Adventures in Teaching

10 Aug

dead poets

I am now a paraprofessional (Teaching assistant if you’re from the UK) and for better or worse my job has pretty much taken up ALL of my mental capacity. Therefore, I thought I would throw down a few thoughts, fears and things I have learned over the past month as a way of freeing up more of my brain to do other things.

I work at a High-School in Colorado with kids with exceptionalities (I know this my seem a hugely hyperbolic ‘PC’ term but ‘special education’ and ‘learning difficulties’ just don’t cut it). Let me be 100% honest, whenever I heard about special education I guess I imagined students in wheelchairs, unable to communicate, colouring with crayons and dribbling down their shirts. I know, pretty bloody ignorant. I always imagined those people that did jobs working with these kids must have incredible patience and that it was not something I could do. I have since discovered that my understanding of special needs and of myself was woefully incorrect.

For one, my kids are impossible to define. My students have such a variety of personalities, abilities and disabilities I don’t really know where to start. For one, many of my students don’t look, or sounds like ‘special needs kids’. These kids ‘pass’ in the school, many of them don’t want anybody else to know they are in ‘special ed’, many of them have been haunted by that label throughout their lives. Those who do seem to fit the ‘mould’, those kids who stand out as different are some of the most incredibly perceptive, sensitive and thought-provoking people I’ve met. The idea of the ‘short bus’ full of dribbling ‘retards’ is so far from my classroom that now the mere thought of such a stereotype is abhorrent to me. My students never cease to surprise me.

As for patience, yes, patience is necessary, but once I cracked open all my preconceptions about these kids I find that patience isn’t really what’s needed. When a student is puzzling over a simple math problem, 1+0=? for example, I could get impatient. I could think ‘Why can’t this kid do such an easy problem? Is there any point trying? We go over and over this problem and still nothing.’ in fact, I used to think this way. But when you have spent time with this student and you know that he or she has done the sum ‘9×5+7=’ with ease, then you know that the issue is not that the problem is too hard. Then it’s not patience that’s needed, its creativity. Trying to work out how to explain what 0 is worth becomes a puzzle. Explaining what ‘abstract’ means is a challenge. Helping a student to recognise ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’ is a game. Using metaphor, and by scaffolding meaning on top of meaning, you work with the students to get to the answer. For me this process is hugely stimulating. True, sometimes you’re tired and patience and frustration make an unwelcome appearance, but never any more than with my general education students.

And that’s something else I believe about my students, none of them are stupid or dumb. Some may have low IQ’s, well below the average in fact, but taking into account their individual abilities and deficits they are incredibly smart. One student may struggle hugely with short-term memory, or have an incredibly short attention span, so when these students crack a problem, write a sentence or finish an artwork they are having to create connections and use strategies that most of us never even have to bother with. These kids are playing the computer game of life at hard, when the rest of us are content with easy, and they’re playing it damn well!

Finally, it’s not all personal growth and joy. I don’t skip home every day singing my students praises, there is a dark side. Whilst I wasn’t blindsided (I have friends and family in teaching and so was expecting some of the negatives) living them is something else. One thing is how depressing it is to see students who have gone so far down the wrong path, who have home lives that are so toxic, friends who do all the wrong things and live in a world of razorblades. As a teacher I can do very little to change that, we have them at school and then we send them home to fight their own battle every night. Some of my students are losing that battle, some have already lost. I have met 14 year olds who are already cynical, hardened individuals. To be honest I don’t really know what I can do to help. There are just no easy answers.

Aaaaaand that’s where my heads been at!

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3 Responses to “Adventures in Teaching”

  1. Nick Ward (@nickmward) August 11, 2013 at 11:16 am #

    Working with students with special Educational Needs (I do quite like exceptionalities though…) is one of the most rewarding and challenging aspects of teaching. I think that when you write that they are ‘impossible to define’ you hit the button on the head. The range of needs, and indeed personalities, are huge.

    I think you are also right to highlight the challenges, I work with special needs children every days and more often than not I come away tired and frustrated as you move constantly two steps forward and one step back. However what working with them has also taught me is that they have loads to contribute to society – something that many miss, seeing them as victims. I don’t think that is what they are – with love, support and yes a cracking education students can learn to live with their special needs and be fully productive members of society. That is why ‘inclusion’ is so important – we don’t want these students exiled to some dingy rooms or if possible other schools but instead part of the mainstream,part of the society that they will inhabit and can contribute to.

    Sorry! Rant over!

    • commandpluszed October 13, 2013 at 8:43 pm #

      Great comment Nick, It’s great to hear a veteran in the field feels the same way!

      • Torie May 11, 2017 at 4:11 am #

        “screamo-type Gerard-way wosspipherr.”I honestly couldn’t stop laughing at that part.Was that directed toward me and my constant need to blog about him and his scary blondeness? HahaI love the first pair and I would like the middle pair but that skull looks like it’s going to jump out and kill me.

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