The class was composed mostly of very young prospective teachers. And, on top of that, most were general education majors, with only one special education major.
We began the evening easily enough with a brief introduction and a plug for Reality101. Then we watched a short DVD of a woman named Sue Rubin and her compelling story told in Autism is a World. After that we spent about 20 minutes discussing the professor’s notes about autism spectrum disorders (ASD)—the briefest of introductions to be sure, but enough to pique the interest of the students and whet their appetites for something bigger and better.
After all this was said and done we moved on to other topics—namely, my off-the-cuff lecture about what I think those entering the profession of the education of young minds need to know before entering said profession. Of course, it wasn’t entirely off the cuff—I had an hour or so to prepare as I drove from the elementary school where I work to the college where I would be lecturing that night. Here is a summary of what I said that night.
assume a child cannot do something.
I think it is entirely too easy to simply write off a child as someone who cannot do something (much the way students were perceived in the early days of a diagnosis of an ASD until evidence proved otherwise.). My big thing is this: DATA! Teachers must have data, and lots of it. Data will help you determine what a student can and cannot do.
- Let the
student have the power.
How, you might ask, do we give students power? Very simply: give them choices. Give them a ‘first/then’ option. Students like power, so give it to them. If teaching is nothing more than your attempt to seize and control all things, all the time, then you are not interested in teaching. Give kids power.
- Listen to
what students are/are not saying.
I am a firm believer that behavior is communication—especially among students with ASD. Listen to your students. Pay attention to their words, their actions, their gestures. Teachers are paid to pay attention. Do it. Do it all the time. Keep notes.
take it personally.
According to my students, there are times when I am an ‘idiot,’ a ‘fool,’ and half a dozen other select pejoratives. Five minutes later, I am the greatest teacher in the world. If you take what is aimed at you personally, you will have a short life as a teacher—especially in special education.
- Do not
become their mirror.
Remember, you are the adult, so act like one. Demonstrate the behavior, the language and the conduct you want your students to imitate. Modeling behavior is a huge, huge teaching tool in your toolbox. Work very hard at not reinforcing negative behaviors in students with your own negative behaviors.
students’ learning styles.
Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences is especially helpful at this point. Not every student learns the same way. Take the time, make the effort to discover how your students learn best and set them free. Give up the lecture and let students discover and learn using what comes naturally to them. Empower your students to be self-directed, lifetime learners.
- Have a
Seriously, you need a peer friend—preferably someone not in the same building—but a peer, somewhere. You need someone to gripe to, someone to vent to, someone to cry with. Teaching is hard and emotionally taxing. You cannot do it alone. Don’t try. I have four best friends where I teach. They are my strength every day.
with your students.
Have fun teaching. Really, really have fun. I got a note one time from a student’s parent after I substituted in a classroom. The parent felt compelled to write and say ‘how much fun’ her son had in class the day before. It really does matter that as teachers we are not walking around with a 30-year frown. Smile! Laugh! Make a joke! Be a joke!
are not ‘mine.’
I was in a class one time—a music class. The teacher was seasoned. At the beginning of class she announced, “OK, let’s see, we have three classes and the special education class.” If you are a gen-ed teacher, please do not make the mistake of thinking of ‘these’ kids as ‘my’ kids. They are our kids. We are all educating all children. There is no yours and mine.
- Do not
disrespect, condescend, belittle or talk down to your subordinates.
Teachers, hear me: your best friends in the building are the secretary and the custodian and the paraprofessionals in your room. Treat them with the dignity and respect that their work deserves. Respect them always.
- Keep ‘em
It’s not easy to leave your personal life at home, but you really have to. If you cannot do so, then take a personal day. Wear a smile. Greet your students at the door with joy. Your students will feed off of your attitude and your disposition in the classroom.
love your students.
It’s not always easy when you are being cursed at or hit or hollered at by parents. Love your students. Many of the students we see every single day do not come from happy homes. Many have not had breakfast or a shower or dinner. Many come from abusive families. Many never hear the words ‘I love you.’
A student one day was having a bad time. He said that my paraprofessional and I needed to leave. I said we did not want to. He said, “Why?” I said, “Because we love you.” He looked at us in amazement, as if I had just told him I was an alien from one of the moons of Neptune. Then he lashed out at us, actually angry that I had dared mention love.
I can give you no more powerful advice than this: Love your students. They will not forget. Neither will you.