Sunday, August 30, 2009

Time to Take Care

School starts for my own kids and my colleagues on Wednesday. I think I have my kids ready, I am ready for my classes, and I am so looking forward to having the house to myself from 8:10 AM-3:30 PM five days a week. I know myself well enough to know that I will succumb to the urge to nap a lot until I get a routine going. That's OK. I am still trashed from the last two years of teaching in such a dysfunctional department.

I am going to attend a workshop in October about compassion fatigue. Sounds interesting, right? Finally! Research, acknowledgement, awareness and support of those of us in helping professions. Empathy is what makes most of us good at what we do. It is that very empathy and emotional intelligence that wears us out. I have felt for some time that many of us were close to, if not in, the throes of PTSD. That was the closest I could come to identifying how many of us were responding physically and emotionally after years of service. There is a build up that happens when you are in direct service of those in chronic need. As an EBD teacher, I am not only exposed to their suffering daily, but the kids (sometimes the parents) are often quite verbally and physically abusive to everyone in striking distance.

I developed flashbacks, spotty depression, exhaustion, and GAD. Yikes. And it snuck up on me, took 15 years or so to really take hold. I began to feel this was normal. You know, the normalization of the abnormal. When I was a bit lost and feeling I was not needed ( kid in crisis at the moment), I realized I was in a bad spot.

The reality is that many, many, many special education teachers are in the same spot.

Now this brings me to the other side of that whole syndrome. I am the mother of two special needs kiddos. So, do I want my own children in the hands of teachers who are on the brink of burnout and on overload due to really stupid administrative decisions? Ultimately it is the kids that lose. And they lose big. No child left behind? My ass! Tell me a high functioning kiddo with autism is going to get all the support needed to be successful in regular education classrooms when under his teacher's care are 13 other kiddos ranging in grades from K-6 and on various spots of the autism continuum? I know with certainty that kiddo will come last. The kiddos with more significant behaviors will get the attention. They have to. But this whole triage mindset and practice leaves lots of kids behind. The fact that administrators can assign kids to programs with no real understanding of what logistical challenges that teacher has to manage galls me. They assign and walk away, rarely checking in, and never offering any substantive support. Budget issues? That's a line. Don't give me that line when money was found to take 8 administrators to a week long Florida conference on PBIS! Many of us were told this year (when personnel cuts were announced) to just suck it up..or my favorite one, "when times are tough, really creative teachers think outside the box." Are you kidding me?

Quit leaving my kids behind. Quit leaving special education teachers behind. Soon we will all be fried crispy critters in other careers. You can only burn through so many of us. We are not an infinite number. Although I can be replaced, eventually schools will run out of replacements. Word is out. Special education is bad for your health.

And that makes me so sad.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Affirmation Comes in Ugly Packages

Oh my. How quickly things change in my school district. The lovely newish teacher described in my last entry got bumped by a senior teacher. Cripes. Here's the low down. Senior teacher got cut .5 last spring so has been looking for a .5 all summer. Couldn't find anything to her liking. Angst set in and probably ruined her summer. My posting came and went. Senior teacher is certified to teach EBD, but still did not jump on it. Newish teacher (who had yet to be assigned a position for this school year) gets assigned my position as nobody else in the district wanted my job. Go figure. Meanwhile senior teacher gets assigned a .5 in a discipline she is not interested in and that now makes her a traveling teacher. 48 hours later, senior teacher in angst decides to use her contractual right as senior traveling teacher and bumps newish least senior non-traveling teacher. God knows where the poor newish teacher ended up. I hear she may have been assigned positions at least 2 more times before it got settled. Now, really, is this any way to treat an enthusiastic, well intentioned, promising newish teacher? It's no small miracle she didn't change career paths immediately! I digress....

So, now we have senior teacher in my old position. Elementary EBD teacher with a very challenging caseload.

OK readers, here is where you will begin to see what I am all about. I expect a few hits from you all. Senior Teacher and I have VERY different styles. I use a psycho educational approach and it serves me very well. I have absolutely NO USE for level systems, token economies, point systems...ineffective old school methodologies. I have made some noteworthy gains with my students, turned three principals into believers of my way, and converted many classroom teachers into coming along for the ride without points and tokens.

Senior Teacher (ST) is all about points, levels, token economies and earning your way out of EBD. My kids will be in shock. My parapros are trying their hardest to adjust and embrace it. The first hours in EBDland during staff prep days were hard for them. It did not help that ST walked through the room with one of them and item by item asked for purpose of everything in there. It did not help that she announced she was changing everything. It did not help that she has a 3-4 page document that she is handing out that describes in great detail her points, levels and token economy policy. Good luck with that. Half my parents are illiterate. The other half are ODD and like hell will this sit well with them!

ST has made it clear that she has no use for large tables, she prefers desks in rows. Forget that I had been using large tables for 4 years (with success, mind you) to teach them how to share space with others so when they do cooperative groups in their general ed classes and work at large tables in art with others they can do so in peace. She has no use for all the sensory integration stuff (large bounding balls, large balls on legs for sitting, weighted lap pads) and had all the balls deflated stating that in her experience those sorts of things are only used for hitting one another with. (Gee, how is that point system working for you if you cannot even use great sensory stuff without it becoming a source of behavioral inappropriateness?) She has no use for puzzles or toys. "There won't be any time in here for playing." Gee, isn't play therapy a good thing? Isn't allowing supervised free time to play with others a great way to teach cooperation so when they have recess they know how to do it? Doesn't that help kids develop a sense of what to do with free and unstructured time? She did not approve of the popcorn maker or the case of instant oatmeal in the cupboards. Let's see, we have several on meds that require food when taken, several who don't eat because there is NO FOOD at home, and quite frankly, what sort of EBD program doesn't have food as a major component?

Here is the bottom line of how I am reacting emotionally. I feel devalued, negated, and discounted by ST. She has no use for my program (which is highly respected and observed frequently by other teachers in other schools). She wanted to know little to nothing about what I did, how the kids responded, what worked, what did not. She moved in, shoved me out. Holly crap did I tailspin into outrage, grief, self loathing, indignation and explosive diarrhea. Sorry, but you need to know the truth. I spent the next day in the sort of grief I imagine takes hold when someone you totally cannot live without dies. I have no doubt I have embarrassed myself to colleagues on whose shoulders I cried, ranted, raved, and snotted.

I had to get a grip, so I did what any reasonable person would do. I ate lots of chocolate cake and a whole basket of deep fried onion strings. (My relationship with food can be explored another time.) I then went to my good friend Wayne Dyer and found my way. He's good. Really good. I am in a good spot right now. I intend to stay here.

Here's the deal. I need to leave direct service. I need to make the shift from service provider to expert/consultant/program developer (thank you youngest sis) because what I know to be right and best practice, is right and best practice and too many EBD teachers are still allowed to practice what is not in the best interest of kids because principals don't know what is best in EBDland. They just need a warm body in those programs that keeps a good part of the bad news from the rest of the building. They have high stakes testing and all the logistical nightmares required to run a school much higher on the list of priorities. Districts (more importantly, students) need people like me to develop, manage and support effective EBD programs, to provide a vision and some consistency within the special ed departments, to support EBD teachers on the brink of their own mental and physical health issues due to job stress.

It was damn hard to let go and depersonalize what ST is doing. It was hard to reframe and not take her changes personally, as a professional assault. ST is a gift in the form of affirmation that I am doing what I am meant to do.

FYI....I had chocolate cake and coffee for breakfast as I blogged today.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Ebb and Flow

The teacher assigned to my position while I am on leave met with me today. It was tough. Even so, it is with great relief I hand it all over to her. I stupidly thought we could pass the baton (did I really just use a sports analogy? Ugh) in a couple of hours. We barely scratched the surface in three. We met with my/her principal for about 30 minutes then headed up to my/her room. As you can see by my use of pronouns I am having trouble with this transition, letting go, giving another my home, removing myself and allowing another to take over. Pathetic.

We had decisions to make. Did she want all my teaching materials left or did she want me to get them out of her way? She has 2 years under her belt. We decided to leave the materials. I have 18 year's worth of good resources. The students are used to them and they are effective. She can start the year with the same instructional strategies as she learns her way around, then abandon or keep what she wants. Did she want all my games, toys for play therapy, recess activities, sensory integration materials, charts, posters, classroom decorations? Yes. So, I don't have to get in there and pack up my stuff. That's a good thing. Does she want to meet again? Yes.

As we talked I got jazzed up. How exciting for her! She is just starting her career and soaking it all up. I loved sharing what I know, introducing her to unconventional strategies, giving her little peeks of the kiddos. I found myself encouraging her to try it all on so she can find herself as teacher. I suggested she come back to the room all by herself and snoop around, feel its energy, dig in the cabinets, start to make it hers.

I took a deep breath and gave her my key.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

It is So Much More Than a Room

Wow. I just ran into school to water my plants and take another armload of personal stuff out. It hit me hard that I would not be the one leading in my classroom for a year. I feel winded. It was ghost townish there on a late Saturday afternoon. Eerie. It struck me more than once that my badge will unlock the doors only a bit longer and my key will have to be turned in. I will have limited access to my home away from home very soon. I will no longer be able to go on a whim to just sit and ponder in my classroom, to sit at my desk and consider what happened the week before or what was bound to happen the following week.

It's a comfort I am not quite ready to let go of. Perhaps it is not just a comfort. My feelings in this moment suggest it is something more intense, more necessary to my survival and identity.

My classroom has always been a room of my own, a refuge even when de-escalating a kiddo in crisis. Even when desk chairs and pencil boxes fly through the air toward my head. It's where I make oatmeal and ramen noodles by the gallons for kiddos in need of something warm and soothing, where teachers stream in on and off all day to steal away a bit of chocolate from my desk drawer, where friends come to get a hug or to complain about some outrageous upper administrative decision, where just about every adult in the building has come to insist I extract a pound of flesh from a student who has just disrupted, where parents come crying or yelling or turn maddeningly passive and give up, where my students let me in and trust I will help, where recesses are spent when my kiddos are hurt or rejected or just too mean and angry to go out. It's where lots of abuses have been inflicted by my students; all out of anger, frustration and fear. It is where love has been endlessly expressed in so many ways, where little aha moments happen and keys unlock long lasting learning problems.

It is where I found me. It is me. I will miss it terribly.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How Did I Get Here?

Well, here I sit. I have written this first blog a hundred times in my head. I was witty, creative, thought provoking. And here I sit. Blank. My intent is to offer a place for others to come and ponder with me as I begin a journey I never expected to take.

I am more than a bit curious about what happens to teachers who cross over to administration (the dark side). I know this is not unique to education. From the private business sector you hear the same concerns from those that are not in management. I wonder if the presence of the teacher's union and contract put teachers and administrators on opposite sides of some very important issues. Kids get lost in the system as it is.

As I ponder this transformation I consider all the administrators I have worked with. The majority taught only a handful of years before becoming administrators. Hmmm. Some had taught a fair number of years but once they came through the other side of their administrative programs practiced in seemingly uncaring ways and clearly lost some IQ points. A precious few are simply gifted as teachers and administrators both.

Why did it take me so very long to realize and put into action the necessary? In reflection I see that the universe was ever so gently tapping at me, like a handful of gravel gently thrown against a window pane to get someone's attention. After a dump truck load of gravel was wasted on me, a few boulders were put right in front of me. They were not easy to ignore, but I did. I then got hit with a few stress related health issues but all were managed by one pill a day. I finally took the proverbial blow to the head with a two by four in the form of one too many administrative decisions that made doing what is best for kids just about impossible. Could I keep on keeping on? Not a chance. Once I realized I had reached my limit the self loathing hit. Why are others able to do the job? Why was I finding this so impossible? Maybe I am not as strong as I thought?

I landed in burnout last year. I did not pass go or get my 200 bucks. I was 'in jail' with no get out free card. My cellmates were in worlds of hurt I couldn't change and the wardens were making decisions that effected all of us for the worse. I am good, really good, at what I do. I have always loved what I do. Colleagues, administrators, parents, all seek me out for help and support. No matter. By winter break of this last school year it became more than clear I simply could not face another year of direct service to my very challenging students. Once the shock of that realization wore off I had an identity crisis. If not an EBD teacher, who am I? EBD Teacher has always been my proudest title. Yeah, yeah. I am wife, mom, sister, daughter, auntie, friend too, but anyone can claim those titles.

I spent months spinning in my little wheel unable to find a direction or place to get off. With the help of my good friend Wayne Dyer (never met the man, but in my mind we are tight). I began to organize my thoughts and better define my purpose. I also requested a one year leave of absence. (My heart still races when I realize I will not be back in my room in a few short weeks.)

I had to define what is important to me as a public school educator. This took months. Nothing gets me more jazzed than an impossibly quirky kid, classroom teachers entrenched in bad practices, and burned out parents. I want to be able to develop and help maintain effective programming for special needs kids. I want to support teachers as they face the realities of every day. I want to advocate for special educators who are facing insurmountable challenges but handle it all with grace and creativity. I want to help parents navigate through it all.

I considered teaching at the university level. You know, teach teachers in training, supervise them as student teachers. But 18-21 year olds are not my favorite group and none of what I wanted to do could be done in that role. I also harbor a belief that good teachers are born not made (very limited and probably ill conceived) and that would certainly get in the way of me being an effective college instructor.

My next shock was the realization that to practice what was important per my values I need to become an administrator in special education and pupil services. Yikes! Nope, no way. I was only able to face it full on after a visit with an EAP counselor and the very next day applied and signed up.

Within a day of that I was notified my leave was granted and the deal was done. I have never doubted it since. I am on a train that is taking me to a destination I was not ready for until now.

The Force is with me. I will do what I am meant to do.