Thursday, June 5, 2014 – My first day in the classroom. I made sure I wore something business casual but comfortable enough to move around and help as needed. My file was waiting for me I signed in and headed off to the classroom feeling well prepared for what was before me. I was the sixth adult in the classroom of twelve students. After teaching 24 with only one other teacher I honestly thought, “how hard can it be”? We have a 1:2 ratio. Nothing could have prepared me for today. Nothing. I “know” the rules for hand-washing, taking turns, lining up, play-ground safety, I can write lesson plans with my eyes closed and teach a classroom of 4 year olds with one eye open. A classroom of 4 year olds that might have one or two speech issues, and some students with attention problems, perhaps even one that may like to bite occasionally or knock his friend down because, “he thought he might hit him first.” But today was a life-changer, I didn’t expect. I walked into a room already in motion. There are 12 students, only 12 and 6 (including myself) adults. I washed my hands and started observing, learning names.
*All the names of the children have been changed to protect their privacy.
Sally* a four year old girl who has CP, was on the ground throwing a fit when I got done washing my hands so I went over to her. She quickly started to pull on me so she could stand up. She is unable to stand without assistance. The teacher told me I had to let her be on her own. She cried and cried. I tried to engage her in play. Then the teacher let me know that she is unable to engage in meaningful play yet because she is developmentally 18 months old. She is unable to feed herself. She can scoot on the floor but throws herself around in frustration. She isn’t able to communicate verbally. She screams and makes noises. She has issues with her vision and looks all around and nowhere at the same time.
Amelia* who was born at 26 weeks gestation. She is unable to sit up alone at 4 years old. She smiles and giggles. She is primarily fed by feeding tube but can eat very soft food that is spoon fed slowly to her. Her vision isn’t very good, and she requires someone near her at all times. She is unable to speak but communicates through body language.
Taylor* is 4 years old. He has seizures often. He is able to walk on his own, however deals with behavior issues, speech issues, and his ability to communicate verbally. His vocabulary is very limited and sounds like mostly moans to me right now however the teachers understand him. He has a beautiful smile. He is easily frustrated and is known to bite and smack the other children if left alone. After I was in the room a little while the Lead Teacher informed me that he actually requires a full time nurse for just him and she is not there today. There also was not a substitute sent to replace her so now the Lead Teacher must follow his every move rather than teaching the whole class. He gets into everything and is destructive.
Lilly* is 4 years old. She is a bright child. She quickly engages with me and invites me to play with her. She asks my name which I haven’t been asked by any of the other children I have met yet. She has excellent verbal skills, questioning skills and has a complete understanding of the room and the people in it. She helps me learn about the rules. We sit together and chat about Playdoh. We make snakes together and roll balls of Playdoh. She’s excited about her upcoming graduation and attending Kindergarten very soon. Lilly does not require any modifications to her educational plan. She is not a part of the marginalized population in the classroom.
Jerry* is 4 years old. When I first meet him he is seated at the table with other children playing with Playdoh. He asks me to help him with the lid and I do get the lid started but don’t do it all the way because I am not sure he isn’t just trying to get me to do something he can do for himself. I am the “new” person in the room so I know that the children will try to get me to do whatever they can. I help him get the lid started and actually almost off because I watch Jerry and he struggles as he tries himself. He has a sweet spirit, this is quickly apparent. We all sit together making snakes and cutting the Playdoh. I help him some and he smiles.
James* is 4 years old. He doesn’t say much and seems to find things to get into constantly in the classroom. He doesn’t talk at all. Later I find out he is autistic. He grabs different toys in the classroom and just seems to move them from place to place.
Chris* is 4 years old. He is not part of a marginalized population. He is an average student, a mischievous little boy who likes to play and build with blocks. We talk about books and castles.
Ben* is 4 years old. He is a little boy with Down Syndrome. He enjoys playing with blocks and running outside. He is delayed in his speech. His smile will melt your help.
Melissa* is a 2.5 year old girl. Today is her second day in the classroom and at this school. She is terribly overwhelmed with all that is going on. I do not learn a whole lot about her during my time in the classroom today. Her mom is called to pick her up early because she is unable to emotionally handle being in the classroom.
As I sit here reflecting I am unable to remember the other children in the class. I did not take paper with me so I could fully engage with the students my first day and get to know them.
The classroom was like a busy beehive, full of activity. The classroom is filled with age appropriate materials. The materials are not new but rather well loved and worn. The children’s artwork is on the walls. There is child size furniture in the room and only one adult size chair. There are also adaptive chairs in the room.
We spent the first hour and a half of my time inside the classroom. The second almost hour was spent outside on the playground. The playground has been adapted to meet the different physical abilities and disabilities of the students. The third portion of my time was spent back inside the classroom preparing and eating lunch.
One child is confined to a chair on wells and strapped in so she doesn’t fall out. She lacks the control needed to move her body as she chooses except for her head and eyes with purpose. There are also restraining chairs for students to keep them safe when their behavior gets out of control or unsafe for the others in the room. There are chairs to hold students who cannot hold themselves up while they eat. The Lead Teacher informed me that it was not at all a typical day in her classroom. She was beyond frustrated for many reasons.
I have NO idea how she functions in this classroom after my experiences today. While I realize it was not a typical day, it was difficult. It was like little time bombs waiting to go off at any second. Even with all the adults present there were not enough hands to handle all the happenings in the room it felt like. The teachers are caring and truly love what they do. The children are doing the best they can and it is HARD. HARD. Plain and simple, nothing taken for granted and lots of love being given freely, and firm corrections and limits constantly applied. I felt like I was in a tornado, so much for feeling well prepared. I compare it to the experiences I have had as a mother over the years. I was married to my best friend, educated, an educator, and loved children. I had started caring for other children at the age of eleven, who could be more prepared than me? Jeff and I lead a youth group at church together and went and picked up our nieces to just spend time with them regularly. We were prepared, right? NO. Nothing prepares you for parenthood, it is a day to day learning experience, the responsibility is always there, and never goes away. It is rewarding and overwhelming all at the same time. This is how I feel about the classroom experience my first day. Nothing could have prepared me and I felt like I was prepared. I was so wrong but the longer I stayed with the children the more I got to know them.
The power in this classroom shifts from moment to moment. Obviously the ultimate “power” or locus of control in the room is the teacher or rather the responsibility lies in her hands but I see the power shifting. The power shifts from student to student, an incident to incident as bodies react unpredictably and involuntary or not very much at all for some students. Alinsky states that, “when we talk about an individual’s power we often refer to them “lifting himself by his own bootstraps”, we are referring to power.” (1989, p. 52) Power looks very different inside this classroom to me. I saw children pulling themselves up by their bootstraps over and over again.
Jerry is a student with power. I found out over my time in the classroom that Jerry has CP. He is developmentally delayed and has issues with hand-eye coordination. Jerry has one of the sweetest spirits I have ever witnessed. When we got outside he fell at least once for every ten steps he took. His legs are knee-knocked and it did not appear he had worn his leg braces this day. Over and over again he pushed himself back up off the ground and smiled. He said as he looked me in the eyes with a smile, “I fall down a lot but I always get back up.” Jerry loves bubbles. We blew bubbles together. Then his teacher got out the big bubbles and blew them in the grass towards the children. Jerry would reach to pop the “biggest bubble”. The joy in his face and spirit inspired me. After we got inside Jerry had difficulty eating because he was coming down with something. His nose was stuffy. He was taking longer than usual to eat. He didn’t give up. I mentioned to the teacher that I thought he wasn’t feeling well when they asked why he wasn’t done eating. He was eating peanut butter, drinking milk and couldn’t breathe as he ate. But guess what he kept trying. He started to get sicker and his parents were called. They were coming to take him to the doctor. While he waited, little by little he ate his lunch. Jerry may not have power over his disability but he demonstrates as much power as humanly possible by his desire to live and grow. Later I found out that a year ago Jerry couldn’t even walk.
I could write pages and pages on my experience. But decided to lay a foundation and focus on Jerry for this journal because my experience with him really stood out and the Lead Teacher.
Going into this experience I felt prepared after my first 30 minutes, I knew I was completely unprepared. I thought I had it difficult with 24 students and an assistant. The patience of the teachers was remarkable. The love in the classroom always present. I have taken for granted my able body. I am guilty of complaining and wishing my life was different. Even when I have had a broken ankle, or knee my pain and obstacles were nothing compared to their day to day lives. I have so much respect for these children and teachers. I used to think I could work in Special Education and I know now that I could not. My skin is not thick enough. I had tears welling in my eyes several times and my patience was running thin. I am an extremely patient person especially with young children but my patience for watching them stuck in bodies that won’t do what they want was so difficult. These children and the teachers need everyone they can get in the classroom that is willing to help. I now feel selfish for believing they had too many people and the ratios were too low.