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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Special Education?

After being out of the classroom for five years, I was excited when one of my school district clients asked if I would be willing to teach a one-night, technology-based writing class for adults.  I operated my own grant-writing consulting business for years and it was lonely work at times.  I welcomed the opportunity to briefly return to teaching to use my love of writing to try to build some confidence in those less thrilled about taking pen to paper. 
On my way to teach the evening class, I received a call from the Program Director advising me that in addition to 23 adults ranging in age from 24 to 76, there would be a professional signer in my class.  One of the mothers who registered for the class was deaf.  In accordance with ADA regulations, the district was providing someone to sign my words for this parent.  As a former English teacher, I was accustomed to accommodating special need students, but was still worried.  Even though I was “Teacher of the Year” and received outstanding evaluations, there was one glaring negative comment on every review:  This instructor must make every effort to slow her speech.
In order to soothe my own anxiety and to reassure the signer, I greeted her as soon as I entered the classroom.  I immediately warned her about my speech impediment and promised to make every effort to slow down.  I added, “Please know that it is a lifelong problem that won’t be corrected tonight, but I will work with you.” I smiled at Mrs. Eastwood, the deaf parent, and gave her the “Okay” sign.
My adult students filed into class in many different shapes and sizes.  There was an elderly couple that just purchased a computer and wanted to use it to write e-mails to their grandchildren.  There was another couple that hoped to help their 8th grade daughter write a better 5-paragraph essay.  There were several unemployed Moms and Dad there to learn to write a cover letter and a resume.  Certainly, these were too many topics to cover in two hours, but I planned on doing my best.
I began the class by distributing a questionnaire asking for personal information and a sentence or two about what each enrollee hoped to learn.  Then I spoke for about three minutes about writing, about how personal it was, about how it is used to assess educational level, skills, etc. I mentioned that it was a hands-on class and that we were going to actually be doing writing, and reviewing some of the most common errors that could be …
Suddenly I was interrupted by the signer raising her hand.  Mrs. Eastwood frowned.  The signer stated, “Mrs. Eastwood was looking down filling out the questionnaire, so she was not able to read your lips or watch my sign interpretation of your introduction.  Can you begin again?”
“Oh, sure…I guess… there are a few stragglers, just getting settled, I will start again.”  I repeated the intro the best I could, but it was not going as smoothly as before.  First, because the faces of the students looked as if they were saying “We heard this already!"  Secondly, because I knew I said it much better the first time.  I suddenly felt nervous and began stumbling.
I continued, “Tonight, we are going to begin with…..” 
I was interrupted again by the signer’s chubby hand. Mrs. Eastwood grimaced.  The signer stated, “Mrs. Eastwood says that you were a little fast and she is writing down everything that you say, so could you try it again a little slower.”
22 people sighed.
I responded rapidly, “Please…I assure you… there is nothing so important that I am going to say that needs to be taken down in note form.  This is a hands-on class that will allow you to …
I was immediately interrupted by the signer again.  “I’m sorry.  Mrs. Eastwood was getting to MS Word and was looking down.  She was not able to get that part.”
The class stared. I said, “Let’s just move on to our first practice assignment.”
The challenge was to see if participants could combine 5 simple sentences into one correct complex sentence.  Heads immediately bowed behind the computer monitors as some quickly started typing.  Others bit fingernails.  One or two called me over for help.
I asked participants to please raise their hands when they were done. I navigated the very large computer laboratory, going row by row, to see if any participants wanted to share their answers with the class.  I stopped here and suggested a comma; there and pointed out a run-on sentence.  I walked up and down the middle aisle saying “Good Job!” and “That’s perfect!” All across the room adults, returning to this world for the first time in years, were raising their hands feeling proud to share what they had written.
I eventually made my way back to the front of the room and was just about to ask for volunteers to share their work when…my field of vision was blocked by the signer’s hand waving furiously.   Mrs. Eastwood glared. 
The signer stated firmly, “Mrs. Eastwood requests that you stand in one place, facing the front of the room, without moving or turning your head.  Please just face front because she cannot read your lips if you are walking around or in the back of the room.”
Read my lips?  Then why do we need a signer?  I spoke as if I were a tape in very slow motion, “Are you asking me to stand perfectly still for the entire class period?”
Mrs. Eastwood nodded powerfully.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!  I am teaching 23 people here!”  I screamed on the inside.  On the outside, I said nothing.   I scanned the rest of the room, where my excited, renewed students were waving their hands and waiting for me to give them their moment in the sun.
“I’ll try my best.”  Then, within seconds, I rushed across the room for the first answer.   I bobbed and weaved up and down the rows for others.  I check sentences. I gave suggestions. I wrote on the board. I patted shoulders and arms. I gave smiles of support.  I laughed at jokes. I jumped forward, moved backward, waived my arms, shuffled my feet and gloried in the kinetic dance of interaction called teaching.
When it was over, I slumped into the black vinyl chair exhausted.  I had forgotten how physically draining it was to teach.  Still, I was quickly renewed as I flipped through the completed evaluation sheets. Of the 23 evaluations scoring my presentation on a scale of 1-5, 22 participants had scored the class either a “4” or “5” and added comments like “Extremely helpful.”  “Can we do a Part II?”  “The best class I ever had.” “You are so much fun!”
I felt proud and invigorated and actually missed the profession for one lengthy minute.  Then, I neared the end of the pile and there it was, the dreaded score, circled in red.  It was a “1” from Mrs. Eastwood.  She added, “This teacher was terrible.  She spoke too fast and failed to follow my commands.  She did not make reasonable accommodations for me.”
Believe it or not, I understood the frustration that made Mrs. Eastwood circle that “1” twice.  I did feel sympathy for her situation.  Yet, I knew that I could not have taught her classmates if I just stood still and gave no personal attention.  Was I unfair?
This question stayed with me as I drove home and recalled other recent discussions I had with superintendents about the special education situation in public schools.  I never really paid attention to the fairness of it all until it confronted me face to face on this night. 
For example, administrators again and again shared the alarming stories of the outrageous financial burden on school districts due to the placement of severely handicapped children in out-of- district settings.  One superintendent told me that his district had paid $107,000 per year for a severely handicapped child to be educated and transported.  In 8 years, the 14 year-old boy had learned to touch his eyebrow.  The district budgeted approximately $13,000 per year for other students.
I could truly empathize with the difficulties faced by the parent’s of severely handicapped children… just as I could imagine the pride the same parent must feel after witnessing any progress whatsoever.  But are we being fair?
I couldn’t help but wonder how well a highly intelligent child from our poorest cities would do in life if $107,000 were made available each year for him to be transported out of district to a top private school.  Or how advanced our nation would be if $107,000 was invested in every gifted and talented child each year.  Are we being fair to these children?  Are we letting sympathy for handicapped parents and children cloud our judgment?  Are we afraid to stand up and advocate for the other children in the room?
After a few weeks, I called the Program Director to offer to do a Part II to the writing class free of charge, since the parents found it helpful. The Program Director told me that the evening parent education program had to be cancelled.  Mrs. Eastwood had signed up for every night of the 12-week program.  The school did not have the budget to pay the signer $150 for 2 hours each night for two nights per week for 12 weeks.  So, they had to cancel the entire program or risk being sued for not making “reasonable” accommodation.

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