Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Twenty-Five Percent

With respect to confidentiality, and the laws of FERPA – Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, names and images of students and families have been published with permission by their legal guardians.

April, 2017

In April of 2015, a sweet senior girl named Molly is nominated for prom queen. She is a demure, quiet young lady who keeps to herself. She likes to be busy, in fact she cannot stay idol. She is a very hard working student, and is driven to please everyone around her. She loves music and dancing, and attending the prom would, in itself, be an incredible event for her. While being selected as prom queen would be such a special honor, Molly would likely be quite indifferent. Her classmates, however, are showing their pride in their peer, and their generosity as humans in nominating her in the first place. Molly has autism. She is quiet and demure, because she is unable to use speech to communicate in reciprocal conversation. She uses sign language and an iPad Mini to communicate most of her needs. She is busy all the time. This is not an understatement. She needs to work, learn, and create constantly. She needs to clean. She has a preoccupation with tidiness. ("There's a job in that!" says the teacher in me.) Molly adores her teachers, her parents and her brother. She lives her life to please them all, and has been known to cry silent tears when she believes she has upset them. Molly does, indeed love to dance. Attending this prom will be a wonderful night for her, and she will dance it up all night whether she wears the crown or not.
I never intended to be a special education teacher. I never intended to be a teacher at all. When I graduated from high school, I was convinced I would be a police officer, and maybe someday a detective. I wanted to stop crime. I definitely wanted to impact the world, or at least my community in a positive way. I spent a summer internship with the New York Police Department, yes, the NYPD. While in college, I worked for several years in a residential restitution center with felons on parole. I spent those years watching grown men, drug addicts, rapists, larcenists, and the like never changing, but just getting by, getting out, and coming back in. I wasn't disillusioned, but perhaps, disenchanted. After college graduation, I moved home with my parents, took a small detour through Europe to backpack and just be a twenty-something before growing up and starting my life. I came back home to enroll in the Colorado Springs Police Academy. After my initial enrollment, the CSPD had a hiring freeze, and my dream of being a police officer was at best, on hold. I got a sub license and started substitute teaching in Woodland Park School District while I waited on another opportunity to present itself.

That opportunity came in the form of youth sex-offender boys. A local treatment center for children was hiring a paraprofessional for their school, and I was a perfect fit. I had a criminal justice background, I had some classroom experience from substitute teaching, I was driven and ambitious, and I got the job. I was 22 years old. This was my gig. I was really feeling like I was making a difference here. After having worked with adults who had already made their beds, I was convinced that I was meant to work with youth. Children could still be molded, could still be influenced in a positive way. This was my calling. I was sure of it. After one month as a paraprofessional, one of the teachers just up and left the school, and never came back. Burn-out. I conveniently had my sub license, so the principal asked me to move into the teaching position as a substitute teacher until they could hire a replacement. They hired me a month later. All I had to do was go back to school, and get my teaching credential in special education. Now, this was my calling. The classes I was teaching had boys ranging in age from 10 to 18, all of whom had been adjudicated as sexual offenders, and were receiving treatment for their crimes and behaviors. Some of the boys had serious mental illness and cognitive impairments. I was literally thrown to the wolves. Not only was I teaching for the very first time on an emergency license while trying to figure out how to reach these very challenging students, I was attending graduate school full-time, and trying to navigate the ins and outs of the ever-changing special education world.

That last bit goes on today. I'm still trying to navigate the ins and outs of the ever-changing special education world fifteen years later. I spent four years teaching youth sex-offenders, and I was burnt out. At the end of those four years, I had earned my master's degree, and my formal provisional teaching license as a generalist in special education from the Colorado Department of Education. I was so ready to move on into the public school system. It seemed like a dream come true, when I was hired by Cripple Creek-Victor School District for the 2006-2007 school year. I spent eight years teaching Special Education at CCV before moving to Manitou Springs School District for the 2014-2015 school year.

I moved districts, but my BOCES (Board of Cooperative Education Services) stayed the same. My special education director did not change, and so I was quite familiar with the methods and procedures of the special education system in Manitou. Moving to Manitou was one of the best decisions of my career. When it came to choosing a place to work, it was very important to me that my colleagues be collaborative, encouraging, supportive, and fun. I asked about the first three criteria in my interview, and then discovered how fun my colleagues truly are. We used to call ourselves the SPED Shed, but this has been deemed derogatory by our administration, so now we refer to ourselves as Special Teams. (We must have some humor, or we'll all go crazy!) Well, maybe we already are. 

Liz, my special education colleague and I, along with four paraprofessionals and a job coach are the special education department at Manitou Springs High School. We currently have about 25 students on our caseload, of which we each take about half to case manage. We teach three 90-minute classes per day, some co-teaching with general education teachers, and some direct instruction with our special education students outside of the general education classroom. In a class of six special education students, we'll have six different levels of instruction, and areas of focus to lesson plan, instruct, and progress monitor... all at once. All of those students also must earn credits toward graduation as detailed in their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and aligned with their Post School Goals (PSGs). All of this must align with Colorado State Standards, and is evaluated and audited at random by the Colorado Department of Education. Our documentation is expected to be perfect. I am not exaggerating. There must be no errors. If there are errors in documentation found in the random audits, we are required to hold amendment meetings with families and change the documentation accordingly. In what other profession must you be perfect? Even surgeons make mistakes.

NPR (National Public Radio) ran an article in 2015 titled Behind the Shortage of Special Ed Teachers: Long Hours, Crushing Paperwork. The article states this notion: "On top of the normal demands of teaching, special education teachers face additional pressures: feeling of isolation, fear of lawsuits, and students who demand extra attention." One teacher commented that they didn't get a degree in special education for the paperwork, but to help kids. I cannot disagree. Sometimes the overwhelming piles of paperwork and documentation is more than I can bear, and the only way I can manage it all is to focus on just one day at a time. Sometimes, it's one moment at a time. The Educational Journal of Special Education stated in 2006 that 50% of special education teachers leave their jobs within five years. Half of those who make it past five years will leave within in ten years. This equates to a 75% turnover rate every ten years. So I suppose Liz and I are in that 25% who decided to stick it out, and make a career out of it.

Please welcome the Supreme Court ruling, "Appropriately Ambitious" to the stage. Recently, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado student with autism. The court said, "School districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful, 'appropriately ambitious' progress..." (March 22, 2017 NPR). What the court neglected to do was define "appropriately ambitious." As a special education teacher, this is concerning because "appropriately ambitious" is not measurable. I am tasked everyday to basically make my students into scientific experiments. That's right, everything they do must be counted and measured. I cannot prove what I am doing is meaningful unless it can be measured, and so my students have become lab rats, and I am the scientist. Research-based methods, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable,  Relevant, Time-based) goals, charts and graphs. At least prior to the Supreme Court ruling the standard was measurable: some growth. I can measure "some." If the graph goes up, then there was "some" growth. But how can I measure "appropriately ambitious"? If you ask me, and even if you don't, I'm going to tell you, appropriately ambitious is extremely ambiguous. 

Is "some" enough? It depends on the student. That's why it's called an Individualized Education Plan. Some growth for one student, might be Everest for another. However, that's also why there is an IEP Team comprised of parents, teachers, administrators, itinerants, and the student. This team is tasked to work together to develop a plan that fits the needs and desires for each student on an individual basis. When done properly, students do grow, and sometimes, they even do this ambitiously, and it happens organically, as it should. But I digress... Wasn't I talking about fun?

We have fun, indeed! Liz and I have our moments of self-pity when our paperwork is criticized, but it's the everyday, the lightbulb moments with our students, and the camaraderie with our colleagues and each other that make this job the best job there is. I would choose nothing else, even though this work chose me. Fifteen years ago, I was a floundering twenty-something trying to figure out who I was going to be. Now, I'm a thirty-something, still trying to figure out who I'm going to be, but at least I know where I need to be.

The prom of 2015 is an amazing night. As a chaperone, I enjoy watching my students in this environment. It's so different from the classroom setting where they are working to accomplish the task I have laid out for them. Here, in this ballroom, they are letting loose, dressed to the nines and having the time of their lives. It's such a gift to watch, and I am feeling blessed. Finally, the moment arrives, and the prom court is invited to the stage. Molly joins the other nominees for the big announcement. They call her name. She is named 2015 Manitou Springs High School Prom Queen. She gets her crown and her sash, and I think she recognizes that this is something special. I don't know if she knows how special. I'm sure she doesn't realize that her fellow seniors voted for her over the captain of the cheerleading squad, and the star basketball player. I know she doesn't know how special she is, but at that moment, she grins. She is invited to dance with the prom king, and she holds his hands out of obligation, because she is a people-pleaser after all. She goes back to her date, a friend with autism with whom she is very familiar, and they dance. They don't dance together, but they dance side-by-side - and Molly is the queen for the night. Tonight, I'd say her peers have made some appropriately ambitious growth when they stepped out in faith and generosity, and chose to recognize her for who she is, and honor her with this recognition. This moment is a reminder of the genuine, beautiful nature that is cultivated in youth. It is the reason I wanted to work with youth, and if I had any influence on this group of students, then I am fulfilled beyond all measure. Fifteen years ago, I wanted to impact the world, or at least my community in a positive way. Maybe I've not impacted the world yet; I certainly have a lot of work to do, and that's why I'm in the twenty-five percent.


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