Today’s blog is a rough draft of a segment of the first chapter of my book. I have been working on this book for a few years and had recently stepped away from it in hopes of gaining better perspective. I really need some honest feedback about the content. No need for editing or proofing suggestions just yet. It is the content and the writing style I am trying to figure out.
I apologize for the length and thank you in advance for your thoughts.
No matter how hard I try to walk away from all things education, I am unable. I have crashed and burned more times than I care to remember. This is hard work. I have tried to lighten up, but in doing so I lose my way, drift from my core values, and it just feels inauthentic. It is a compromise of who I am, a betrayal of sorts. Watching kids (including my own), families and teachers struggle needlessly is, for me, like watching a soccer game played by five year olds. In my head I am screaming at the IEP team players. What are you doing? Why did you take that turn? Don’t you see the goal? You’re going the wrong way!
There are days and weeks and even months when this journey of mine is too relentless. During these times I take a lot of naps and think of other things to do with my life, anything, that has nothing to do with schools, kids, teaching, and developing interventions. Then I get a call and the undertow grabs hold and pulls me back into what I do best, what I am meant to do. The call might be from a teacher, a hurting angry parent, or a parent in denial. Sometimes it’s a call from a student teacher or former university student in distress or just needing to brainstorm strategies in order to meet the needs of a challenging student. It might even be a call from a former middle school student now trying to parent her own child with special needs, or from a dear friend looking for suggestions or support.
Each of these people, in their varying roles, calls for the same reason. Something isn’t working. Each story connects with the next; kids not finding a comfortable place in schools. I know what each caller is feeling, what they are seeing. I understand their perspective, no matter who it is, because I have been there, in that role, in that emotional state.
I have written this book in my head too many times to count. But I get lost when I sit at my desk trying to articulate my thoughts in a coherent way. I cannot sort the swirl of scraps of notes and stories. The sense of urgency and overwhelming magnitude of what we need to fix shuts me down. Where the hell am I supposed to start? I get myself into a significant state of distress that propels me into fight, flight or freeze. Yes, it feels like life or death. So I do what is most reasonable, least harmful. I take a nap or eat a brownie or visit Pinterest to quiet my brain and slow my racing heart.
All that I have seen and experienced in schools as a special education teacher for 18 years, adjunct college instructor, field placement supervisor, behavior and academic interventionist, mother of two boys with IEP’s and one without, IEP team member (as parent, advocate, teacher, consultant and friend) have all led me here. And here is where I see far too much that is ineffective, even damaging, and not enough that is child-centered and helpful. Mostly, it’s not because of a lack of everyone trying their best. Sometimes it is, but most often it is because nobody has time, or takes time, to pause and objectively think about what we are doing. Is it working and how do we know?
In my effort to clear the muddy mess of what I have been trying to write for a few years now, I decided to step away from the content and think about purpose. Not just the purpose of the book, but what I am meant to do with what I know. For certain, my purpose is to do everything I can to make things right for kids in schools. My perspective, philosophy and practice are not always embraced by those I interact with. Even so, I know I am meant to share what I know so that others find the courage to do better, to let go of what they have been doing, so they can embrace what they could be doing.
I know what I bring to the table is unique and of value. I sit in all roles at once and I observe, analyze and develop effective plans for kids. I call bullshit when it lands on the table. I look at all the information shared and walk around it considering every angle. I clear away the surface behaviors and find the source. I objectively consider how an intervention will impact students, teachers, parents, schools, programs, IEP development and implementation. (Yes, I have skills.) I know, with every intervention, all parties play a role in its success or failure. So I listen. I question, prompt and ask for clarification. My purpose is to help everyone at the table understand the perspectives, concerns, expectations and limitations of the others.
But what I do best, what I am driven to do in every interaction with schools and parents, is keep the gifts and needs of each student at the center of all discussions and decisions. And many times the people I am trying to play with won’t get in my wagon.
I understand why some are reluctant to get in my wagon because it is a little beat up, a bit gaudy and banners and bumper stickers make it difficult to recognize it as a wagon. I am unconventional in both personal and professional belief and practice. I am quirky, no doubt. I refuse to wear pantyhose and prefer white socks no matter the occasion or outfit. I use butter and lard when I cook but refuse to use canned soups in my slow cooker recipes. I am a free spirit mom. My kids eat processed foods, I encourage them to climb up the slippery slide at the park rather than use the ladder. I allow snacks right before dinner. We don’t always wear knee and elbow pads or helmets and my kids can ride their scooters in the house. I am strong in my convictions and usually out of step with whatever education trend is popular at the time.
I admit I am tiring to most. I challenge everyone to question. I have high expectations. What I do not have is a lot of faith. Old habits die hard, especially in schools. I am very opinionated and intolerant of incompetence and mediocrity because I know those things hurt kids. I openly oppose seclusion and behaviorist methods and think making kids do worksheets most of the day is cruel. I am not punitive when my students take a wrong turn. When coaching future teachers I use real examples, demand independent and critical thinking about what is commonly practiced in schools especially if it is the trend of the day.
Even so, when I discuss kids, I am nothing less than a highly focused team member determined to do what is best for kids and to support everyone working with them.
Often times I feel like a fake. I make mistakes with the kids I care so much about. I didn’t enter teaching knowing what I know now, and I would like to publicly apologize to all of the students I had in my first few years of teaching. I don’t know many of us who feel all puffy and proud about our first year of teaching, other than we survived and can wait 6 hours to pee. I cringe when I think about it. But it is these cringe-worthy remembrances that I bring to every interaction with others as we problem solve. I only did back then what I believed to be right. I only taught in ways I was trained. I was not terribly skilled freshly out of college. Most new teachers aren’t. It is that understanding, that life experience, that allows me to do what I do without lunging across the table when people say absurd things about kids and how to manage them. My own missteps and mistakes are what keep me humble and somewhat forgiving. But I have a line, a point at which my edit button ceases to work and my professional face morphs into something really unpleasant to look at.
It is long past due for us to take a breath and rethink what we are doing in schools.
In a knee jerk effort to improve our standing with the rest of the world in science and math we have taken a wrong turn. A devastatingly harmful wrong turn. Policy makers have their eyes on the test scores. They have lost sight of what is best for kids, what is best for learning. Instead they panicked and are trying to fix what they perceive to be the problem -low test scores- when the problem is what and how we are teaching. They didn’t check with those brain-based learning researchers and experts. If they had, they would be focused on developing and delivering content in ways students can best access it, construct meaning from, learn, apply and store in long term memory. Since we have been socialized to value above all else busy, busy, busy and taking action (any action is better than no action), we forgot to stop, be still, observe and critically consider if what we are doing is really working and how we know. We forgot our students are whole and complex beings. And as trite as it may sound, they are the future. They are next in line to be responsible adults faced with all the challenges, successes and discoveries of previous generations.
We have many outstanding and highly effective teachers being stifled by the current trends in education. We have many outstanding parents who are being invalidated or scared into believing their children only have a chance at a happy adulthood if they score high and attend the best colleges. Teachers and parents, particularly those responsible for children with special needs, are becoming more and more burned out, less and less satisfied in their work. They feel devalued. They feel voiceless. The struggle is real.
I don’t know any teachers or parents that value high stakes testing. I don’t know many teachers who fully endorse or embrace canned positive behavior intervention programs or the myriad of obscenely expensive big publisher math and reading programs in their schools. I don’t know any teachers who are teaching better now because they fear losing their jobs or being further discredited because of poor test scores. Fear is not an effective motivator. For anyone. Including kids. I do, however, know that all teachers and parents see that we are leaving behind lots of kids, lots of untapped potential.
The most important thing we can do is ask ourselves and each other if what we are doing is working. How do we know? When we openly grapple with those two questions, change can happen. But meaningful analysis and critical thinking require training and practice and a willingness to change. They require time, systematic data collection and synthesis, collaboration with other observers, colleagues and experts. They require meticulous scrutiny of all the variables that may have influenced the effects of the intervention. We have to include consideration of environmental influences, social and emotional stability, content and concepts being taught, lesson design and delivery, rewards and consequences, teacher’s mood and attitude, student’s perception of such, influences away from school, mental and physical health, sensory sensitivities, classroom procedures, routines and expectations. Let’s not forget to include student feedback and self-assessment. None of those can be undervalued or dismissed in analysis of the effectiveness of any practice or intervention. Meaningful analysis and critical thinking are what prompt us to ask. Is it working? How do we know?
I invite you to reconsider what we do. I encourage you to look through a different lens.