Recently I witnessed the best and the worst of public education. I was invited to serve as a Teacher’s Aide for a class of severely handicapped students – with both mental and physical limitations. This high school was in Manatee County, Florida
At first I was unsure of how to act as I entered this remarkable world. The students looked up from their tasks the best they could to see who was now among them. I introduced myself to the only teacher in the room and was told to sit next to Joshua and to help him with breakfast. This boy does not have the ability to stand, nor coordinate his limbs so he is completely depended upon the assistance of others. The look of wonder in his eyes was only matched by his innate ability to trust this new visitor. Joshua could not talk so I had to run the dialogue by myself. Joshua was tolerate of both my conversation and my humor.
The day was punctuated with a variety of activities including a field trip to the art room across campus. One girl (I’ll call Cutie) walked the entire way on very thin and fragile legs that moved in a mechanized fashion. This girl whose body has been ravaged by a genetic disorder made her way slowly but steadily. She liked taking my arm as a mobile railing. Her touch although gentle was unfortunately icy since her body suffers from a circulation problem.
At lunch time, I was assigned to feed Cutie beef stew and applesauce. She was able to feed herself for the most part but she could not resist tossing her spoon onto the floor followed by her tub of beef stew. She did this twice and managed to include me in her food flight. I had the look of incredibility on my face while she managed to launch an ear to ear grin. I had my first breakthrough circumventing her normally placid face. Although I was upset at the theatrics initially, I also had to admit that the flying food was funny and it was heartfelt moment to see that sheer joy and glee in Cutie’s eyes. In some ways we were fording the language gap between us and it seemed worth the toll fee of flying food. Education is after all the human connection and the learning that ensues.
The final student was a wheel bound girl I’ll call Optima for being so optimistic. This young lady was consistently smiling and roaring in her own way to show the world that she was making the most of what life had handed her. Her perfect set of teeth were on constant display. One touch of her cheek by my right index finger caused an operatic reaction. Optima, like most children desperately need human affection and attention. This is an area that needs to be bolstered.
During this entire day, I was the only other person in the room with the special education teacher. This woman (I’ll call Miss Dynamo) was constantly on the move, preparing meals, writing lesson-plans, and for 30-40 minutes attending a PPT (Planning and Placement Team) meeting leaving this history teacher in charge of the room.
Miss Dynamo was also in charge of changing all the diapers in the room. With all the money spent on public education it seems a shame that the neediest students should go without adequate supervision. The Special Education teacher should be allowed to do her paperwork duties and lesson-planning duties while teacher aides cover the students at a ratio of 1:1 or 1: 2. This was not the case.
This type of Exceptional Student Education (ESE) coverage is feasible today if school districts revise their priorities. Here are some examples for consideration:
1. Renegotiate the plush retirement system to something more affordable.
2. Provide more scrutiny on capital outlays. One Suncoast district plunged ahead purchasing more than $13 million worth of space-aged e-boards. The Herald-Tribune reported on this purchase on Saturday, March 20, 2010: “Sarasota school officials bought into the technology so much that in 2006 they set out to be the first district in the country to install one in every classroom. The idea was to make sure all students had equal access to the technology, so they signed off on a $13.2 million contract to buy 3,000 Activboards from Promethean (a foreign company). The decision was ambitious and controversial. Some school board members questioned the cost. Some teachers pointed out there was no evidence they would enhance performance and said they would not use them.” The superintendent who oversaw this mammoth outlay soon resigned and left the state.
2. Do more research. Unfortunately, over the years educators have gained a reputation of trying anything that is new and sometimes untested. Some infamous examples were the New Math Program of the late 1960s, a concept that baffled students and teachers alike and was given an unceremonious heave ho during the following decade; whole language over phonics – this disastrous strategy ignored decades of experience that the key to unlock reading for students in elementary school is phonics. Today, the appropriate equilibrium has been restored: phonics supplemented with whole language.
3. Learn to say no. Even the transition from black boards to white boards went through the education bureaucracy without any real scrutiny. Any teacher will tell you that it is near impossible to read the markers since there is a glare on the boards from both sides of the room. Today the educational establishment comes to school boards across the country doing their best Dickens’ impression of Oliver Twist: Please sir (we) want some more?! Unfortunately, the reaction of many conservatives to this pitiful play on the true poverty of the 1830s is to purge the education establishment to the bone. That type of knee-jerk reaction is despicable and foolish. Unions will be unions after all – ignore their agenda and think of the students.
Education is a noble profession, one that enlightens our young citizens and allows society to express its deepest altruistic impulses – impulses like adequately funding the education of those ESE students most in need. Programs like ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) need to be retooled to make it more effective while at the same time more frugal. All students need to have command of the English language within two years not 13 years. No ESOL at all to students in grades K-2 since they have the natural ability to learn English by cultural osmosis in their regular classroom. Also, the free and reduced lunch program needs to be revamped for the high school years. In over 10 years of teaching I have seen students throwing away perfectly good food while munching on Sunflower seeds purchased that very morning, or purchasing cookies for their afternoon soda.
This type of behavior is not good for anyone. Students need to appreciate the value of a dollar and the need to withstand impulse buying. At $1.00 per meal, high school students could easily earn $5.00 a week by helping the secretaries answer phones during the busy mornings or washing the classroom boards in the afternoon. They could also ask their parents for this money or do chores around the neighborhood. There are plenty of tasks for them to due to earn their meals while helping the exhausted teaching staff after school.
What we need today is the bluster of Aaron Sorkin’s anchor Will McAvoy to sound the alarm to make schools more efficient and more compassionate. These ESE students, these children of God should be our top priority, not an afterthought.
Geoffrey G. Fisher is a Federally Designated Highly Qualified State-Certified History and Government Teacher. He currently works in Southwest Florida as a Guest Teacher. He served for six years as a public official in Connecticut and holds a Master of Arts Degree in Public Policy from Trinity College in Hartford, CT. His blog is located at www.theamericanthinkingcap.blogspot.com .