Safely Reaching Your Destination: A NYS Special Educator's Plea

I still remember the night I called my parents to tell them I was switching my major. It was in November of my sophomore year of college. I was so nervous that they would be disappointed that I wasn't going to pursue a business degree as I planned. I was afraid they would think that the reason I wanted to be a teacher was because I had failed calculus that semester. After all, those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. My mom answered the phone that night and I started to explain to her how I think I might want to be a teacher. She said, "Sarah, I already knew this. I have been waiting for this phone call for years." She said, "Don't you remember Miss Honey?"

Miss Honey was the name of the main character in Matilda by Roald Dahl. Miss Honey was the sweetest, most nurturing teacher who connected with Matilda in a way that no other adult or child ever had. My mom reminded me that I used to line up my dolls and my baby sisters (sorry Julia and Lily) and play Miss Honey with them. Just a few weeks ago, I was reading my students The Cat in the Hat. As I held up the front cover of the book, one of my students raised his hand and
asked why there was a number 5 written on the front cover of the book in marker. I explained to the class that this book was MY book when I was their age, and that I used to make a library out of my books, number them and make my big brother stand in line to check out the books. As it turns out, I really was born to teach.

I call my mom every day when I drive home from school. She hears about the student who I am at my wits' end with. I call her when it is the middle of February and I can't imagine spending another day inside my classroom with my rambunctious, 5 year old boys. She hears about the hour long phone call I had with a parent about a purple ball in gym class and why the purple ball caused a catastrophic meltdown. She hears about how I have a voicemail from a parent who is upset that I let her child go on the playground in his new sneakers. She hears that a student came to school in the same underwear, for the 5th day in a row. She hears that I got yelled at by the lunch lady, again, for lining up my students in the wrong order. She hears about the days when I have to restrain a child who is causing himself harm. She hears me complain that I have been teaching the word "the" for two years and my students still. don't. know it. She listens to me cry when I have to call CPS and know in my heart that this child's life is going to get worse before it gets better because I am making this call. After many of these conversations my mom has said to me, "Oh Miss Honey, I hope you don't get too burned out by those little guys."

It's not all bad in a self-contained special education class. In fact, the good days always outweigh the bad. I LOVE my class, my program, my aides and my students. My students crack. me. up. They are the most honest, raw and innocent people in the world. They can truly brighten my day and have brought me so much happiness over the years. They have become household names for my family. My family and friends are cheering for them because they know their stories and they love their stories. My mom will tell you that although I have many tough days, 90% of the time I call her with good news. She hears about the first time one of my students tied his shoes after working on it for months. She hears about the student who finally stopped throwing himself on the floor in a tantrum when I told him "no" (it only took until December!) She hears about the student who said his first word and the one whose mom surprisingly showed up for Mother's Day Tea. She hears about the student who walked in and asked me, "What the "frig" is for lunch today?" She hears about the student who finally broke his habit of sucking on his shirt when he's nervous and the student who finally trusts me. She hears about the student who finally recognizes the word "the" after learning about it for two years. After many of these conversations my mom has said to me, "Oh Miss Honey, I hope you don't get too burned out by those little guys."  

But I haven't gotten burned out. In fact, with each school year I become a better, stronger, teacher. This was my sixth year teaching and I finally feel like I am getting the hang of things. I finally feel like I am getting good at my job.

Sadly (and you knew this was coming), I live in a state that just passed a bill that will change the way I am evaluated. In short, 50% of my evaluation will come from how my students perform on standardized tests and 50% of my evaluation will come from observations (one from my principal and one from an outside observer who has never been in my classroom). You can Google NYS teacher evaluation changes and read the finer details, but allow me to shed some light on the truth about these evaluations and what they really look like in a special education classroom.

Last year I had to administer the AIMSWeb test to my students in September so I could show growth to determine my value to our public school system. I will never forget testing two of my kindergarteners. One of them had oppositional defiant disorder and refused to respond to me (he wouldn't talk or trust me until mid-November). The other student had autism and was obsessed with the letter P. Both students had no true letter recognition. They both had been receiving special education services since they were two and had not spoken until they were almost four. They were both here in the second week of school, in the most restrictive classroom available. But they were both being forced to take the same assessment as their "typical" peers in the general education classroom next door.

I started with the student with oppositional defiant disorder. I said "Hi buddy! You are going to read me the letters that you know! It's okay if you don't know some, just try your best!" He refused to respond. I tried to bribe him with candy, free time, anything. Nope. No dice. So I set the timer and we sat there for the 1 minute timed test, just looking at each other. I didn't know if he truly didn't know any letters or if he was just being stubborn. It usually takes at least a month (or more) to determine what is behavior, what is disability, what is defiance and what they just truly don't know. I was irritated that he wouldn't respond. He was irritated that he was at school to begin with. When the timer rang, I clicked "0" and told him he could go back to his seat. When the autistic student obsessed with P came up, I gave him the same pep talk. I started the timer and he started skimming through the list of letters "P....P.....P......P.....P...P...P!" until 1 minute was up. Guess how many of the letters were actually P? Two. So, I marked down "2" and told him he could go back to his seat.

After these assessments are completed, there is a formula that is used to determine how much growth a child should make by the end of the school year based on national, state and local norms. The student who refused to respond had to identify 4 letters by the end of the year. The student who said P for every letter and therefore "got 2 correct" had to identify 18 letters by the end of the year. THAT was how New York State would determine if I had done my job effectively that year.

So, as you might imagine, neither of those students reached their targets. In fact, not one of my students reached their targets last year because they were far too busy learning how to do the million other things that they need to learn to operate in the world (staying in a chair for longer than 45 seconds, closing the door to urinate, using words to ask for help, to name a few.) Some of these children even learned to read despite all of the other things they had to learn and adjust to. But in that 1 minute timed test in June, none of them were able to meet their targets, leaving me with a complete list of "ineffective" ratings. One of them I was certain would pass, but even he didn't reach his goal. I'm not really sure why, since I wasn't there. The person who has to assess them at the end of the year is a teacher they don't know or trust in a location that they are unfamiliar with. After all, this is the only way to guarantee that I don't cheat. The good news is that last year only 20% of my evaluation came from these ludicrous assessments. The rest of my evaluation score came from observations that my principal did. My principal, who comes in and reads to my class once a month. My principal, who comes running out of her office when she hears me chasing down a screaming child in the hallway to see if I need help. My principal, who sits in on my parent conferences when I have an irate parent and need some back up. My principal, who knows my students and their stories and is invested in their stories just as much as I am.

The craziest part of this story, is that both of these students come from great homes. I teach in an affluent, suburban district. These students have been enrolled in early intervention services since they were eligible. They were read to as children, fed healthy foods, taken on vacations and showered with love. They get enough sleep, they regularly see doctors and they have parents who are educated. They are not living in poverty or neglected. They have learning disabilities. They need specialized teaching. They need weighted vests to help them focus and velcro under their table to help them cope with stress. They need speech to learn to communicate and directions repeated 5 times. They need occupational therapy to help them write their name and physical therapy to help them descend from stairs. They need visual schedules so they know what to expect each day and modified paper so their letters fit on the lines. They need recess so the fresh air can fill their lungs and release their energy. They need teacher aides to sit with them at lunch and teach them how to feed themselves. They need teachers who believe in their stories.

Since the budget and bill passed in New York State this week, I have read a lot about teachers discouraged that they won't have a job, be able to pay their student loans, be able to provide for their families, they won't get their pension. My heart breaks for the teachers who feel that these changes may disrupt their lives and uproot everything that they have spent their lives investing in. I imagine it's the same fear that millions of Americans face when a major plant closes in their areas or when the stock market crashes. However, I can't help but feel a deeper sadness for the students who are stuck in an education system that is crumbling. When I graduated from college, my dad said to me, "Well Sarah, you have safely reached your destination." I was now able to get a job and provide for myself, no matter what circumstances may come my way. If I lose my job in the next few years as a result of these changes, I am not worried. There are plenty of other jobs that I would be perfectly happy doing. I am NOT helpless, I am NOT stranded and I will NOT be destitute, because I am already educated. I may become inconvenienced, unemployed and discouraged. But I won't be helpless. I can't say the same for the 9 little boys in my class this year, who have the rest of their lives ahead of them, filled with challenges they were born with. This week they just acquired new challenges when our government challenged their biggest advocates. It is my greatest fear that as these boys move through our education system, nobody will want them because nobody will want to take the chance that they will refuse to respond or say the letter P over and over again. They will become a risk that many teachers will not be willing to take. Trust me, these boys are worth it and those teachers won't know what they're missing.

If good teachers start losing their jobs, or worse, walking away from education out of sheer frustration, then we are all in trouble. Our students deserve teachers who can teach to their needs, not to a test. Our students deserve teachers who teach with passion, not for performance. Our students deserve teachers who are dedicated, not desperate. Our students all deserve to have a Miss Honey who will love them when nobody else will. They all deserve to safely reach their destination.


4 comments

  1. Fight the good fight. As a fellow special ed/SLP teacher currently in middle school but previously in a sub-separate school, I understand all of this. ALL of it. Stay Honey, stay pure, stay the course. Those kids need you. The insanity of this testing protocol will eventually dawn on someone & the pendulum will swing. In the meantime, just breathe.

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  2. To all who are in education TRULY for the kids--from a fellow teacher and parent of a special needs child--PLEASE do your utmost to hang in there. I hope the pendulum takes a very short time to return to a point of common sense.

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  3. Where New York goes, so does the rest of the nation. I live in Washington State but I have been paying attention to what is happening and it is truly awful!! How can Cuomo live with himself? In any case, there are many fine people in your state that are fighting this. A I know this because I became discouraged last year and I decided that rather than quitting, I was going to fight. I have become very active in my union (it will only change if we change it) and other activist organizations, many that started in your fine state: Lace Top, BAT, United Opt Out, Long Island Opt Out, etc. The only solution at this point is to opt children out/refuse the tests. As teachers, if we have children, we need to opt them out/refuse the tests. Encourage friends and relatives who have children to opt out/refuse. And in the case of teachers in New York who are in situations like yours, or any teachers anywhere, we need to encourage our parents to refuse the tests. If there is no data, there is nothing to be judged on.

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  4. Crying as I read this! Special Education teachers like you need to be encouraged and rewarded for the demanding and difficult work they do each day not penalized because their students don't measure up. Why is NYS doing this to these wonderful people? I can't imagine losing the gifted, talented teachers in my daughter's life because they don't make the grade. NYS wake up!

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