Friday, March 04, 2005

Working Offline

I've got what appears to be a long-term substitute teaching job, and so I'm not going to have too much time for my usual online actitivities. Folks have been expressing appreciation for my blog here, and even suggesting topics I could take up, but right now I can't guarantee anything to anybody.

The job I've got is working one-on-one with a fourth-grader who has high-functioning autism and is mainstreamed into the classroom. He actually does pretty well, but without someone at his elbow, he doesn't get any schoolwork done. Normally, this is an aide's job, but aides are in such short supply that they are paying me teacher's wages for it. The actual time is up in the air, too. I've been working with this kid for the last week, but no one seems to know when, or if, the school board is going to get around to hiring someone permanent. It could be this week, next week, next month, or I could end up spending the rest of the school year with him.

So, I have to prioritize -- jobs I "have" to do online, like moderating, take priority, and so does my private correspondence. Then, the blog and posting on lists will just have to fit in there somewhere. It is almost certain that had I not worked such an erratic schedule (of course, I was still a student getting a credential when I first started posting), I never would have become as active in Baha'i cyberspace as I have. I've heard stories of first-year teachers working 12-hour days; had I gotten a permanent job, spare time would definitely have been in short supply, at least for the first year or two. (Folks that think teachers have it easy with short hours and long breaks don't know many teachers.)

I've been telling anybody who will listen ,for as long as I've been a teacher, that teacher training should include a basic class in special education. All I had was a one-unit class on the laws involved, and the main purpose seemed to be to tell would-be teachers that "Yes, you have to have these kids in your classroom." So, I had to learn by observation and experience. (Some of those aides are worth their weight in gold, and certainly worth any new teacher's time to pay attention to.) Virtually every classroom I've ever been in for the last 3 1/2 years has a kid or two with some kind of learning disability or other problem, like ADHD. I have also done some subbing in special ed classes -- once for a two-week stint. So, at this point, I know what I'm doing, but it isn't something that comes naturally -- you have to learn how. The more difficult the child, the more low-key you have to be. One of the mellowest people I ever met teaches at the Juvenile Hall, where you get a lot of emotionally disturbed youngsters. You can't come off all tough and authoritarian with autistic kids, or you could set them off into a tantrum, which is much worse than whatever problem you started off with. You just calmly and quietly say what you expect, and what the consequences are for noncompliance, and keep saying it until you get it. I have a reward system set up, and if he doesn't do his work, he loses part of his recess. I put check marks next to a happy face or a sad face -- and if I head towards his chart telling him he's going to get a bad check mark, he says "No! I don't want to be sad; I want to be happy!" "So, o.k., then, let's get to work." That's generally all it takes.

Autistic children also have to be reminded of basic social niceties, like greeting and making eye contact, and I often have to remind my little guy to look at the teacher and listen, or to get back on task. He was required to take a standardized test with the rest of the class -- and the rules of the test were that children get no help. He sat there for an hour and didn't do anything. So, that's what I'm there for; to keep him focused enough to get his work done.

Mainstreaming is rather controversial in some quarters, and I had my own doubts, until I saw how it worked. The greatest benefit that I see is the understanding the rest of the kids in the class gain. People think back to their own school days, and how anyone "different" was picked on, and think that handicapped kids would be sitting ducks for bullies. But when the nature of the disability is explained, the other children often respond very well. In the class where I did my student teaching, there was a kid with spina bifida who was mainstreamed in for an hour or so, and a group of the girls in the class enthusiastically mothered him, and went to see him in his special ed classroom whenever they could. It was downright touching to see. There is much less tolerance for bullying, in any case, than when I was a schoolchild -- but that could be the topic of a whole other blog entry.

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