If teachers are Jacks of all trades,

. . . then they are masters of none, though often better than a master of one.

My grandmother was a high school teacher from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. I wish she was still around to speak for herself, but she was gone several years before she actually left us. Although her favorite story to tell me was that she wrote my name on the chalkboard the day I was born and told everyone that I was her birthday present, she also talked about the ordinary aspects of being a teacher back then.

She said there were times when all the female teachers and students had to be escorted for safety. She said that teachers who forgot to lock their purses in the cabinet had their purses stolen. She delivered food to the homes of students who were hungry and collected clothes for students who had none. She taught hygiene to students whose parents couldn’t or wouldn’t teach it. She taught special classes for the pregnant girls to prepare them for parenthood. In so many ways, she did what teachers do today. Some things haven’t changed.

There are two glaring differences in the schools of my grandmother and the schools of my children. First, if my grandmother’s students didn’t want to be there, they quit. My children’s schools are filled with students who don’t want to be there, won’t do the work and will be a constant disruption. No amount of evidence proving that the lack of a high school diploma will negatively affect your future income possibilities will matter to a student who will not try with parents who won’t refuse to let their child quit. Fast track those students toward their GEDs.

Second, my grandmother would never have been expected to teach special education students. A special ed student might have visited her class a few times as a special treat for that student, but if that visiting student didn’t learn, that was fine with everyone. Is it really surprising that teachers are overwhelmed by a class full of students on every end of the ability spectrum? My son wouldn’t be where he is if he hadn’t been mainstreamed, but he (1) earned that place in regular class and (2) it was a privilege, not a right. All the school HAD to do was teach him. He could have been kept separate until he was able to mainstream completely, but the only one way he could have succeeded at mainstreaming was gradually. Providing an aide at the beginning of mainstreaming and a teacher who advocated for him his entire high school career was a gift. If the IDEA laws are written in a way that makes parents think they are entitled to medical care in the school, the laws need to be rewritten. Schools shouldn’t HAVE to provide hyperbaric chambers, biofeedback, physical therapy and other things that you get at clinics and hospitals after school has ended for the day.

I once attended a school meeting for a parent whose child was severely disabled. The school provided this child with mental stimulation, but the prognosis for the child’s future was unquestionable. The mother, who had developmental issues of her own, was angry with the school because they weren’t “fixing” her child. A full-time hospital staff couldn’t change that child. The teachers recognized that the best they could do was love the child and give her constant attention. They clearly loved this child and couldn’t understand the mother’s constant verbal abuse and criticism.

Every time someone complains that America’s schools have terrible test scores compared to other countries, they need to realize that the schools in other countries don’t even try to teach children with special needs. Their scores are great because every student allowed in their schools is able to score well. Our public schools are trying to do everything for everyone. We have children in our schools who are warehoused in other countries. Children with minimal special needs are left to beg in the streets or put to work in a factory in some countries. We are trying. We are still learning and making mistakes, but they are mistakes of ignorance and not deliberate cruelty.

As a teenager, I was an avid fan of a series of books that were fictionalized stories about children in a special education classroom. I wish I could remember the author’s name. She made me believe teachers can work miracles. I still believe that. I also think that the disconnect between the expectations of special needs parents and the abilities of the public school system is growing bigger. Teachers need our support and appreciation, not our anger. We will never make progress as long as it is us against them. We have got to learn to work as a team.

Update: Torey Hayden is the author I loved long before I became a parent. Thank you Stormare!

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