Archive for special education

The Danger of Being a Good Teacher

Posted in Ramblings, Sharing with tags , , , , , , , on 2015/02/25 by R L Burns

i just watched a show called “Obsession:  Dark Desires”.  The episode revolved around a special education teacher and one of her students.  She taught in a high school and one of her students, named Todd, became obsessed with her.  He did not want anyone else to teach him.  He refused to leave her classroom.  He yelled at her. He harassed her at home through phone calls and threats.  Ultimately he decided she needed to die because she was no longer his teacher.  In the end, he drove his truck through her house, nearly killing her daughter and her dog.  it was very scary.

Over the twenty-one years i have been a special educator, I have had many close relationships with students – some of them have spent time at my home or accompanied me to special events.  I grew up watching “Welcome Back, Kotter”  and decided then that if I was ever a teacher, I wanted my students to be that comfortable with me.  My students were always welcome to have my cell phone number in case they needed to reach me – and I have had two students who have called me when they ran away, enabling me to go pick them up and take them home.  I had one family that would call me and ask me if i could come over to get the daughter out of bed so she would come to school.  I’ve had a student slash my tires.  Another two or three have threatened to kill me.  Primarily, though, my students have loved me and felt comfortable with me.  And I have always been proud of that.  This show, however, made me wonder if perhaps these are not the best policies…

As a teacher, you walk a fine line.  Your students need to feel respected by you if you want respect to be returned.  But how close is too close?  I will really have to think about that now.

What Happened Today…

Posted in short story, Uncategorized with tags , , , on 2010/02/19 by R L Burns

Something happened today that nearly made me cry – and not sad, mopey tears as has been my norm lately, but proud, happy tears.   

One of my Favorite Princesses

As you know I am a special education teacher.  I work in a seventh grade English class with possibly one of the greatest English teachers ever – with the excpetion of my friend, Rhonda, who teaches directly across the hall.  In addition to English, I teach, for a week at a time, every three weeks, a Resource Class.  In this class, there are only special education students.  We work on academic skills, organization skills and social skills, the latter being maybe the most important area in which these children need assistance. 

To that end, I do something called “Positive Group” that I learned from my friend, Susan, who was, for twenty-odd years a school psychologist before becoming a teacher of ED (Emotionally Disturbed) children.  On Friday the students have to give at least two other people in the room a positive comment.  It must be more than, “Hey, I like your shirt.”

Telling each other to fuck off is really easy for them.  Saying something positive like, I admire your sense of humor; you always cheer me up with your jokes, can be almost impossible.  Happily, as the school year goes by it gets easier and easier for them, hopefully transferring over into their real lives.

Many students take the easy way out and compliment the teachers in the room, but at the semester change I told them they could only compliment one teacher then had to compliment a student, too.  At the third marking period I will tell them they may no longer compliment teachers at all – unless they have already complimented two peers.  They will freak, I am sure!  Although, some have really taken to this and compliment everyone in the room – which makes me happy.

So, today was Friday and I went into the room, even though it is not my week, to check on the compliments.  One of our students, George, has only been with us for about four weeks.  Very emotionally disturbed, takes a lot of meds; he was only supposed to be with us for three weeks before being transferred to a day treatment program at another school.  However, he is doing really well with us so he will probably stay with us through the end of the year – especially since transitions and changes are the most difficult thing for ED students to handle.

George is one of those who have really taken to giving compliments.  Today he complimented everyone and expressed how happy he was that I had come into the room so he could compliment me, too.  I smiled and thanked him for his compliment – something along the line of me being a great teacher: not only because I like Star Wars and am very understanding, but also because he knows that I am hard on them sometimes because I want the best for them in their future.  That made me happy – but it didn’t make me want to cry.

When the other students were done complimenting each other and class was nearly over, George came up to me and asked if he could please speak to me outside in the hall.  Concerned that something was bothering him – even though he seemed fine – I nodded and we walked out the door and into the hall.  I closed the door and looked at him worriedly.

“Okay, George.  What do you need, dear?  Is something wrong?”

“No.  I just…I wanted to say something but I thought it would embarrass me in front of everyone else.”  He looked at me then looked at the floor.

A little more worried now, I asked, “What is it, George?  Is everything okay?  Is someone bothering you?”

“Oh, no, Ms. O! Not at all.  I just wanted to say…well….I just wanted to tell you that…well, that you look just like a princess.”  He smiled and looked at the floor again.

I just looked at him for a moment, startled, then replied, “George! Now I’m embarrassed!  Thank you so much!  That is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me in a very, very long time!  Thank you!”

Embarrassed beyond belief now, George moved toward the classroom door.  I opened it and we went in. 

Just like a princess…That’s what made me want to cry.  What a great job I have!

My First Day Teaching

Posted in life story, short story with tags , , on 2010/02/19 by R L Burns

I sat at my desk and looked around the room, still somewhat in a state of  shock.  This was my classroom; mine.  I was responsible for what went on the walls, for the books, for the work, for the minds of young people.  How would I handle it??  I was scared but excited, and not a little exhausted from the four straight hours of faculty meeting to which I had been exposed already that day.

Thinking of the meeting, I leaned back in my chair and wished I had a cigarette; well, wished I could smoke one!  Leave it to me to become a teacher when smoking was no longer allowed on school property.  Gone forever the dream of sitting in the teacher’s lounge smoking a cigarette and complaining about my students…How sad.  I laughed to myself and as I leaned forward to sketch out my idea for a bulletin board, the door opened.

 I glanced up, surprised to see Hank, the eighth grade English teacher with whom I was to work for one class.  I wasn’t pleasantly surprised, mind you.  I was, rather, nervously surprised – if there is such a thing.  I had  been told by several well-meaning colleagues that Hank did not want a special education teacher in his classroom.  He had been teaching for twenty-nine years and found the idea of a “co-teacher”, as they called us then, offensive.  Nor did he want to deal with “those” students.  He had threatened to quit when last approached with a co-teacher and the administration had backed down.  This time they had not.  I wondered if perhaps they (the administration) were using me to force him out so they could bring in someone younger, more open to new ideas and practices.  (As the year progressed, by the way, I became convinced of this.)  My new “friends” had also told me, though, that his former students often came back to our school to visit him.  Given all that had been said I really wasn’t sure how to feel about his unannounced, uninvited entrance into my room. 

Forcing a smile I looked into his eyes and asked, “May I help you, Sir?”

“I am sure you know who I am,” he said in an angry tone.

“Well, I know you are Hank, the English teacher with whom I am going to work.”  I smiled again, looking at him questioningly.

“I’m sure you have heard that I don’t want you in my classroom!” Again with the angry tone.

“Sorry?” I asked stupidly. 

Let me say here that my mind split three ways as soon as his tone and words registered. 

Part of me was thinking, “What a jerk! I should stand up and give him what for right back!  Who the fuck does he think he is??”

The second part of me was crying and bemoaning the fact that this was happening to me on my very first day at my very first teaching job.  “How did this happen??”

The third, perhaps smartest part of me thought, “Okay, he’s a jerk, but he feels threatened.  Don’t get up.  Stay in your seat and let him tower over you so he will feel more powerful.  Just sit there calmly and let him spew.  It’s all good.” 

Luckily that third part won out over the other two, more volatile, parts.  So sit there calmly I did, my hands pressed onto my knees, my face smiling.

“I do not want you – or anyone, for that matter – in my classroom, taking my power away from me.  I know what I am doing.  I have been teaching for over twenty-nine years and I don’t need anyone watching over my shoulder!”

His voice got louder as he spoke, then he would catch himself and lower it, only to have it rise again.  He didn’t pace or move much at all, although his eyes seemed at times to nearly pop out of his head, and sometimes, when he paused, he titlted his head to the left or right until his neck popped.  I just sat there and smiled.

“You shouldn’t take it personally, you know.  I don’t even know you.  For all I know you’re a great person.  It’s not about you.  It’s about me.  And the administration.  They will NOT tell me what to do or how to teach or put a spy in my room!”  His voice reached a crescendo on the word “NOT”.

“I told them I would quit if they gave me a co-teacher and “those” kids.  I meant it, too.  I am close to my thirty years.  And because they put you in my room I am turning in my retirement paperwork.  I don’t want those kids, don’t know how to teach them, don’t want to know. ” 

His voice lowered a bit at this point and he looked at the floor – for a moment.  Then he raised it again and looked at me defiantly.

“I just thought you should know how I feel about everything, and that you should hear it from me.  I don’t want you in my room, but it’s not you, really, so don’t take it personally.  So, that’s all.”  He turned to go.

“Sir?  Uh, Hank?”

He stopped and turned around.  “What?”

“Well, you’ve laid all your cards out on the table, which is an excellent thing to do, and I would appreciate it if you would now allow me to do the same.” 

I was burning to stand up and face him eye -to-eye, but the third part of my brain that was directing me whispered, “No! Stay seated!” So I did.

He looked at me suspiciously, replied, “Okay,” and stood, two feet from my desk, arms across his chest.

I sighed inwardly and began. 

“Sir, I mean, Hank, first let me say again that I am glad you told me how you feel. It’s always better to know where you stand with people.  Second, well, I had no idea you felt that way.  The only things I have heard about you are that you are an excellent teacher, many of your students admire you, and that you are one of the few teachers here that students return to visit.”  I smiled.  I had been very careful to keep my tone even and conciliatory throughout my little speech.

He smiled, marginally, and his body language relaxed a little bit.  His arms were still crossed but not as tightly.  I went on.

“Third, I need you to understand that I am not here to take anything away from you; nothing at all.  My only function is to help ensure that your students, whatever their ability level, understand whatever knowledge you try to impart to them.  I want to take nothing from you, want, rather – well, hope, to add to your classroom by supporting you, the curriculum, and your students. ” 

I looked at him to see if my words had any effect on him.  I couldn’t tell. 

“Well, Sir, that is all I had to say.  Thank you for listening.” 

I held out my right hand to see if he would take it and shake.  He hesitated, then did so.

“Okay. See you later,” he said in an almost puzzled tone, and left my room.

Once he was gone, I hate to admit it, I cried.  Just for a few moments, though.  Then I decided that before he left this school he would love me. 

And he did.

His last day was the day before Thanksgiving break.  Hank bought me a little present, gave it to me with a smile, and pulled me aside to say,

“You know, Robin, I didn’t want you in my room.  I told you that at the beginning. And I suppose I was a bit rude about it, too.”

I looked at him in mock shock and said, “You? Rude? Never!”  We laughed.

“No, I know I was.  And I am still unhappy with the administration, but I want you to know that I am not unhappy with you.  At all.  You really meant what you said that day:  you were here to help me, and you did.  Thank you.  I couldn’t have taught those kids without you.”

We shook hands, I wished him well in his retirement, and I walked away, a secret smile on my face.  I hated his attitude towards “those kids”, my kids.

Rarely have I been so glad to see the backside of anyone.

The Horrible Grandmother

Posted in life story, short story, Uncategorized with tags , , , on 2010/02/08 by R L Burns

In the spring of 1998, it was my fourth year of teaching and my first year at what was considered to be the “worst” elementary school in my county.  It serviced a very poor neighborhood on the edges of a huge military base.  At various times it was, in fact, off-limits to military personnel.  Not a weekend went by without a murder, a robbery, a domestic dispute that erupted into violence, “court” versus “court” rumbles, and at least one arrest – and usually more than one.

The school population was predominantly African-American, and eighty-nine percent of the student body received free breakfast and lunch. 

During the 1996-1997 school year, the state threatened to take over the school due to poor test performance and behavioral issues.  The principal was replaced mid-year.  The new principal told the school board and the Superintendent to forget any change in test scores that first half a year; she had to get the school under control before any academic changes could occur.  To that end, all staff had to go through the hiring process again – more than half were thanked for their time and sent on their way.  Mrs. T. changed everything about the way that school did business and stuck to her belief (which I share) that students must feel safe before any learning can occur.  The home lives of most of our students were so unstable, so crazy, that it was no wonder academics were the last thing on their list of priorities.  Making it through another day in one piece was number one for most of them.

I’ll save the rest of the story about the school itself for another day.  Let me say, though, that Mrs. T. and her new staff and positive student/family policies made a really huge difference to those children and their families. 

Anyway, during the 1997-1998 school year I taught a self-contained class of about thirteen students.  I was lucky enough to have an assistant, Mrs. M.  She was wonderful.  I don’t know how I would have managed without her. 

The students in our class were in grades two through six.  One child had mild cerebral palsy, three were borderline mentally retarded, five were emotionally disturbed, and four had a learning disability.  Scattered throughout the children were other issues, such as ADHD, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and Autism.  I was teaching all four academic subjects (English, Math, Science and Social Studies) across all five grades, trying to differentiate everything so it hit everyone at their own level.  It was a difficult assignment, but I truly loved it.

One of my students, the one about whom I was thinking today – hence this story – was a third grader named D.  He was small – maybe, maybe, three and a half feet tall. He had a well-above-average IQ.  He was emotionally disturbed.  His head was shaved, he was thin, he was fast, and he could be really mean – his temper was legendary in the neighborhood. 

At the age of five, D. had seen his cousin murdered.  He then took a knife, used a mirror so he could see his shoulder, and carved a “V” into his shoulder blade.  He did this, he later explained to me, to remind him of his cousin’s murder and his vow to avenge him.  He was very disturbed.

I loved him, but I didn’t trust him very much, until one day in December. 

I had this thing with my elementary kids, where, if I thought they weren’t telling me the truth, I would say that I could smell their hair burning when they lied. (A trick my aunt used on her kids to great effect back in the day.) 

One day a student approached me and told me that D had done something offensive (I can’t recall what), but when I asked D. about it he denied it.  I looked at him suspiciously.  He hopped up and down, rubbing the fuzz on his head.

“Mrs. B.!!  I’m not lying, I swear!!”

“Are you sure, D?” I asked.

“Smell my hair!!!  Smell my hair, Mrs. B!!  I’m telling the truth, I promise!!”

I smothered the laugh that threatened to erupt, knelt down and obliged, making a pretense of smelling his hair.  Nodding, I hugged him and told him I believed him.  He smiled, relieved, and yelled, “I told you so!” when the child who had come to me initially hung his head in shame and admitted he had lied.  From that point on I trusted D. and knew he trusted me.

That he trusted me was proven out even more later that year.

One afternoon in May I walked my students out of the school at the end of the day.  Mrs. M. had left early for a doctor’s appointment.  I watched as the students moved, en masse, to cross the street and return to their homes.  Smiling, glad the day was over and I, too, could go home, I went back to my classroom to get my things. 

I was startled, upon entering, to see D. sitting at his desk, drawing.  I asked what he was doing back in the classroom.  He refused to answer me, just kept drawing, scribbling, really, with a black crayon, making huge sweeping movements on the white paper in front of him.  I walked over to him, knelt by his desk and tried again.

“D.  D?  Honey, you have to go home now.”

He shook his head in the negative.

“Yes, dear, you need to go home.  I have to go home, too, because my son will be getting home from school soon and I need to be there for him.”

He shook his head again and kept drawing, refusing to even make eye contact with me.

Five more minutes of talking – in a calm, quiet voice – proved fruitless.  The only responses I received from D. were head shaking and one, “NO. I am NOT going home.”

At a loss, I called the office and asked for our head of security, Mr. P.  He came down to the room. He had no more luck with D. than I did.  After several minutes, Mr. P. told me to leave the room and said he would have to call the police.  We are not allowed to touch students, so we couldn’t MAKE him get up and go home, so calling the police was, apparently, the only option.

Reluctantly, I left the room, asking D. one more time if he wouldn’t, please, come with me and go home.  He looked up at me, finally making eye contact, but shook his head no.  I walked out into the media center, which was also the center of the school, and decided to wait there until D. had gone home. 

I watched the policemen walk towards my room a few minutes later.  There were, I noticed, three of them.  Three really large policemen, all to deal with a little third grade boy not even four feet tall.

Suddenly I heard yelling.  Startled, I looked towards my room. 

The three policemen rounded the corner carrying D.  It took all three of them.  In their arms he was bucking, flailing his arms, and screaming at the top of his lungs –

“Fuck you, you mother fuckers!! Put me the fuck down or I will fucking kill you!”

He tried to bite the policeman whose arm was closest to his face. 

“Goddammit!!  Fuck you, pigs! Let me fucking go!!!!  I fucking hate you, fucking mother fuckers!!”

I wanted to cry as they passed me on the way to the office.  I looked around the media center and was sorry to see four or five general education teachers standing in the media center, watching D.’s not-so-graceful exit.  I was sorry they were seeing him at his worst, knew it would forever color their dealings with him.  Shrugging, I turned to follow D. and his escort, determined to see if there was anything I could do to help.

They had taken him to a small conference room off the main office.  I walked into the room to see D. sitting in a chair much too big for him, his little hands gripping the arms of the chair so tightly that his dark cream colored skin showed almost bone white.  Tears were threatening to run down his face.  The three policemen were standing together at the end of the conference table, about six feet from D.  I sat in a chair opposite D. and smiled encouragingly at him.  He looked at me; stared, really, tears still filling his eyes.  After a few moments he appeared to calm down a bit.  I spoke to him softly.  I don’t really remember what I said.

Mr. P., the school security officer, came into the room, nodded at the police, then looked at D.

“I called home, D., and someone is on their way to get you.  I am sorry it had to come to this, son, but we really had no choice.”  Mr. P. was an African-American gentleman of average height and build, with a usually smiling face.  Not smiling at that moment, though.

D.  looked up and said, “Fuck you, Mr. P., and you cops, too.  Fuck you. I’m not going home!” His body had tensed again at Mr. P’s words, almost as if he was expecting a blow. 

No one spoke for the next few minutes, we just waited for someone from D.’s home to arrive. 

“Where the fuck is he?” I hear someone growl in the main office. 

“I don’t have time for this shit. Where – “

The door opened and in walked a very dark-skinned woman in, perhaps, her early fifties.  Her face was angry, her eyes bulging, her hair in disarray. 

D.’s whole body language screamed fear as soon as she entered the room.

She approached the table and began screaming at him immediately.

“What the fuck wrong with you, boy?”

As she spoke, she reached toward him and he flinched away from her.  I knew what that meant and I was already sorrier than I could say that we had called this woman to come and get him.  I was to become even sorrier.

“You think I’m gonna put up with this shit?”  She screamed.  “Well, I won’t, dammit.  You think yer gonna grow up to be like yer damn father??  Well! I tell you, “she leaned forward, index finger in his face, voice lowered menacingly, “I tell you that I will fucking KILL YOU MYSELF before I let that happen!”

Her voiced raised to a near scream. “You hear me, boy?” She slapped his face.  “You fucking hear me???”

D. said nothing, just nodded, crying even harder.

I looked at Mr. P. and at the three policemen, totally in shock.  How could they let her treat him this way?  Wasn’t her behavior illegal?  Certainly they weren’t going to let this crazy woman take him home?? 

Mr. P. was looking at the floor, obviously uncomfortable.  The policemen were looking at each other or at the wall, one of them even smiling.  I was nauseated.

The woman, D.’s grandmother I found out later, then uttered her piece-de-resistance:  “You’re such a bad child.  I will not let you upset yer mother anymore.  She has cancer, boy, and it all because of YOU!  You’re killin’ yer ma and I ain’t gonna let you hurt her no more!!!”  She raised her hand as if to strike him again, and, finally, one of the policemen did something.

“Ma’am,” he said in a very stern voice as he shook his head in the negative. 

She started in on D. again and I could no longer take it.  I got up, like a coward, and left the room, leaning against the wall, tears now streaming down my face, my breath ragged.  A moment later the door I had just used opened again and out walked Mr. P.  I could still hear the grandmother screaming at D.  I put my hands over my ears and cried harder.

Mr. P. tapped me on the shoulder.  “Robin.  Get back in that room.”

I stared at him as if he had told me to fly to the moon.  “No.  I can’t go back in there.  I cannot listen to her anymore.  Please…” I looked at him pleadingly.

“Robin, that boy in there needs you.  Now go splash your face and get back in there.  Now.”

I hung my head, crossed the hall to the staff lounge, and splashed cool water on my face.  I grabbed  a few tissues and headed back to the conference room.

Stealing myself, I took a deep breath and opened the door.  It was quiet – at last – in the room.  Mr. P. looked at me and said, “Ah, Mrs. B.  Glad you could rejoin us.  D. is going home in a few minutes.  Shall I go get his things from the room?”

“I’’ll fuckin’ go,” the grandmother jumped in.  “I got to get the fuck home to the kids, no time for this shit.”

I looked at D. and then at her.  “How about if I take him to the room, Ma’am?  You rest here and we’ll be right back.”

She started to argue but Mr. P. cut her off, saying, “I think that’s an excellent idea, Mrs. B.  I’ll escort you both.”

I took D.’s hand and we left the conference room followed by Mr. P., but not, thankfully, by the grandmother. 

We talked quietly about homework and “normal” things til we got to the classroom.  Once in the room I helped him pack his backpack, slipping a few pieces of candy into the outside pocket.  I smiled at him and he smiled shyly back.  Mr. P. stayed in the background, giving D. some space.

As we started to leave the room, D. pulled my hand and called my name.  I turned around and looked at him questioningly.

A tear trickled down his cheek.  He held out his arms to me.  I got on my knees and hugged him tightly, and he hugged me back.

“I love you, Mrs. B.” he whispered.

“I know, D. I can’t smell your hair, so I know you are telling me the truth.”  We looked at each other and laughed, then I said, “I love you, too, D.  Now let’s go.  When you come back on Monday we’ll have a great day, right?”

He nodded, and we headed back to the office.

Mr. P. and I stood in front of the school and watched them cross the street on their way home, waving at D. when he turned around to look at us helplessly.

I looked at Mr. P. and said, “What the hell?  If I lived with that lady I’d be emotionally disturbed, too, wouldn’t you?”

Mr. P. replied, “For certain sure, Robin.  For certain fucking sure I would.”