities! Several other teachers, the federal programs director, and the special education supervisor from my school system all supported us by attending.
I also got to attend some great sessions during the conference. My absolute favorite was a session dealing with puberty education for students with disabilities. Hormonal changes and the many changes that go along with maturing bodies is definitely something I deal with on a regular basis as a middle school teacher. I’ve often struggled with how to approach and deal with these issues.
The presenters shared about a curriculum used in the Memphis City Schools that was designed specifically for students with disabilities. It was developed by Marsh Media and contains simplified reading materials, visual aids, and interactive role play activities appropriate for students with intellectual disabilities. I was already brainstorming how I was going to get this for my classroom when the presenter asked for middle school teachers to raise their hands. I threw mine up in the air, and the next thing I know, I’m holding a box with at least five student booklets, a DVD, and a teacher’s guide for the curriculum! I was ecstatic! During the conference, my very supportive and very generous fellow special educators helped me stand.
This week I am anything but discouraged. Thanks to Derek’s inspiring message, some amazing middle school students, and the incredible community of educators I am blessed to be a part of, I have the strength to stand for my students again (and the sashimi and Panera Bread I ate while in Memphis were good for morale, too).
What about you? What or who has helped you stand lately?