Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bye daddy!

If you know me well enough or follow this blog at all, you'd know that my son, Judah, spent two years in a mainstream kindergarten class.  We really felt like that extra year gave him the solid academic foundation he needed.  Overall we are very pleased with the progress he made and felt like he was ready to move on to a mainstream first grade class.  Is he at the same academic level as his classmates? Absolutely not, but he is well adjusted to the school environment and loves the feeling of independence.

He started first grade this week.  He moved up with his second year kinder class, so he's mostly familiar with his classmates.  My baby (his little sister), Aveline, started kindergarten this week as well.  The problem I am having with the whole deal is that he is no longer next door to me, he's all the way on the other side of the school campus.  This was an extremely difficult transition for me, but one I knew we all needed to do for Judah's sake.  I firmly believe it is the best move for him.  Thankfully, I have Aveline next to me now; but she's so independent and social that I won't have to worry about her at all.

At the end of last school year Judah had gotten fairly comfortable with wandering over to my room on far too many occasions.  Of course I allowed it because let's face it, I'd be his teacher if I could.  I want him with me every second of the day.  It's just not what's best for him.  So I decided to start this year letting him go completely.  To my surprise, he took right to it and loved going off on his own.

On the first day, he knew exactly what to do and where to go.  I left him alone and didn't even peek in on him the whole day.  Of course there were some issues with his behavior in the classroom and I've had to give his teacher some suggestions and ideas on how to teach, encourage, and discipline Judah.  I expected that.  What I didn't expect was how easily Judah let ME go.  After lunch on the first day he was confused about which playground to go to for recess so he made his way to the kinder playground where he had gone for the past two years.  I quickly redirected him and told him where to go.  Once it clicked in his mind what he needed to do he said "BYE DA-EE! LUH YOU!", turned around and took off.  I happened to snap a picture of him as he darted away....

This was the most difficult experience for me so far with him.  I choked up and through swallowed tears I said: "Bye buddy! Be a good boy! I love you too!"

That moment is what all of the hard work has been about!  It is so easy to baby our special little guys and shield them from the harsh reality that is society.  They are people first, and the more we treat them like a person and not their disability, the more progress we will see.  It's very hard to let go, but I'm still at the same school, and I've got my baby girl next to me this year.

My little shadow is growing and slowly learning to navigate a small part of life without me.  Unfortunately, just like Peter Pan, I can't just sew my shadow back on.  He needs his independence.  He deserves it.  They all do.

I love you pal!  

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Teach. Advocate. Include.

Tomorrow begins the first day of a new school year.  It will be my third year as a teacher and special educator.  I am still at the same school and in the same classroom.  There is only one student remaining from my first year.  I’ve got a few others returning from last year plus five new students.  This is also the first year that I do not have any students with Down syndrome, at least not yet; but I am already at the limit for my class.  This school year will be my largest class roster thus far, with a total of nine students.  For a self-contained classroom serving kids with mild-moderate intellectual and other disabilities, that’s a heavy load.  Honestly though, I wouldn’t have it any other way.  I work best under pressure and welcome a busy school year.  It keeps me fresh and prepared. 

When I began my journey to become a teacher it was more of a goal I had in mind.  Now that I’m a few years into it, it’s really setting in that this is my purpose in life.  When I was going through the nomination process for Teacher of the Year, I adopted the words “Teach. Advocate. Include.” because it sums up the mentality I carry as a special educator. 

The beginning of the school year gives me lots of time (as I am preparing/planning) to reflect on the past (as a teacher).  As in, what worked and what didn’t.  The main thing that has worked for me is advocacy.  I consider myself an advocate for people with special needs first.  It’s with that mindset (as well as being a parent) that I teach from.  I also believe that mindset is what made people pay attention to what’s going on in Room N.  I never sought after any sort of recognition. I honestly just pulled and pushed for my son and my students to be respected and treated fairly.  I just want them to have a shot at an appropriate education and never comfortable with being holed up in a self-contained classroom.  While my class is necessary and it does serve my students well, there is a stigma attached to “the special ed class”.  I want to help change the way special education is taught, and looked at from the outside.  Some people think that’s pretty cool, others don’t.  Regardless, the powers that be paid attention, took note, and gave me some rad stuff because of it.  But I’d be a fool to hoard any attention or grandeur for myself.

With that said, the last update on this blog was about Teacher of the Year back in April.  When I won Yuma County Teacher of the Year I began to brainstorm what I could do with such a title.  I realized during the nomination process that I could use it as a platform to advocate not only for students with special needs, but also for those of us that love, work with, and serve them.  No doubt I was thrilled and grateful to be honored.  I’m definitely looking forward to taking my lovely wife to Hawaii (one of the rewards), but there are much larger things happening; things that are beyond me and not about me, but others.   Here is a list of some doors that have opened for my self, my students, and the community:

1)   I am now on the board of directors for The Saguaro Foundation.
2)   I am a volunteer and coach for the Special Olympics (finally, on my part) and in the classroom with Young Athletes. 
3)   Additionally, I am now on the Leadership Advisory Council for the Special Olympics Arizona, River Area.
4)   I begin serving in September on the grant application committee for The Yuma Community Foundation.
5)    A new playground is in the works courtesy of Fort Yuma Rotary Club.  This will be an inclusive playground for my students, another self-contained class, and three kindergarten classes at my school.
6)   I’ve also been given a few speaking engagements.

This is only a brief list, as I am not able to go into detail about everything.  This list alone, even if it stops here, makes everything I’ve done as a special educator worth it.  This is what it’s all about to me.  Not for me, for the kids.  You can bet that I will use any attention I receive and turn it right back around to advocate for our kids.  I’m not writing about this to boast.  I’m a humble dude, but I’ve got no time for timid.  Especially when there are so many kids with special needs that do not have a voice and cannot speak for them selves.  I found my passion and I thank God everyday for the path He put me on.   I gladly stand up for them.  The whole world may not hear my voice, but you can bet my community sure will!  Now lets get on with the school year and teach some kids some stuff!