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Special Education In Kansas
Ones I Have Met Along My Road
A Long Road
When I first decided that I was going to be a teacher, I had already decided that I wanted to teach special education. When I was younger, I always felt sorry for the kids in the wheelchairs, using walkers, or had other noticeable disabilities. I wanted to be able to help children like that to succeed at school. My dream was to help these children to feel “normal” in the school system. I felt that I was just the person who could do that.
I went to college with this idea in the back of my head. I didn’t realize how much work went into being a regular education teacher. Then I discovered that to be a special education teacher, I would have to have a Master’s Degree – more school and more money. Since I was doing this with an ex-husband who refused to work, and two pre-teen children, I was sure that I would never fulfill my dream. But, as always, God was guiding me.
I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree and went out looking for work. I applied with the biggest district in our area and sat back and waited for a job. And continued to wait…I finally decided that I wasn’t going to wait any longer, so I began applying for all of the preschools in our area, as well as the smaller districts. I was beginning to get desperate when I was finally called in for an interview. It wasn’t for the school district, and the position was for a paraprofessional and not a teacher. But it was at the biggest preschool for children with special needs. It wasn’t my dream job, but it was as close as I could get at the time.
I loved working with these children. The children had disabilities ranging from cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities to children with behavioral or emotional disorders. There was Alice who had cerebral palsy and couldn’t walk or talk, and Alex who also had CP but could talk and was learning to walk. There was little Josh who was in reality twice the age of the other children, who were four and five. His disability kept him from growing and he was the size of an 18 month old baby – and he had the skills of a six month old. He was still learning to eat “real” food and learning to sit up. Danny and Manny were twins who had severe behavior disorders and could out-cuss even the raunchiest of sailors. Andrew and Tony were two of the “typical” children – those without special needs included in the program to be “role – models” for the children with special needs.
Working with these children just confirmed that I really wanted to become a special education teacher, and I told myself that as soon as I could, I would return to school to get my Master’s Degree. I learned a lot from my little preschoolers, and I also had the great luck of working with a teacher who was never at school. This left me in charge of planning lessons and doing the majority of the work a teacher would do. I worked there for a year, learning everything I could learn. Then I decided to move on.
I was told that the best way to get my foot in the door at the school district was to become a substitute teacher. Principals would see you and get to know you and look towards you when they were hiring. So I began to substitute. I loved this, as well. By substituting, I could hone my skills with classroom management, lesson planning and working with children. All of my subbing jobs were in regular education classrooms, and I loved it. I did miss my children with special needs, but it was fun to be able to do lessons that the children understood and to be able to tease and be silly with the students because they actually understood my jokes. I began to think that teaching in a regular education classroom wouldn’t be all that bad.
Then one day, it happened. I got called in for an interview. I was so excited and nervous! I tried to remember all of the things I had learned about doing an interview. I brought my portfolio that I had been told in college was essential to any interview. I practiced interview questions with my daughters so that I would be as prepared as I could be.
I was totally shocked when I first entered the conference room. I had expected that it would be just the principal interviewing me – instead there was a group of six or eight people. I sat down as I was asked and every sane thought I had went out the window. I was so scared and nervous I could barely keep from stuttering. Each person that was there had their question to ask, and then had a series of follow-up questions. By the time it was all over, I hoped that I had at least answered some of the questions intelligently. But I guess, if I did, it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t hired for that position.
After that, I had several other interviews. I got used to the group interviews and got better at answering the questions. I soon discovered that the questions were similar at each school – they might be worded slightly different, but they were essentially the same. I prepared better and became a little more confident. I interviewed all through the summer, without any luck.
One day, about a month before school was supposed to start, I got called into a school. This one was different, because it was just the principal interviewing me. She didn’t have time to interview me in her office, so we walked around the school while she interviewed me. At the end of the interview, she told me that the position that I was being interviewed for had been filled that morning. She told me that there was another position available, but that it was as a teaching paraprofessional. The pay would be less, the responsibilities about the same and there would be no benefits and no guarantee that the job would last more than a year. I told her I would think about it and got ready to leave. As I was about to walk out the door, she stopped me. She told me that a school down the street was still looking for a second grade teacher, and that I should go and talk to that principal. I asked if I needed to schedule an interview, and she told me that I didn’t and that she would call the other principal and tell her that I was on my way.
This made me extremely nervous, but I did it anyway. I figured that the worst that could happen is that the principal would turn me down and I would still be looking for a job. The best thing that could happen is that I could be hired as a second grade teacher.
I walked into the school and into the office. I told the secretary that I was looking for the principal. She told me that the principal was expecting me and that she was out in the hall trying to solve some problem. I met with the principal, and again we walked around the building as she worked to put out all of the small fires that need to be put out before school begins. As we finished the interview, the principal told me that the second grade position had been filled. She told me that she liked what she saw in me and wished that I would have wanted to teach special education instead. I told her that teaching special education was my dream, but that I could not afford the cost of going back to school to get my Master’s Degree. Then she told me something that changed my life for the better.
She told me that if I was really interested in teaching special education, the school district would pay for me to return to school to get my Master’s Degree in special education! The only catch was that I would have to teach special ed while getting the Master’s. I thought about this for a few minutes, and then told the principal that I would do it. I was hired on the spot.
That first year of teaching was the toughest year I have ever had teaching. Almost every teacher will tell you that the first year is the toughest, but mine was really bad. Although I will always appreciate that principal for allowing me to teach and showing me a way to have my dream fulfilled, she was not a very good principal when it came to special education. She disliked special education in her building. She put me in a classroom that had three other classrooms surrounding it. All of those classrooms had doors that opened into my classroom. Whenever students had to leave their classrooms, they had to walk through mine.
I had thirty-seven children that first year. Students that teachers did not want in their classrooms, even though they were supposed to have time in the regular education classrooms. Because the principal didn’t want to deal with whining teachers, she strongly encouraged me to change IEPS to state that these students didn’t need regular education time and that their entire day – except for specials such as PE and music – should be spent in the special education classroom.
I had no teacher assistant for the first quarter. A long term substitute was finally hired to assist me, but she had less experience than I did. She was an older woman who believed that the students in our classroom were just naughty and needed to be spanked. She liked to yell at the students.
In my class that year, I had students who were learning disabled, students who had emotional disturbances, three or four with behavioral disorders, a child who was schizophrenic, and three children who were “runners.” I was spit on, hit, had chairs thrown at me and was called every vile name in the book. Since I was the only special ed teacher in the school, my students were in kindergarten through fifth grade and had several different levels of learning per grade level. Whenever I would ask the principal for assistance, she would tell me that special education was my department and that I needed to solve the problem. I had many “field trips” with all children in tow as I would chase one of the runners around the school. Since my classroom also had a door to the outside, we would often have to chase students outside, as well.
One day, I was busy trying to teach my students when the principal walked in my door. She sat until I stopped for a moment in my lesson and then she called me into the hall. I noticed my student with schizophrenia standing out in the hall. Right there in front of this child, and everyone who happened to walk by, I was yelled at because I had let this child escape my room. A policeman had found him in the street in front of the school, dancing in the rain. She told me that my job was in jeopardy, not only because I let this student escape, but because it brought embarrassment to her. I apologized and brought the student back into class and tried to continue my lesson.
After that, and after the first semester, I decided I would do things differently. I requested student desks instead of tables. I put the desks in rows, with the younger students in front and the older ones in back. Each child had to stay in their desk unless I gave them specific instructions to leave. I began teaching them all from the same lessons. I taught reading, writing, math and social skills. I had the big kids help the little kids when they could. Things started to get a little better. The assistant walked around making sure that the kids didn’t need any help and stayed in their seats while I taught. For the next two months, I taught like this.
After that two months, I separated the students into ability levels. We had centers for reading, writing and math. Each student worked at their own level. The center activities were all fun and kept the children busy. Each group also had one of their centers with me, and one with the assistant. In this way I could see how they were progressing.
Things did improve. But there were still all kinds of problems. I was getting in trouble for not completing paperwork appropriately and for not having IEP meetings on time. The goals and objectives were not written appropriately, either. Remember, this was my first year teaching and I was just now taking classes for special education. I was still learning how to do all of this. My principal began sending me to other schools to watch their special education programs. This was the only way she ever attempted to help.
At the end of that school year, my principal decided that she didn’t want to ask me back for the next year. I was very much okay with that. Although, I loved the students, the atmosphere was horrible. I didn’t want to go back.
That summer, I looked for another job. I was very lucky to find the job where I am at now. I walked in for an interview with the best principal I could ever hope to work with, Diane Miles. She asked where I had worked before, and I told her. She asked who the principal was, and I told her. She asked how I had liked her. I was afraid to tell her how I really felt, so I told her that she was a good principal. Diane asked if she still hated special education! I smiled and told her yes, that she did. She hired me on the spot.
As soon as she told me I was hired, she introduced me to the other special education teacher I would be working with. She also told me that I would be doing strictly class within a class, working with students who were included in the regular education classrooms. I would be working with ten students. Diane also told me that she was paying for some in-services that would teach me how to correctly do IEPs and others that would give me ideas for centers and other ways to help my students.
The best thing that she did for me was to invite me to attend a two week in-service with her. The in-service was about children who lived in poverty. I learned a lot that could help me with my students, but I also learned a lot about Diane. I learned that she had successfully beat cancer while continuing to work full time. I learned that she had a great family that she loved very much. I also learned that she had a wicked sense of humor.
This in-service was meant for principals. One of the days there was a luncheon for all the principals. I was not expecting to go, and told Diane this. She insisted that I come with her, so I did. I was standing in the back of the room waiting for the lunch to start. Diane was at the tables walking around, talking to some of the other principals. When it was finally time to eat, Diane invited me to her table. Sitting at the table with her was my former principal! I was nervous, but I sat down anyway. I kept my mouth shut and just ate my lunch. Diane, on the other hand wasn’t so quiet. She introduced me to all of the principals at the table, and then proceeded to tell everyone how awesome I was. She told them all that I always had my paperwork done on time and always had great strategies to teach my students. She just kept talking about all of my strengths. I sat back and listened. And watched my former principal fidget. It was great!
Diane later told me that she had never really liked my former principal. Diane didn’t like the way she treated the teachers that worked with her. She told me that she had waited for an opportunity to talk with my former principal and that she had planned to tell her how wonderful I was. I thanked her and we continued the rest of the two weeks of the in-service. We remained close until her death from breast cancer three years later.
I have been at this school since then. It is the most wonderful school to work in. We have loving, caring teachers who truly want their students to succeed. We have gone through about ten principals since we lost Diane. Some of been good, others not so good. None have been as good as Diane.
I learned to be the teacher I am through all of the hard times and the good times. I have my dream job, the greatest job anyone could ever have. I get to work with students and watch them learn. I get to enjoy the small steps and appreciate every little victory.
It hasn’t been an easy road, but it has led me to a wonderful place.
© 2013 LaDena Campbell