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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 01/01/2012

Don’t hurt the children in front of me

Special education teacher Pam Emerson sent me this as an introduction to her Forget the Label blog. It hooked me, and I think will do the same to you. — Jay Mathews

I came across my son’s first and second grade report cards last night. There were so many certificates and medals declaring him to be a winner that it was hard to locate the actual grade reports. He was gifted back then, as his exceptional verbal skills allowed him to easily express ideas and demonstrate knowledge much better than his classmates.

By the middle of third grade, the reports from school were less than positive. His teacher suggested I take him to a doctor to be screened for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). That doctor happened to be a psychologist who believed a token economy system would motivate my son to complete his homework and stop arguing with my husband when confronted about his falling grades. The school officials were pleased we had followed their advice, and the token economy got us through third grade. His next teacher was not such a stickler over homework, so fourth grade was a much smoother experience. Unfortunately, I discovered early in my son’s fifth grade year that the fourth grade teacher failed to teach my son very much.

I will be forever grateful to Superwoman, the fifth grade teacher who squeezed what my son missed into a fifth grade year that was his best ever. Just days into the school year, she called me with the same suggestion his teacher had made two years earlier.

I agreed to place my son on a stimulant drug within weeks of that phone call. Everything you may have heard about stimulant drugs is true; they help overactive kids sit still long enough to complete academic tasks, such as homework. Elementary school teachers adore stimulant drugs for this fact alone. One hyperactive, overtalkative child can distract enough students to have a negative impact on a school’s Annual Yearly Performance (AYP) as measured by end-of-year multiple choice tests. Elementary school principals live in fear of not making AYP, and classroom teachers feel the effects of that fear every day of the school year. It is only natural for a classroom teacher to feel resentment when a child like my son shows up on her class roster. Having your performance judged by how well students recall information drilled into them throughout the school year is a hard pill to swallow. One hyperactive, overtalkative student can distract a dozen who walk the fine line between passing and failing their end-of-year tests.

For the next five years, I allowed his doctors to prescribe a variety of stimulant and nonstimulant medications in an attempt to find the magic balance that would cure my son’s “homework avoidance” problem without turning him into a skeleton. The transition to high school was difficult in that homework load increased as did the percentage it counted toward the final grade. The stimulant drugs helped my son pay attention and participate in class, but their effects wore off eventually so he could sleep. The most frustrating part for me was knowing he could score 100 percent on his tests and still earn a D in the class due to missing homework assignments. What was the point of all that homework? Were teachers trying to ruin my life?

I realized the only way I would ever find out the reason why public education was failing my son was to place myself right smack in the middle of the local schools and conduct my own investigation. My search for answers has led me to places I would never have imagined, including graduate school and the steps of my local congressman’s office. I have seen the best in people, especially children, and I have seen the worst. I switched careers and became a special education teacher out of the naive belief that I could make a difference in the lives of other children with special learning needs.

My biggest challenge in fitting into the public school system has been and continues to be my tendency to think like a parent first, and a teacher second. I insist the needs of the individual child come first, which is legally what a special education teacher is supposed to do.

In reality, every aspect of public education now revolves around test scores and teachers are expected to make compromises to assure their students pass so the school will make AYP. If this means the student doesn’t learn how to read or does not spend enough time with his non-disabled peers, I am supposed to keep my mouth shut.

I have never been good at doing that in the face of what I perceive to be injustice. When a lack of staffing prevented students from receiving the special education interventions needed to close the achievement gap between them and their peers, I went to my principal for help. She assured me that she had been doing everything possible to obtain more staffing.

I should have let it rest then, but I couldn’t. The next think I did was a “kiss of death” in terms of my future at that school. I dared to go directly to someone who could have made a difference but instead sent my principal’s boss to my school to make sure I paid dearly for breaking the chain of command. The remainder of the school year was very unpleasant, but every time I was humiliated in front of other teachers or given increasing job demands, I became more determined to find a way to tell my story to someone who cares enough to do something about it.

I now have the answer to my question of whether teachers are crazy or mean with their unrealistic homework demands. As individuals, they are neither. However, a group of desperate, overworked and extremely stressed-out people under the constant threat of being punished if their students perform poorly on tests can make poor decisions, especially when the person accountable for their behavior looks the other way.

Because they have little to no control in terms of what they teach and how, teachers often resent being “given” students who are a challenge to teach. Without daily support for the special education students in their classes, educators may even view behaviors that are directly related to the child’s disability as purposeful acts of disobedience. When this happens, they resort to the same method the Department of Education has decided to use on them: punishment.

The difference in how children are treated, depending on their socioeconomic status, shocked a former suburban housewife like me. The only reason I witnessed it first-hand is because in searching for answers about my own child’s struggle, I stumbled into a new career and the first job I found just happened to be in a poor neighborhood.

When I packed up my things and left my old school to take a position back on the side of town where my own children go to school, I brought with me the warm memories of working with some very special children.

I also brought documentation of how those children were educated, my failed efforts to advocate for them and the very important people who chose not to help.

By Pam Emerson  |  07:00 AM ET, 01/01/2012

 
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