Monday, September 14, 2015

Please Understand "Special Ed."

I suppose this one is kind of a public service announcement.

Last night, I had to go to a meeting for my sons' CCD program (Catholic catechism classes for public school kids) and the speaker, at one point, told everyone that her son had been "special ed." when he was in school. Sympathetic nods ensued among the crowd and then she went on to list her son's numerous issues, which included severe autism and (I quote) "mental retardation." The boy had a habit in school of violently attacking other children at the slightest provocation -- or with none at all.

This is, of course, something to be sympathetic about. It is a great burden for a parent to have to carry. But I think the sympathy comes a little too quickly when someone simply says his or her kid is "special ed." What people need to understand is that, at least in the educational system in the US, "special ed." is a very broad and it is generally misunderstood by those outside of education.

Yes, a child with severe problems is "special ed," but so is a student with slightly different learning processing tendencies than those of other kids. Had there been "special ed." when I was a kid, I am sure I would have been "classified" for math. I am very poor at processing mathematical procedures; I even "zone out" very palpably when reading certain instructional texts, to this day.

In our high school, we are fortunate to have an exceptional and extremely dedicated special education director, Mrs. Mary Ann Scott. "Scotty's" job is not only to help the kids in her program with their work during certain periods, but to instruct the teachers as to which modifications are necessary to apply to those students while in their classes; these modifications can be as simple as seating location preferences or they can include extra time on tests or orally-presented questions (etc.).

What these modifications do is not to -- if you will -- hit the ball for the student, but to get him or her out of the dugout and into the batters' box. Scotty helps with the stance: back elbow level; weight on the back foot; eyes on the ball...or...wait...maybe you need to squint your left eye to see better... She helps kids with special needs to navigate around their differences in approaching learning.

Thank goodness this wasn't my kid...
So, special ed. is neither, necessarily, a classification of severely impaired or challenged kids, nor is it a feel-good game of musical chairs with plenty of chairs for everyone. What it is is a guiding light through the forest for those whose minds work differently than those of others.

I have had special ed. "classified" students in the most advanced English class we offer (AP Literature and Composition) -- a college-level class. I can bet good money that Einstein and Shakespeare would have been "special ed." had they gone to school in the United Stated in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries...

...but we also cannot forget the severely challenged kids that fall under the special ed. umbrella.

What I hate to see is the immediate reaction people have because of their preconceptions about special ed. I have seen parents actually curl their lips in disgust and snort when asked if their child has any special needs -- as if they have been insulted. That doesn't work out to fair, no matter how you look at it. It's a reaction that comes from ignorance about the program and what it means.

What it comes down to is that "special ed." is education as it should be: a look at the individual student; an assessment of his or her learning style (whether the limitations are severe or minor) and a response to his or her get that student onto the "field" with the other kids so that kid can show his or her stuff.

Special ed. prejudice is no different that of any other kind. Generalizing about these students is unfair and it could be very bad for them. They need what they need as individuals and it is the responsibility of schools and teachers to provide that.

When I was in school, many of my friends thought I was "dumb" because I got low grades in certain classes. I sometimes thought I was "dumb" as well. (The best my teachers could do was to tell my parents I was "not working to potential." They were right; they just didn't really know how to help except to tell me to try harder.) My graduate school professors would disagree with both my friends and with the younger me about my intelligence. I'd like as few kids as possible to be wrong about themselves the way I was. Maybe I would have done better if I had known the truth (whatever "done better" means...)

I also want to see the kids who need lots and lots of help get it when they need it. Everyone needs to understand, however, that there are as many kinds of "special needs" students as there are fingerprint patterns on them.

So, next time someone says her kid is "special ed." don't jump to the sympathetic head-shake; but, do listen. Sympathy might be needed and it should be given. Sympathy, but not pity. Sympathy gets things done for those who need it. Pity feels like a sense of superiority. Yes, it could easily have been your son or daughter in that story.

Special ed. is about one thing: helping each student reach his or her own personal potential despite differences in learning stylesYou can take that most literally.

(I certainly welcome the views of other educators and parents on this...or stories.)

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