After homeschooling our kids from kindergarten to grade 7, and with child #4 graduating high school and going off to college this year, my husband informed me that our budget needed for me to go back to work. So I dusted off my teaching certificate, and have begun the process of securing a Missouri teaching certificate. In the meantime, I also began to substitute teacher for our local school district.
My going back to work meant the end of homeschooling our youngest child. For various reasons, we chose to homeschool our kids for grades K-7, and then let them begin attending school in the 8th grade and continuing on until graduation. Our youngest was going to begin public school for the first time in the 7th grade, and the Middle School requested he take some tests to establish his grade equivalencies. We agreed and were a bit downhearted when the testing showed our son was behind in one subject area. It was recommended he repeat the 6th grade, which we didn’t want him to have to do. We countered with we felt he could succeed in 7th grade with our help, and if the school felt he needed Special Education in that one subject, then we would agree to that plan. Thus, our introduction to the world of Special Education began.
I discovered that the Special Education teachers and their assistants genuinely care for the students put into their charge. The IEP(Indidualized Educational Program) created for our son worked excellently for him. At the last parent-teachers conference for the school year, I learned that having our son attend Special Education class was a nice “cushion” for him to fall back upon as he became acclimated to the ways of how a public school runs. The program also proved beneficial in that our son aquired new skills in this subject and is now on grade level. In fact, I was told that he probably doesn’t need the extra help when he enters 8th grade.
A couple weeks ago, I received a phone call asking if I was available to substitute in one of the elementary school’s Special Education classrooms. I agreed as it meant now I would get to observe a Special Education class in action.
The classroom I was directed to was two classrooms; they were entered by two doors on two connected hallways, and there was a doorway between the two classrooms. The two classrooms also shared their own bathroom. Instead of individual desks, students sat at tables with chairs around them. Colorful posters decorated the walls, some with inspiring messages, and some reviewing the points of good manners. There were colorful, cloth covered baskets containing picture books, grouped according to reading levels. There was a bookcase containing chapter books of award-winning children literature books and another containing all of the teacher textbooks and a student textbook for the main curriculum used at the school for each grade. Ipads and headphones, were in evidence, to be used for rewards if assigned work was completed; since the majority of students coming to the Special Education room for help were boys, the popular ipad game was sending a motorized vehicle into outer space, and then watching it land.
After helping with some lunch and recess duties, it was officially time to work with a Special Education student. The boy walked in presently, probably of average size for his grade. He walked stiffly, a bit slowly, I noticed. I wondered if he had a slight case of cerebral palsy, which may have explained his stiff movements. As he walked into the room, he introduced himself to me, and before I could tell him my name, he flung his arms around me and gave me a strong hug. What a sweet child, I thought. He selected a book from a basket and asked me to help him read through it. The other Special Education aide reminded him that he had to read it mostly by himself, and then that when he finished it, one of us would read it with him. Then, if there was time, he could take his comprehension test on the book. His reading of the book was fine, and I only had to guide him on a few of the longer words; I told him what the unfamiliar words meant. Soon it was time for this student to go back to his regular classroom. I did get to see him once more as he had to get ready for an early bus pick up, and since part of my job was to get the early bus riders to the foyer of the school building, this student suddenly needed to visit the restroom and he immediately grabbed my hand and asked me to walk him to the bathroom in the Special Education classroom. While he was in that bathroom, I got to observe the main Special Education teacher work with a kindergartner who was pacing the room and probably unwinding from his day, and watch her aid another student with a vocabulary worksheet. It struck me that in the Special Education room, the teacher and the assistants work one on one with only a few students, which in a way is similar to a homeschooling lesson in that a homeschooling mom often is teaching her students one on one, or in a small grouping.
As I walked down the hall with the boy who had had to visit the bathroom, he once again reached for my hand. He peppered me with questions, as we walked the halls back to the foyer to await his bus. He mainly wanted to know if I’d be back at his school the next day, in the special education room. I explained to him that since I was a substitute teacher, I went to a lot of different schools and that perhaps I’d be back another day, but I didn’t know if I’d be back as soon as the very next day. As he waved good bye to all of us Special Education aides in the foyer, and walked stiffly to get onto the bus, I began to think about this boy’s future.
When public education began in the United States (1821, in Boston, Massachusetts), students who struggled with learning were probably punished and/or ridiculed; teachers hitting students with rulers across the opened hand, or the dunce cap worn by the student as they were made to sit in the front of the classroom, facing their classmates. My guess is that many of these students dropped out and their obtaining a full education didn’t happen. Jumping to the mid-1960s, President Johnson(a former teacher himself) signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act which established the beginnings of Special Education, however it really didn’t begin to take off and expand until the 1970s.
So, on one hand, this boy that I worked with, will have a stigma to battle at school. That stigma placed upon him by his classmates of being one who has to leave the regular classroom daily and get special help. However, on the whole, it means he is being given a chance to succeed, which many years ago, wouldn’t have been possible for him in a school setting.
With this week being known as National Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, my hats are off to all teachers and especially to the Special Education teachers who with immense patience, diligence, and caring, are giving their all so students can succeed.