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A Special Challenge
She knew her training as a teacher for D.C. children with disabilities wouldn't be easy. But she found obstacles in places she didn't expect.

By Samantha Cleaver
Sunday, February 18, 2007

IT'S READING TIME ON VALENTINE'S DAY. Her dark hair pulled back with heart hair bands, the little girl and I are reading books. The two boys crawl under the table, giggling. I tell them, as sternly as I can, to sit.

One of the boys -- let's call him Spidey for his favorite comic book character -- climbs out, annoyed, and hits my leg.

"Timeout," I tell him. I put the book down, draw three lines on the chalkboard to let him know he's hit the limit, and buzz the office. The 5-year-old's face hardens.

"Sit in timeout," I tell him. "No," he says.

We stare at each other. After a long moment, Spidey looks away and stomps to the timeout chair. I sit at the table, pick up the book and read. He bangs his hand on the cabinet behind him, waiting for me to tell him to stop. After I read a few pages, he starts to play with the cabinet doors, the nearby fan, the posters on the wall. As he plays, he watches me. I see him in my peripheral vision but don't react. He gets up, takes my wet gloves off of the radiator, puts one on the floor and steps on it -- a challenge. I breathe in, close the book and hand out papers for writing. "Good job," I tell the girl as she copies hearts onto her paper. The other little boy sits in his seat, watching Spidey. Still standing on my glove, his eyes on me, Spidey tips the fan, threatening to push it over. I remove it, my hands shaking. As I walk away, my young adversary runs toward me, slapping at my back and arm.

I turn and take Spidey's hand. With the other, he reaches up and smacks me. I pick him up, football style, and hurry to the office. As I walk, Spidey flails, hitting and scratching my arms. When I put him down, he climbs onto my leg and sways from left to right, trying to topple me. Finally, we get to the office, and a guidance counselor takes Spidey's hand. "I got it, Ms. Cleaver," he says.

I walk back to my room, counting to 10. It was supposed to be a fun day, full of all the Valentine's activities that I'd enjoyed as a child -- a party, making valentines. Instead, it has erupted into a standoff between Spidey and me. I'm more than halfway through the school year as a special education teacher in training at H.D. Cooke Elementary in Northwest Washington, and so much has gone wrong that I should have expected this.

Yet, somehow, I've held onto hope. A lump forms in my throat. I try to shove my negative thoughts aside.

Back in the room, the writing papers and markers are forgotten, discarded on the table. I take out a heart-shaped box of chocolates, a present from the other little boy. "Choose two," I tell my remaining students, and I pass the box. We sit in silence as they watch me, concerned, chocolate dribbling down their chins.

I JOINED THE D.C. PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN JUNE 2005 as one of a group of 86 D.C. Teaching Fellows, an alternative teacher certification program geared toward career-changers. After six weeks of summer training resulting in a provisional teaching license, the trainees agree to work for two years in "high needs" areas, while the District pays for courses toward full certification.

When the teaching fellows program was launched in 2001, one of its goals was to help solve the city's chronic shortage of special education teachers. The most recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate that 17 percent of D.C. public school students receive special education services; the national average is 13 percent. The numbers are deceptive. About one-fifth of these students are in private facilities, their tuition paid by the city because their parents have successfully challenged the District for not providing an adequate education. For the 2005-2006 school year, 30 of us were assigned to special education. But by the end of the first year, only 23 will remain, and by last month, all but seven will say they plan to leave the school system when the program ends.

I was 25 years old and had spent the previous two years earning a master's degree in public administration at the University of Delaware. Interested in working in education policy for a nonprofit or government agency, I took courses in youth and family services and helped to administer a camp for children with disabilities. But I was told that people won't take you seriously if you haven't taught. So, with graduation looming, I came across the D.C. Teaching Fellows on the Internet.

I spent the mornings helping to teach a summer prekindergarten class with another trainee and a mentor special education teacher. In the afternoon, I was instructed in, among other things, education theory, lesson planning and special education law. We learned to write an individual education plan (IEP), which spells out the District's plan for meeting a child's needs. We also learned about behavior intervention plans, which involve the students' parents, teachers and school administrators working together to address behavior problems. I wasn't so naive as to think it would all go smoothly, but the child-centered approach matched my philosophy. Behavior management, I thought, was a give-and-take.

Respect them -- don't yell or berate -- and they'll respect you in return.

Later, I learn that I've been assigned to H.D. Cooke, where I will teach in a preschool cluster program for students with developmental delays, one of many small classes of special education students scattered throughout the city. I am supposed to use the same materials as regular education classrooms so that my students can be mainstreamed when they're ready. Barbara Simmons, the DCPS supervisor of programs for students with emotional disabilities, interviews me. She says that while the principal at H.D. Cooke will be my direct supervisor, I will also be supervised and supported by the school system's headquarters at 825 North Capitol St., commonly referred to as 825. In addition, she tells me, 825 will furnish my classroom and provide teaching materials.

Three weeks before school starts, I visit H.D. Cooke. I'm greeted by the principal, Rosalyn Rice, an eager, professional woman in a plum pinstriped suit. She gives me the rundown: The student body is mostly Hispanic, with African Americans making up roughly one-third. About three-quarters come from low-income families. The test score improvement goals under the No Child Left Behind Act haven't been met the previous two years in a row.

She shows me my classroom, which is small and bare. An air-conditioning unit hangs in one window. "The AC doesn't work," she says, sounding defeated. "We've called about it, but no one's come out yet."

I nod. The industrial carpet covering the floor is a dingy gray and fraying in spots. There are no teaching materials and no information on my students.

One week before the students arrive, I meet with the school's special education coordinator, Dorcus Lawrence, in my classroom. I still don't have a student roster. "I've tried to call and e-mail 825," with no response, Lawrence tells me. She looks around the room, surprised. There are new rugs from Ikea, toys from Target and supplies from a teachers store. My own children's book collection lines the shelves. I've put play food from my childhood in the pretend play corner. I tell Lawrence that after so many unanswered e-mails to 825, I outfitted the room myself.

"It'll be okay. I'm going to march over to 825 today to get these kids' names," Lawrence says as she moves to stand up. "We'll get to the bottom of this."

She pats my hand. "Save your receipts."

ON THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, I AM READY. I wear a black suit to show these kids I mean business. At 8:30 a.m., I walk to the cafeteria to pick up my students, though I still have not received a roster. The cafeteria is teeming with children sipping orange juice and eating crumbling blueberry muffins. At 9, Rice calls roll, and the students line up by grade. None is mine. My first pupil arrives on a special education bus at 11.

"He must be in your class," the janitor says after knocking on my door.

A rotund little boy huddles in a corner. I squat so that I am eye level with him. I will later learn from the Quiet One's father that he was a normal toddler before a mouth infection and high fever at 14 months left him with speech and cognitive delays. His gross and fine motor skills are also impaired, and he will work for much of the school year to write the first letters of his name. He will be my shadow, the Quiet One, staying close, often refusing to go with any other teacher. But right now, I know none of this, as he turns toward the wall and I talk to the back of his head, a scruffy mop of short black hair. All I know is the information listed on the bus form: his name and phone number.

"I'm Ms. Cleaver," I say. "I'm your new teacher. It's almost lunchtime. Are you hungry? I am. Let's go get something to eat." I continue my soliloquy ("I have lots of fun toys in my room; we can play with them after lunch") before he finally turns toward me. We eat lunch in my classroom, and he watches as I peel my banana. "Do you want some?" I ask. No response. I watch him, he watches my banana, until I break off half and hand it to him. It's the only real interaction we will have all day.

On Tuesday, the boy is absent. Headquarters e-mails a roster of eight students, and I spend the day reading the IEPs of kids who may never come. I still don't have any materials, but going by the IEPs, I will be teaching shapes, colors, numbers and letters.

The next day, my lone student returns. Following the advice of another teacher, I take him into a prekindergarten class so he will be around other children. After recess, I bring him back into my hot classroom, and he flattens himself against the chalkboard, screaming and crying. I know this is partly because the regular classroom, unlike mine, is busy, bright and full of toys. When other teachers pass my room, they peer inside, their eyebrows raised. I catch their eyes, smile and nod -- it's under control, I try to convey.

The girl arrives on Tuesday of the second week of school. She greets me with a wary smile and peers from behind her father. She's tall, close to five feet, I estimate. Her disability, a genetic disorder, produced her height, as well as poor impulse control, aggression and borderline low intelligence. She's also a "girly girl," often dressed in pink, with a passion for playing house.

I ask Rice if I can bring my students into a kindergarten classroom, which has fewer students than the prekindergarten class and is closer to where my students should be, at 4 and 5 years old. "I'm trying to incorporate them into regular ed," I say. In truth, I have no clue how I'm supposed to do this. I don't have the regular education curriculum or daily schedule, so I can't help them understand what goes on in there. I also don't have an aide to take them in individually, when they're ready.

That day in the kindergarten class, we are learning the letter A. The Quiet One watches from the corner. Girly Girl sits next to me in the middle of the class. Called to the whiteboard to write an A, she manages a few lines. "Okay, give me the marker," the kindergarten teacher tells her.

"No," she says and steps back.

"Give it to her," I say and touch Girly Girl's shoulder.

"No!" she screams and hits me across the chest. I step back, surprised. After a moment, I return to my place among the students. The teacher gets another marker and moves on, ignoring Girly Girl, who sits down. I deflate with relief.

On Friday morning of the second week, Spidey arrives. "He has a speech disability," his dad says, "and he's very difficult to understand. But other than that, he's okay." From his IEP, I know it's a little more complicated. Spidey's voice is affected by a small tracheotomy hole left over from breathing complications when he was younger. Although I eventually understand his high-pitched whine, few others do. Later that first day, Spidey points to the alphabet and names the letters, impressing me.

After breakfast, Spidey bolts down the hall to the kindergarten room, his Spider-Man backpack bouncing. During naptime, he won't be quiet, so I take him into the hall, where we sing nursery rhymes and what I later learn is the "Spider-Man" theme song. Now I have the three students I will have for the rest of the year. At 4 and 5 years old, they operate on 4-, 3- and sometimes 2-year-old levels. I don't have my classroom schedule, and I won't for months. I have no designated breaks or planning periods, because there is no one to cover for me. To make a bathroom vist, I wait until the kids go to lunch, where there are other teachers to watch them, or I pull a passing teacher out of the hall.

ON MONDAY OF THE THIRD WEEK OF SCHOOL, the first kindergarten class is deemed too large, and Rice suggests that I bring the students into another kindergarten class. Spidey sits on the rug with the other students. Girly Girl watches from the pretend play area. She screams "No!" when asked to join the group. The Quiet One is lying in the hallway in front of my room. I am moving between the hall and the classroom, overwhelmed and embarrassed, when Rice arrives holding the Quiet One's hand. That afternoon, Rice sends Barrington Brown, a school guidance counselor who has experience in special education, to help me "get control" of my class. Tall and lanky, he moves like a comedian onstage, slightly hunched, shifting his weight, ready to throw the next punch line.

"Do you have a schedule?" he asks. I tell him that we go into a regular education classroom in the morning and then return in the afternoon.

"How do they know what to do?" he asks.

I explain the rules I've been trying to teach them: Listen; follow directions; keep hands and feet to self; be quiet in the classroom. I've put in a request with the school to draw up behavior intervention plans, but I will never receive a response. So I am using the strategies that I learned teaching the prekindergarten class during the summer: rules, modeling the right way to do things, trying to refocus them when they get off track and giving timeouts. But the rules don't cover many of their misbehaviors. Plus, there is no comparison between my class and the summer class, which had three teachers to seven higher functioning students who already knew how to behave.

Under Brown's guidance, I come up with my own schedule, infused with breaks for the students and play time. He also shows me how to use the behavior strategies in a real classroom. Modeling, it turns out, means not just showing them how to use the Play-Doh, but how not to use it -- sticking it in people's hair or eating it, as Spidey tries to do. Brown coaches me as I teach, leaning forward in the child-size turquoise chair. "Now, show him how to do it," he says as I model how to cut out shapes. "When he does what you want, give him a high-five. Save the hugs for really big successes."

While the students play, Brown lectures me on how to transition with five-minute countdowns and how to keep them attentive by varying my tone of voice. I learn that I do too much explaining. He tells me to be more commanding. It's something I'll hear again, from Rice, Lawrence, even Spidey's mom, who like the other parents is supportive. "You need to put more bass in your voice," Lawrence will say. This does not come naturally and brings to mind some of the veteran teachers that I've seen shouting at kids in the hallway.

Brown tells me to use the small, gray button in the corner of the room to call for help if I need it.

The next day, Wednesday, is our first day without him. "Choose one book," I say. Girly Girl brings back three. Just one, I repeat.

"No," she says, her hands clenching the books. "We don't say 'no' to the teacher," I say, my voice even.

"No!" she screams, and flings all three books across the room.

I look at her, surprised. "Pick them up."

"No!" Her face scrunches, her mouth opens, and she lets out a bloodcurdling scream. She reaches over and hits me across the shoulder. "Timeout," I say and point to the timeout chair.

She walks around the room, sweeping her hand along the shelves. Toys and books fly to the floor. I watch, stunned. The tantrum continues for about two hours until I finally press the gray button. The tantrums are part of her disability, Brown tells me. My students can't be suspended like regular ed students, he says, so I'll have to figure out how to deal with them in my classroom.

After the Quiet One starts throwing tantrums that mimic Girly Girl's, I move the toys from the shelves to the lockers. My students sit in stunned silence. "When you can learn to work with the toys in the room," I tell them, "I'll put them back."

Even without the toys to throw, the tantrums continue. In desperation, I set up a makeshift discipline system, drawing three lines, like tallies, on the board. "You can play again when the lines are erased," I tell them.

DURING A CALM WEEK IN NOVEMBER, the cluster program's site supervisor from 825 visits. The woman enters my room dressed in a suit and heels. She notes that my students look happy, as they play peekaboo with her behind bookshelves.

"So you just have the three students?" she says. She asks if I can take more. I tell her I won't unless I get an aide. She appears taken aback.

I ask her about teaching materials, and she suggests I e-mail 825 with my list. Two weeks later, I will be directed to another school's supply room, where I will receive first-grade phonics kits and the second half of the kindergarten curriculum, all too advanced for my class.

The woman will return in January, and another person will come in May, but their visits are the same. They interrupt class, leaving me to try to engage the students and talk to the visitors at the same time, like a parent chatting with a neighbor while the kids wreck the house. They ask a few generic questions, invite none from me and leave. In June, I tell the representative from 825 who is evaluating the cluster program that it isn't working. Without an aide and no structure in place to help the kids move into regular education, they aren't learning all that they should. She nods and jots a note on her clipboard. She's just collecting the information, she explains, and doesn't have the power to change it.

Later, I will try to find out why I didn't receive more help. I call John White, the school system's director of communications, to ask why 825 never furnished my classroom or gave me proper teaching materials. I also want to know the purpose of the three visits to my classroom. But over the course of a week and six conversations with him, White says he is unable to find someone at DCPS's central office who can give me a response.

On my own, I manage to reach Tara Mahnesmith, who became director of the Teaching Fellows program this year. The program depends on the central office to provide clasroom materials and adequate staff for mainsteaming. But in response to feedback from other fellows, Mahnesmith says, the program began providing more behavior management training last summer. I tell her that fellows really need mentors who can be at school to support them on a regular basis, not just when there is a crisis.

"Support is a loaded word," Mahnesmith tells me. "It doesn't happen when you have two people and 150 fellows," referring to herself and the summer institute coordinator. She says the program is working to connect fellows with another mentoring program in the school system. Meanwhile, she says, the program is encouraging fellows to seek out resources on their own.

In my graduate classes toward permanent certification at Trinity University, other fellows share stories of getting hit by students, but not all of the special education fellows are as miserable as I am. Those who parachute in to help special ed students who have been mainstreamed seem the most relaxed. But some of my peers have it worse. My friend Kate, who teaches in a cluster program for students with emotional disabilities at an elementary school, sprained her back when one of her students pulled a chair out from under her. She came back to school on pain medication.

BY MID-DECEMBER, WE HAVE GONE DAYS WITHOUT A TANTRUM. But the calm ends when Spidey misbehaves. I put him in timeout, and he slaps me. Shocked, I stand up, holding one hand against my face. This is different than being hit during a tantrum. This is intentional, malicious.

Later, I call Spidey's mother and explain what happened. "He hit you?" she asks, surprised. "He's not getting any movies or TV tonight," she assures me. That night, my mind whirs, replaying the scenario. Girly Girl has hit me from Day One. This is the first time Spidey has hit. He must have learned this at school, in my classroom. I sob: This has become normal behavior for my students.

During winter vacation, I decide to treat January like the beginning of the school year. The strategies I've learned as a fellow aren't working, so I reach back to my days at the camp for children with disabilities. Intended for first-through-sixth-graders, that program relied heavily on positive reinforcement. Instead of specific rules -- keep your hands to yourself -- the rules cover everything. Be safe, be nice, be responsible. I'll make it my mantra, modeling how to act in class, outside and in the hall, and I'll put stickers on my students when they're doing the right thing. Meanwhile, I'll keep the timeout system as a backup.

The stickers appear to be working. During the last week of January, we take a field trip to the Museum of Natural History with Brown. When we unload onto the steps of the museum, the Quiet One runs up the stairs, pulling on my hand. Spidey pulls at my other hand, yelling at the Quiet One to hurry up. Inside, they run straight for the large elephant in the lobby. "Wow! Cleaver! Cleaver!"

"That's an elephant," I explain, and I pull out work sheets with pictures of animals that I want them to find. Spidey and the Quiet One take their markers and work sheets but don't look at them. They hurry to the mammal hall and run up and down the aisles, screaming my name and pointing at animals. We are standing in front of the giraffe when Brown and Girly Girl find us. Ten minutes before our bus arrives, I take them outside to run around the Mall. My head spins. I'd imagined fights, temper tantrums, lost children, kicking and screaming, but, nothing.

Brown praises me later. "Look how far they've come. At the beginning of the year, they wouldn't go into the classroom, and now they've gone to a museum!"

This, I think, is my first real success as a teacher.

ON VALENTINE'S DAY, I MEET MY STUDENTS IN THE CAFETERIA. "Happy Valentine's Day!" I exclaim. The Quiet One unzips his backpack and pulls out a large, velvet, heart-shaped box and gives it to me. "Thank you! But remember, I have a boyfriend," I tease.

We walk to the prekindergarten class, where the students are making valentines. The Quiet One watches while Girly Girl sits at a table and starts to cut out a large pink heart. I tell Spidey to sit at a table. He shakes his head and walks away, pacing the room. After 10 minutes, he walks to a shelf and knocks a box of toys onto the floor. I ask him to clean it up and sit down.

"No," he says, and sticks his tongue out at me. I wind up carrying him back to my room, where we make a deal: We can go back to the party if he follows the rules.

"Okay," Spidey agrees. I extend my hand. He shakes it and grins.

Back in the prekindergarten classroom, our deal wears off quickly. Now the children who are finished with their valentines are playing. Spidey hurries to the blocks corner, smashes a tower, then runs away. During cleanup, I take Spidey's hand and walk him to the blocks corner. He runs away. Frustrated, I walk to get him. Seeing me, he jumps over chairs and crawls under tables. When I finally catch up, my face is red. "Come on," I say, taking his hand and hurrying to the office. Twenty minutes later, Brown returns with a much calmer Spidey.

The next time I see Brown, Spidey has attacked me during reading. "Ms. Cleaver," he asks, stopping me in the hall. "Are you okay?"

"No," I say, defensively, "I was attacked." I realize how this sounds -- Spidey is 5; I'm the teacher -- and this just makes me more frustrated.

I try to retreat into the teachers' bathroom, my chin wobbling. "Ms. Cleaver, it'll be okay," he says. "We'll get through this."

Before I leave, I learn that Spidey has been suspended for a day. "Even if he has an IEP. He knows what he's doing," Lawrence says. But she cautions me again: "You're too diplomatic, too nice. That's not going to work."

I TAKE THE NEXT DAY OFF TO CALM MYSELF. I spend that evening researching new behavior management tools on the Internet. Everyone has been telling me to crack down. I admit to myself that my way -- the even delivery, the positive reinforcement -- hasn't worked. So, I think, here goes.

On Friday morning, I start to lecture.

"You all have gotten some bad behaviors," I say, "sticking your tongue out, saying 'no' to me, hitting, kicking, pushing, jumping on the chairs. These behaviors are not appropriate. I won't accept them anymore."

I'm struck by how loud and unyielding my voice sounds. They look at me, then at each other. They seem to notice a difference, too.

"I set up levels so we can stop these behaviors right now," I continue.

I lead them to a colored graph representing the different levels, with each child's name pinned to the chart. "Right now, you are all on green level. That means you are following the rules." I point to a table with a green square taped in the center: "When you are on green level, you can play with whatever toys you want. When you start acting up, sticking your tongue out, teasing, or anything like that, you move to yellow level. When you are on yellow level, you sit at that table." I point to the other table, with a yellow square in the middle. "And, you may only play with the toys on the brown shelves." Before school, I rearranged the toys so that only the un-coveted toys are on the brown shelves.

"If you keep acting up, then you'll move to orange level." I move the Quiet One's name up to orange level to demonstrate. "When you are on orange level, you must take a timeout, and you can't play with any toys."

They are watching me intently, wide-eyed. "If you hit another student or hurt another student, then you are automatically on orange level," I tell them. "And, if you continue to misbehave, you move to red level, and you must go to the office."

For the next week, they learn the new system. They test it, moving in and out of timeout, spending the afternoon in "yellow," making frequent visits to the office. I don't let up. Brown has gotten too busy, so when I need help, I call Lawrence. As though for the first time, I watch her as she handles the students -- respectfully but firmly, too -- like the alpha dog in a pack.

The color system becomes routine after a week. Almost miraculously, it works for both big and small behavior problems. I realize that I've created the group dynamics that I wanted in September when, after Spidey sticks his tongue out at me during writing, I move him to yellow. He starts to cry and hobbles over to the yellow table with his work sheet and marker, where he sits until I move him back to green.

"What are the rules?" I ask him.

"Be safe, be nice, be responsible," he replies. "Sorry, Cleaver."

After months of my being more disciplinarian than teacher, my students are staying on task. Making the transition to regular education will need to wait for another year. But in June, they manage to spend a day in the overwhelming kindergarten class -- because my AC is still broken -- and follow directions, working and playing with their peers. One by one, I also help them achieve their IEP goals. By June, Spidey reads short sentences -- I like pizza. I love Daddy-- and can write his full name. Girly Girl learns to say her full name when asked and to count to 15. The Quiet One describes shapes using two words, counts to 20 and writes the first letter of his name. On the last day of school, he writes the second letter and grins.

Before they leave, I hug them each goodbye. "See you next year," I tell them. It is not a dramatic parting. They gape at me, unsure of what "next year" means.

I do look forward to next year, until I walk into my classroom again in August, this time with 10 students with severe disabilities and behavior problems. I will have an aide, but, without enough support from 825, it won't be enough. I will tender my resignation before the holiday break but will be talked into staying on until the end of the year at another elementary school, just long enough to finish the fellows program.

But right now, I am newly confident about my skills as a teacher. Holding a bag stuffed full of her schoolwork, Girly Girl looks around the now bare room, and smiles. "This was fun," she says.

"Yes, it was," I reply.

Samantha Cleaver is a special education teacher for D.C. Public Schools. She can be reached at cleaver_samantha@yahoo.com. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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