Post Magazine: Teaching Special Education

Samantha Cleaver
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 20, 2007; 2:00 PM

Samantha Cleaver knew her training as a teacher for children with disabilities in Washington wouldn't be easy. But as she describes in her story in this week's issue of Washington Post Magazine, she found obstacles in places she didn't expect.

Cleaver was online Tuesday, Feb. 20, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her essay.

A transcript follows

Samantha Cleaver is a teacher in the D.C. public school system.

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Samantha Cleaver: Hello and welcome to today's online chat. I'm Samantha Cleaver, a DC Public School Teacher and the author of the Washington Post Magazine article "A Special Challenge" published in the February 18, 2007 edition. This article has produced quite a response, so let's get started!

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Dupont Circle, D.C.: What are you doing these days? Are you still teaching in the D.C. public school system? What are your plans for the future?

Samantha Cleaver: I am still teaching in DC. I'm teaching fourth through sixth graders in a resource room setting--I pull them out of their regular education classes to work on specific skills. I really enjoy my current school. The kids are fun to work with and the teachers and administration have been very supportive.

After I finish this school year, I plan on taking a hiatus from teaching to pursue writing and policy work. However, I could see myself returning to teaching in the future. I want to remain involved in education because it's an issue that I've always been interested in and passionate about.

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Washington, DC: What help do you receive from parents? Are they receptive to your program, don't care as long as it's not them, or compassionate and heed to your needs as the children's teacher?

Samantha Cleaver: One positive thing for me was how great the parents were. I'd hear that some parents are challenging to work with, but so far the parents I've known have been concerned for their children's education and have worked with me to get supplies, address behavior and administrative problems, and make sure their child is learning. They treated me as a professional and, by the end of the year, as a family friend. I'm very grateful to the parents for working with me so well and for letting me into their and their child's lives.

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Washington, DC: Are you still teaching?

Samantha Cleaver: I am still teaching. I currently teach fourth through sixth graders in a resource room setting at another District elementary school. I really enjoy my current position, the kids are fun to work with and the other teachers and administration have been very supportive.

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Alexandria, Va: I was also a DC Teaching Fellow and from reading your story, can see that teaching in DCPS has not changed much. I wound up leaving to teach in the suburbs. My question is, what do you think is the single biggest improvement or reform that DCPS can make in order to attract and retain quality teachers?

Samantha Cleaver: This is a complicated issue. First, there are many good teachers in the District and I've gotten to work with some of them. There are also some very good Fellows teaching in the District. However, I think that one helpful aspect would be for the District and the Fellows program to be transparent about what is going on in the schools. For example, I expected to have to buy supplies and that I would have behavior problems, but any discussion of actual supply or behavior problems were glossed over. It would have been helpful for someone to have said, you may get hit, here's what to do about it. I think if I'd responded to some of the initial challenges differently, I would have had a much different experience. During my second year, I attended a wonderful training about how to handle behaviors and that would have been a great help at the start of my teaching year. It's not a secret that the District schools have their difficulty, but providing teachers with a clear idea of what's wrong and what they can do to solve some of the problems would be helpful, though easier said than done, I know.

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Fairfax, Va: I just finished the interview for the D.C. Fellows, and after such a thorough interview process it seems strange to me that they just kind of hang you out once you get the job.

My question is...how do you know whether or not you can do this? It doesn't seem fair to the kids to leave them in the middle of the year, but there has to be a way to know before you get into the classroom.

Samantha Cleaver: That is a very difficult question, though I would stress that anyone can technically 'do' this, but the goal is to do it well. I would suggest knowing who and what you want to teach before you start, which is easier said than done, I know. But if you're not sure you want to teach, say, special education or high school, this isn't the time to take a risk! Get as much experience in the schools as you can before the program starts. I know the Fellows will set you up with classes that you can spend the day in to get an idea of what your day will look like. I would also ask the Fellows program, they want you to succeed and can provide you with resources to sort through your concerns. I hope that helps!

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Washington, DC: My mother has been a top special ed teacher in the Midwest for almost 30 years and is one of the few who didn't get burned out by her job; she still loves her job and working with the students every day. While she is not in a rich school district, I cannot imagine how quickly she may have become burned out if she had to put up with the DC Public School System. There's no excuse for the lack of response you received -- not getting your roster until day 2 of the school year? Not even getting an answer about furnishing your room or getting adequate supplies? There's just no excuse for these seemingly little questions. Did you ever get a grasp on why you were not getting any support or answers from the administration? I cannot imagine how frustrating it is for teachers to commit to teaching in DC.

Samantha Cleaver: Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your response and I commend your mother for teaching so long, she must have many great stories of her own! I never did get a grasp on why the central office was so removed from my classroom, not even when following up with the district while writing the article.

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Southern Maryland: How much of today's school environment produces special needs students?

I hear of children not having recess, no talking allowed at lunch, no physical education, no or limited music or art education, limited bathroom breaks, water breaks, etc. Ironically, when I take a class with adults or attend a conference the first order of business is when is the lunch time, scheduled breaks, etc., then we proceed. Have adults in a school environment and see how they progress.

Samantha Cleaver: Good point! We often expect our children to act better than adults do. (Go to a conference and see how many adults are talking while someone else is talking!) I don't know how much of the school environment affects which children get placed in special education, but I would be interested in finding out. I do think that a lot of behavior problems can be addressed simply by working with the child instead of the adult. If the child can't sit in his chair, let him stand, put him in the back of the room and let him dance, as long as he's learning. There are a lot of accommodations, especially when the children are young, that will help the student without disrupting the rest of the class. I also think that simply the pace and content of some of the curriculum leaves students who struggle even a little very far behind, which can result in their being put in special education. It amazes me, in my current teaching position, give a child a random book and they won't even open it, but a book about basketball, football, or whatever they're interested in, and all of the sudden, they're diving in!

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Poughkeepsie, NY: It's been my experience that funding for special education has involved quite a bit of parent bullying that is often more of a political campaign than an individualize approach to address the needs of a struggling child. What effort is made to insure that educators are supportive participants in effective solutions and children are not caught in political crossfire.

Samantha Cleaver: That actually hasn't been my experience. In my first year of teaching, one of the unexpected benefits of being left alone, was that I was able to work closely with the parents and the children to make sure that what I was doing in class was really benefiting them. I always tried to remember that the parent was my client, they saw the product (their child's learning) every day. So if a parent had a concern, I tried to work with them to come up with a solution that worked for the parent.

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Framingham, Mass: You mention that the curriculum is 'child centered', and yet you wore a black suit the first day to 'show' these 5 year old, developmentally challenged children who was in charge; you were surprised when you were hit, and yet acknowledge that these children were functioning on the level of 2, 3, & 4 year olds - ages where hitting is not uncommon. Why are you working with children you clearly do not understand? It is the job of a teacher to help children grow, not complain that you didn't have the right materials. Grow up and for the sake of future generations, get away from these children!

Samantha Cleaver: I think what you're referring to is the learning curve of my first-year teaching. When I entered the classroom, my training was in overall special education, not kindergarten specifically, and one of the suggestions we received was to come in looking like you mean business. The idea being that you present that you're the boss and that you're a professional. And, as with any classroom, there's a learning curve when you figure out who your students are and what they need. A first year teacher's learning curve is larger than a veteran teacher's. While I understood my students behaviors, understanding and changing behavior don't happen at the same time or quickly. But I think, in the end, my students and I took away more fond memories of that year than negative ones.

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Washington, DC: After having a lot of contact with DCTF and the candidates selected, I find there is an inherent flaw not only in the selection process but in the program as a whole. It makes little sense that people from way out in left field are chosen to work in our "high needs" schools with six weeks of training and a handbook. I can attest that at least Teach for America provides a comprehensive support and social organizational network. Do you feel this lack of foresight, planning and (to me) irresponsible idealism actually benefits DC's children especially in light of DCTF's abysmal retention rate as of late? Secondly, I know that the program staff admits to the difficulties that Fellows will face in classrooms and school environments but in hearing your and many others stories, it seems like Fellows are surprised to find themselves in situations like the ones you describe. Why is that?

Samantha Cleaver: First, I think that there is a great value in bringing people from other professions into the classroom. Of my DC teaching fellow cohort, many of us had experiences that we used to benefit our students. For example, a fellow teacher that uses her previous social work skills in working with her students with emotional disabilities. I don't think a dose of idealism is a bad thing, but agree that idealism shouldn't be the only thing that alternatively trained teachers bring to the classroom. I think that the Fellows program does the best they can with the time they have and their funding. And, it's important to remember that if the District was fully supplied with teachers, there wouldn't be a demand for the Fellows program at all. I know many Fellows who do wonderful work with their students and don't think that the Fellows program is pushing either teachers or students out--there are enough other problems to do that. In reference to the "surprise" that many Fellows feel, I think that it's the difference of reading about something versus experiencing it. I know that before I entered my classroom on the first day, I imagined every possible situation I thought I would face, including hitting. But when those situations actually happened, either it wasn't like I had imagined and therefore wasn't able to react as I'd planned or I reacted as I'd planned and my planning was wrong. Overall, I don't think its wrong to have teachers who are alternatively trained in the district and I don't think its wrong to find yourself struggling in a situation you knew would be challenging.

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Centreville, Va.: Are you leaving DCPS in order to pursue an education policy job with a non-profit, as indicated early in the article? Or is the support from DCPS so bad that you would have left anyway?

Samantha Cleaver: There are a few factors that are affecting my decision to leave. First, when I became interested in education policy as a career, I was told that 'they' won't take you seriously unless you have teaching experience and the Fellows program was an opportunity to get that experience. Two years ago, I considered staying as long as I wanted, and that seems to be two years. Second, during the past few years I have discovered that I really enjoy writing and would like to combine my special education and writing interests to affect change as well.

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Washington DC: What do you feel that could have been done differently to make your transition to teaching better?

What advice would you give to people who are entering their first year of teaching?

Samantha Cleaver: I think that a training specifically in early elementary education learning and behavior would have been helpful. When I went through the summer training all of the special education teachers were in one group. I also think that having a consistent mentor who came from outside the school system would have been helpful, someone who could have given me advice that wasn't affected by the District or my school.

For new teachers, I think one of the most important things that you can do is build a relationship with each student and use that relationship to shape your interactions. Let me explain, by building a relationship with that child, you'll know what motivates them, why they're acting out one day, and how to intervene during academic and behavior problems. Also, once you know that child, you can use what you know to motivate them and provide consequences that are meaningful to them. Some good advice I received, though it's hard to do, is to try to spend three minutes each day one-on-one with each child in your class. Give them a time to get to know you and get to know them.

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Forsyth County, Ga.: Ms. Cleaver, As a veteran special education teacher, I found your story rather disturbing. I spent years in school training to teach special needs children and still was not prepared well enough. I cannot imagine what you went through those first few days. I also cannot imagine starting out without the support of the other special education teachers in my building. Did anyone help you out? I have helped many new teachers in my 15 years and only a few have stayed around. It wasn't the kids that sent them out of special ed, it was the never ending paperwork cycle. Your article really didn't touch on the need for special educators to get help with this ever increasing and overwhelming aspect of our job. As someone who is only teaching to fulfill a prerequisite for another job, have you changed your perspective on this career? If you are looking to make a difference in special education in your education policy career, influence lawmakers to reduce the special education paperwork. That will help the teachers be better teachers and give them the time to remediate the difficult behaviors you described. Instead, I spend most of my school time fulfilling government paperwork. I would rather be spending my school time with the kids who need the most help.

Samantha Cleaver: Good point about the paperwork. I was very frustrated with paperwork that seemed to pile up faster than I could keep up with it, and it seemed that paperwork was the most important part of my job some days! And you're right, the article didn't touch on it, probably because it is so boring! I do think, though, that special education teachers should receive paperwork time in addition to planning time.

In terms of who helped me, Mr. Brown was a great help, Mrs. Lawrence and the other teachers in my school were supportive. I also had some great friends in the teaching fellows program. And, of course, my family and boyfriend. But I was also very encouraged when people provided unexpected support, in the form of funding grants that I posted on a local nonprofit Web site (formerly Means for Dreams, now Donors Choose) or volunteers that came into the school to work with my class.

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Washington, D.C.: Please don't take the comment from Farmingham, Mass., too seriously. This person clearly thinks there is one correct way to teach and interact with students, right down to clothing. In reality teaching is a combination of content knowledge, methods, and personality. What works for some teachers doesn't work well for others. Young teachers need to figure out what does and does not work for them. Of course, this does not excuse districts from failing to provide guidance and advice.

You are clearly an intelligent, caring, and passionate individual. Our education system would be much better if we could say the same about all teachers. Keep up the great work.

Samantha Cleaver: Thank you for the comment. I appreciate it.

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Great Mills, Md.: Hello Samantha,

Do you feel that your educational classes prepared you for your classroom experience?

If not, how would you change the methodology/training to reflect your experience?

You are not alone as a beginning teacher without necessary strategies to cope.

Samantha Cleaver: I do not think that many of the education classes prepared me for teaching. I think that the pedagogy of teaching is often too far removed from the actual classroom experience. And think that teacher training, for any teacher, not just alternatively trained teachers, should look more like physician training. Providing teachers with a residency year where they teach with a veteran teacher, would provide teachers with 'real world' experience that would also help keep them teaching longer and eliminate some of the first year burnout that many teachers face.

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Boston: Do you think you joined the program for the right reasons? You mention that you wanted to be "taken seriously" in educational policy. Was this an exploration for you or a career change?

Samantha Cleaver: Well, I'd always wanted to teach, so it wasn't a spur of the moment decision for me to pursue teaching. I've worked with children before when I was helping to administer a summer camp for children with disabilities. So when I joined the Fellows I was interested in working with children in a different capacity. I'm not the only one who joined the Teaching Fellows with the goal of finding out what 'in the trenches' education was like. I could see myself returning to teaching in the future, as I really enjoy working with the kids and am committed to special education. But I think that in education, we need people on both sides of the aisle, in the classroom and in politics and administration who can empathize with the students and teachers and come up with real solutions. I look at my time with the Fellows as the start of a career in education in general.

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Baltimore: Terrific article! What has the response from D.C. Public Schools been like since this was published?

Samantha Cleaver: I have not received a response from the public schools. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

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Arlington, Va.: In your article, you mentioned that some of the children present as "emotionally disturbed." What are the major diagnoses and symptoms you observe in the school setting, as well as effective techniques for working with those children?

Samantha Cleaver: I don't have a lot of experience in this area, but I can tell you what I've learned. Students with Emotional Disturbance or Emotional Disabilities (ED) have emotions that are exaggerated or inappropriate for a situation. They may be able to explain why they acted inappropriately, but they cannot control their actions or impulses in a situation. ED refers, not only to impulsivity, aggression, and other extreme behaviors, but also to eating disorders, depression, and psychological disorders. So, a student can be ED for short period of time, depression in response to the loss of a parent or loved one, or a high school eating disorder, for example. When ED affects the school system is when a child's behavior interferes with their learning. So, every child that may have an emotional disability may not have an IEP. In terms of what works with these students, consistency and compassion. The students need to know what will happen if they act out, and that their teacher can separate the student's actions from the student as a person. I'd invite anyone who has concrete behavior plans for this type of student to write in!

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Centreville, Va.: If you had a family member who is interested in teaching special education, would you recommend the DC Teaching Fellows program as a good entry point into the field?

Samantha Cleaver: I would recommend the Fellows program. I think that, overall, I got what I wanted (to teach early elementary special education). But I would encourage that family member to ask as many questions as possible, find out as much as they can, insist that the program be transparent about what they can offer the new teacher, and spend as much time in the classroom before you get your own class as possible. The Fellows program is currently under a new staff and I know they're working hard to address some of the concerns expressed by my cohort and the other cohorts who have gone through the program.

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Alexandria, Va.: Ms. Cleaver, Other than "no TV tonight" what other punishments did Spidey's mother use with him? I am wondering if she uses any other behavioral techniques?

Samantha Cleaver: Spidey's mom was great. One thing that that family did, which I appreciated, was make themselves available to me at school. So, if I had a problem, they would come to school to address it. They were very involved and came, not only for behavior concerns, but for fun activities--field trips and winter concerts--as well. I don't know exactly what she did at home, except withhold privileges, the same way I did at school, but I know that when I spoke with Spidey, he knew that I had a relationship with his parents and that made a difference to him!

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Frederick, Md.: Wow! Thanks so much for having the courage to write >about the life of a preschool sped teacher and the lack of true understanding and commitment from the central office.

I taught the past seven years in sped pre-K in a Title One school with a large immigrant population. Central office just didn't get it that these kids come with a whole different world of problems. Finally, I quit and moved onto regular elementary sped in the same school -- but my heart will always be in pre-K. When I left, I had nine students in the a.m. and eight in the p.m. Each year I had to beg for an extra assistant. If it wasn't for the support and understanding of my principal, I would have despaired earlier. The physical abuse my assistants and I were subjected to was unbelievable! I still bear the scars and double tendinitis in both arms. Almost all of my parents were wonderful and grateful except for the one who threatened to take me to court with a power point demonstration of her son's minor injuries (he was autistic, had many violent temper tantrums and a faller).

Despite all of this, I would have stayed forever if I only had genuine and constructive support and understanding from the central office big wigs and specialists, who while they were happy to criticize and observe me, had no accountability to the teachers they served at all! Best of luck to you and your future which I hoe will include remembering your days as a teacher if you do become an administrator.

Samantha Cleaver: Thank you for your comments, I appreciate them. I hoped that this article would open up a dialogue about what needs to happen in special education, and it has. It's obvious that more manpower needs to go into this issue. Thank you again for responding.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Samantha, many (most?) reputable teacher education programs offer a "residency" year, where "student teachers" work with "master teachers" in a classroom, beginning with part time work and gradually phasing up to a semester or year of full time work. While programs like yours are great for getting people into teaching fast, they are no substitute for a good, quality teacher education program that can offer the specific skills and experiences that you missed.

Samantha Cleaver: Good point. However, first year teachers from teacher education programs also leave the profession after their first three to five years of teaching. So, I think that there is something to be said for preparing all teachers, no matter how they enter the system, adequately, even if that means having two teachers in some classrooms. Which, would benefit the students too.

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Philadelphia: Do you have any advice for prospective education policy advocates? I applied for a fellows program and in spite of experience with children (in the DCPS and an AmeriCorps term with special ed students) and a dose of idealism, was rejected. We hear SO MUCH about how there is such a need for teachers, yet eager people apply we are turned away in huge numbers (TFA takes in what, 9 percent of applicants). So if we really want to make a change, what do we do? Go to school for certification part-time while working? Throw everything into finding a school to accept an intern certificate, yet have NO fellows/TFA support? Just get the MPP and write at a non-profit?

This is also an area I am very passionate about but can't seem to find my in. I appreciate any thoughts you have.

Samantha Cleaver: There are so many ways to affect children's lives, and education is only one of them. If you want to get an idea of what affects children today, I would look for a job with a community organization that serves children. If you're interested in public policy, pursue it! Just because people say you need to be 'in the trenches' to be 'taken seriously' doesn't mean that the field wouldn't embrace someone who was committed to change. And there is a real need for good, updated research about what children and schools are dealing with today. If you decide to go into policy, however, make friends with as many teachers as possible so you can have a window into the schools. And, with career change programs like the Fellows, you can always apply again.

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Washington, DC: Hello. I am a parent of a deaf kid. He is at the elementary school on the ground of Gallaudet University. KDES and MSSD have almost all the deaf DC kids there because there is not a single sign language interpreter in the DC Public School system. Hang in there.

Samantha Cleaver: Thank you for your comment. It's hard to believe, but I believe you!

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Virginia: Hi,

Thanks for sharing your story! I am a speech language pathologist in a suburban school system. You mention that most of your kids had some kind of speech or language problem. Did any of them receive speech therapy services? Your description of them indicated that perhaps they needed it. I wouldn't be surprised if DCPS simply failed to provide these services considering their poor track record of providing appropriate special education.

Samantha Cleaver: Thank you for bringing that up. That is one thing that I never had to deal with--difficulty getting speech and other services. The speech therapist that worked with my class was amazing. Her, the occupational therapist, and the adaptive physical education teacher that worked with me were all great resources and really supportive (and always consistently on time!). Best of luck with your work!

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Samantha Cleaver: Thank you all for writing in. The response to my article has been great and I hope that the conversation it generated affects change. Unfortunately, our time is up, but thank you again for your interest and concern.

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