Sunday, November 19, 2006

So...what do you do?

I have to explain my job a lot. When I tell people that I work with emotionally disturbed kids I can't imagine what they think. Or, I can and I want to dissuade them that it's any thing like what they think. It's not some altruistic service that I do because I need to feel good about myself or pay penance for my privilege (though we do need to pay penance for our privilege). Mostly I do the same thing I did when I was a general education teacher when I worked with these kids but now it's my sole duty rather than a sideline that was time consuming, necessary and satisfying.

Since my school more or less does inclusion I spend 3 periods teaching a small group of kids. Two of those periods we do self-management skills like anger control, empathy training, bullying awareness, etc. One period each day I try to fill in some basic academic gaps like how to memorize information, how to read a chart or map and how to take notes. Then we do homework for the rest of the period. For two other periods I work in classrooms with students on my caseload making sure they can access the curriculum by monitoring their behavior and modifying curriculum. For two other periods in the day I do paperwork, meet with staff, make phone calls, plan curriculum and put out "fires". The two educational assistants I work with spend all day in general education classes making sure the curriculum is accessible to our students. Sometimes students misbehave, sometimes they get frustrated and sometimes they get themselves in hot water. Most of the time they do what they can despite the overwhelming obstacles they face.

Working with students classified as ED it has become clear to me that most of the disability they are classified as having is environmental (which would call in to question whether these students are actually disabled...although, that's true for most disabilities, right?). For instance, one of my students was removed from his parents at a young age due to drug use and has spent time with innumerable foster parents; another has no father and the mother provides almost no oversight; another lives with both parents but has had all other siblings removed due to neglect and comes in having not been put to bed and wearing extremely dirty clothes. Still another student has grown up in a house where the parents scream at each other and have extreme social phobia; another is dirt poor and seemingly unloved; and another is continuously told by the mother that school is a waste of time. The student I have with the most extreme behavior lives with an adoptive father who has an occasional relationship with a woman who may or may not be the mother who spends most of her time wandering the streets trying to score whatever drug she is currently addicted to. This father doesn't clean, put to bed or take any educational interest in the child. He also calls his "grandmother", who carries a gun, over when he misbehaves and beats him up when called. So, why are these kids misbehaving I wonder? I believe it when it's said that most misbehavior is a response to unmet needs.

So when I tell people what I do I might say I work with the bad kids - emphasizing 'bad' so it's clear I don't actually think they're bad. And sometimes I say, "emotionally disturbed" kids because the label ED causes most people to take notice pretty quickly. Other times I just say I teach or that I teach special education. But if you want to know what I really do, I'll tell you right now: I try to make a few hours of each day that I work with my students better than they would be otherwise in whatever way makes most sense at the time. And hopefully, hopefully this leads them out of where they are and onto something better where they don't have to pay for the mistakes of their parents, often caused by factors out of the parents' control, for the rest of their lives.

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