We can’t teach them if we don’t know where they’re coming from.

There seems to be an unspoken law, at my nonprofit organization at least, that as the kids grow more and more chill, engaged, and cooperative, the higher-ups grow more and more unreasonable and, if I may be politically incorrect for a moment, completely insane.  Today there was one classroom incident—a group of kids were bullying one of our 3 IEP kids, Ethan, by calling him “retarded”; he tried to ignore them and then finally snapped, though we managed to talk him down—but besides that it was a good day.  I coaxed 5-7 sentences out of each of them, with the exception of Shaun (more on this in a moment).  My coworkers got them to participate in all the icebreaker activities.  They barely dragged their feet.  After the class we decided that it would be best to address the incident in a future session.  However, the word from above is that, instead of directly addressing the incident, we are to talk about diversity in general (ethnicity, religion, and so on) because we aren’t allowed to single out any one kid with any one problem.

I do agree with this on some level.  Privacy is important, especially around sensitive issues such as disabilities.  But the fact is that all of the kids know it happened, and most of them seem to view this student as “retarded” and didn’t understand why they should treat him as anything else.  As such it seems like the best approach would be to educate them about MR.  We don’t have to name names.  They already know.  Even if we stood up there and lectured about how Hindus and Christians are different, they would know we were trying to talk about Ethan, even if mental illness never once came up.  To top this, this lesson will be a follow-up to a disciplinary lecture that was given to them today, and while I do think the lecture was needed, I don’t know that it should have happened first.  It might have been more beneficial to try to get them to understand their actions and mental illnesses rather than reprimand them and take away their recess time.

Every time these kids have a good day, one incident ruins it, and they are always disciplined–lectured and punished–at the end of the day.  My fear is that this might lead them to decide that it’s pointless to engage and be on good behavior, because they’re being punished regardless.  And honestly, if you’re not in the classroom all day with these kids, you don’t know how best to deal with them.  I’m with them very little, all things considered, and so when I’m teaching I allow the advocates to take care of classroom management.  Sometimes a one-on-one talk in the hallway resolves everything.  Sometimes all it takes is squeezing a kid’s shoulder to calm him down.   Keep lecturing them like this, and I worry that we’ll undermine the positive reinforcement we’re giving them, as well as breed resentment toward all of us.  After all, they don’t know that it’s just one or two higher-ups making the call.  In their eyes, we function as one single-minded unit.

Instead of ranting about disciplinary systems again, I want to address the issue of IEP students and privacy.  IEPs are education programs developed to work with individuals diagnosed with physical and/or mental disabilities that hinder learning.  The students that are in these programs are understandably defensive about the disabilities they have, especially at this age, when any sign of difference makes you a prime target.  Obviously the kids want to keep it private, as do families sometimes, and obviously we don’t want everyone and their brother gossiping about so-and-so’s disability up and down the block.  But I fail to see why teachers and advocates can’t be apprised of these students’ conditions so we can better tailor our lessons to them.  I found out today—from Shaun’s former advocate, not from a higher-up—that Shaun is one of my IEP students in that he reads and writes at a 2nd grade level and has likely been socially promoted to 9th grade.  Today he wouldn’t write anything when I gave them an assignment; I assumed he didn’t want to, and because we’re just beginning to form a rapport, I told him he could work on it next class, when the truth is that he doesn’t write because he can’t.  Spelling is difficult for him, as is sentence construction, and rather than be ridiculed by his classmates, he doesn’t do the assignment.

It might come as a shock, but this makes sense.  There are ways to work with it.  If he’d been a little less well-behaved today, I might have badgered him to write something, and he probably would have gone off on me.  Now that I know he has difficulty, I’m going to plan to work with him one-on-one in the computer lab, where he’ll be slightly apart from the other kids and hopefully not as defensive.  But I can’t take these measures if I don’t know his learning abilities and habits and his overall situation.

We’re a program that targets these kids individually, so why not tell us about them as individuals?  The advocates work with them from 9:00-4:00 every day.  The teachers see them for 5-10 hours a week.  Without knowing these things, it’s easy to mistake recalcitrance or backtalk for misbehavior, when it might be coming out of their own insecurities about their ability to do what’s being asked of them.  If we keep demanding, they grow defensive, resistant, angry.  They lash out.  And I don’t blame them.

I’m furious to think that I made unreasonable demands of Shaun on Day 1 when I could have approached him in a more one-on-one basis and established a better rapport immediately.  Had I been armed with the proper case notes (and I haven’t seen any, ever, for any student), I would have done this.  Instead, it must have seemed to him that I was confronting him on his inability to read and write at the level of his peers, in a situation where his peers would ridicule him, and that I was then punishing him for this inability.  Small wonder we didn’t hit it off.

It bothers me deeply that this thinking is pervasive in a program that tracks students individually, in its own words.  We are managed by people who possess great enthusiasm for what they do but who don’t work with the kids on a daily basis and are apparently blind to the fact that if we don’t know a given student’s learning situation, we can’t tailor our lessons to accommodate him or her.  In fact, without this knowledge, we may inadvertently end up reinforcing the students’ negative emotions about their disabilities, and thereby end up doing more harm than good.

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This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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