Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bullying of Students - Shocking Yes, New NO

Recently we have seen much more news coverage on educational staff bullying students with and without special needs. This week in NJ, we had the incident that took place in Cherry Hill. If you would like you can find out more about this incident on the following pages.

I personally feel that these reported incidents are symptoms of a bigger issue not just in NJ but all over the country and the world. The first being that educators lack professional development especially special education teachers. I have been in the field of education for almost 20 years. I deliver professional development around NJ. I hear repeatedly that special education teachers do not feel that they receive professional development that is essential for them to educate their students. When a special education teacher is working with students with significant disabilities, I am not so sure it is important for the special education teacher to sit through training on the new reading and math programs that the district will be implementing.  It is imperative that all teachers need to be trained however districts need to evaluate their professional development to make sure they match the teachers' needs. Special education teachers that are working with students on the spectrum should be taking professional development on improving language skills, how to engineer the environment for language and learning, functional life skills training, understanding transition, the list can go on. If we are to give our students in NJ a fighting chance at a proper education the teachers need to have professional development that is meaningful, supportive and pertinent to what they are required to teach.

The second issue is that we do not give educators that work with students with challenging behaviors are difficult to teach a way to communicate their frustrations and anxieties. This does not excuse an individual that has crossed the line  there is no reason to do so. However, if we do not recognize that teaching students with disabilities and even general education students is stressful than we are being irresponsible. There are two schools for students with autism in the state that I know hire a counselor to visit with the staff each month and hire a massage therapist once a month. You are required to sit with the counselor for 30 minutes to talk about work and whatever comes to mind.  Even my employer has a program that I can call to talk to a counselor or schedule mental health sessions. We all deal with stress but when there is no outlet for that stress we have serious consequences. Staff need to feel they have a safe place to communicate their stress and frustration. 

The solutions are very easy. If we do not accept student on student bullying why should we have to accept adult on child bullying. It happens every day in school across the nation. If our nation is going to take bullying seriously we need to look at solutions that have meaning.  Cameras in every classroom and public space. Then there would be no she said he said or parents having to do something like wiring their child for video or sound. There is no right to privacy in public buildings, schools are funded by public monies (Local, State and Federal). All areas of the school except locker rooms and bathrooms should have video monitoring but they should be wired for sound. Most think an invasion of privacy, from news broadcasts on students being assaulted by peers or adults it often happens in the bathroom or locker rooms.

Many will not like the suggestion of cameras for many reasons but I have a question, WHAT do you risk? I taught for 8 years in an educational setting that had cameras in every classroom and hallway or public area. It didn’t change the way I taught. It actually made me more secure in how I taught. I didn’t have to worry about being accused of something I didn’t do. If I was accused of saying something or doing something ROLL back the TAPE. It allowed parents to observe the classroom without upsetting the flow of the classroom. It allowed me to see what others saw when teaching. There are more pros for cameras in school than cons. 

Incidents are not on the rise. We are just having parents stepping up and reporting it to the news. In the past, districts were holding the cards on what will happen to their staff and even if they would believe what was being said. Now parents are becoming wiser and more savvy on how to get the proof they need to show that their child is suffering at the hands of an adult. Students are learning to use technology to outsmart their educational staff.

My challenge to districts around the nation be PROACTIVE instead of REACTTIVE. Firing the staff that are responsible for poor behavior is the right thing to do however what can you do to insure the safety of your students and staff? Firing staff is only a plug in a whole that is going to grow over time. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

To Individuals with learning differences

To Individuals with learning differences

My name is Jeannette Van Houten. I am a special education teacher. I am an assistive technology specialist. I am an individual with a learning disability. None of this makes me special, unique or exceptional. It just makes me a person that learns differently than someone else. In reality, everyone learns differently so I guess it makes me normal.

With that said, I want you to know my story. Maybe someone out there that doubts they are normal or has the ability to achieve their dream will find it helpful. I was classified early in my education career. I joke they spotted me walking up to the Kindergarten playground and said THAT ONE. I was classified in kindergarten because I was disruptive, impulsive, couldn’t tell my left from my right (still confuse it) and forgot the letters of the alphabet. The letters were just fun lines you would make with crayons and finger paints. I am writing this open letter because I want you to know things get better and you can be the person you dream to be. I will not say that this journey to where I am today didn’t come with struggles, tears and the will to just quit but I have learned that is life. Everyone struggles with something it is just a matter will that something define you or will you define the moment.

I have always been willing to discuss my learning difference especially as an adult. But I have never admitted the extent of my difficulties. This is the first time that I am going to lay it all on the line because it is important for me personally to share the struggles I have. I want others to know that having a learning disability is something that is always there but it doesn’t have to define who you are and what you want from life. There are individuals that will tell you, O, you can outgrow your dyslexia or you can outgrow your writing difficulties. I can no sooner outgrow my learning disability as I can outgrow my brown hair, eyes or being pigeon toed. I want the younger generation of individuals with learning disability know that there are others out there that have walked the path of frustration, sadness and disappointment and that path could lead to great things if you just keep doing your best and seeking out people to help you. You are never alone. There is always someone in your corner even when you feel like you are watching the world pass around you.

According to my school records, I was NI (neurologically impaired), PI (perceptually impaired), math deficits, writing difficulties in the area of composition (organization, grammar and spelling). 

In the area of reading, I have always admitted that I didn’t learn to read until I was a sophomore or junior in High School. This is when I could say the written word clicked together and it had meaning. According to the reports I have found, I was identified as being a lazy, unmotivated and not applying myself to my academics. If I just I applied myself to reading I would be a much more successful reader and learner. What the “experts” didn’t know and didn’t care to ask was, “How much time and effort to you put into reading?”

If they would have asked that I would have told them. I spend every waking moment wishing that the letters on the pages meant something to me. I wish I could look at the page and the words sang to me like my peers. I wish I didn’t have to go home every day with homework because it was taking time away from my Little Golden Books. I have been reading The Poky Little Puppy for years now trying to master the vocabulary. While my friends are outside playing, I was in the house with my books. Every day I would come home and read a sentence or a page. I would start at the first page and read until I got frustrated and cried. My favorite book that I ever received was the Richard Scarry Picture Dictionary. I would look every word I came across and prayed that it had a picture to help me understand. If it had a picture it would help me make sense of the word. I still have that dictionary. The cover has been taped and re-taped but is now completely off, the pages are worn but there are days that it brings comfort. When I need a word it doesn’t judge me because I might be looking up a word that most first graders know and understand.

Those same reports also identified my areas of weakness in reading:

I struggled with reading (decoding and fluency), reading comprehension (vocabulary skills, making connections, omission of details, difficulty with the identification of important information) as well as trouble remembering what I read, I couldn’t summarize, difficulty connecting prior knowledge and applying content to personal experiences. The shocker, I had a difficult time with concentration while I was reading. Seriously?? All I did for hours was concentrated on the lines of information before me to the point that my eyes would blur and I would give myself a headache. I sat there staring at the text wishing it would give me the code to unlock the meaning. Hoping that the words would pop off and say their name.

As I read through the reports, I honestly wonder how I ever became the person I am today. How did I manage to conquer the things that held me back for so long? I wish I had the answer but I don’t. When I was in school there were no fancy tools to read to me. It was rare to have an adult read to me. I couldn’t turn on a computer, the iPad or even CD player to have my text read to me. I had to figure it out on my own. It was either do it or fail. I made the choice to succeed. I can also have no special accommodations for test taking. I took the same test as everyone one else with no support from the teachers. If I didn’t keep pace with the time allotted then the test questions would be left blank. I did my best at guessing the right answer. For the most part, I think the teachers gave me a point for each letter in my name because guessing was not a strong suit until I learned testing strategies when completing my masters.

If I was to answer my own question it would be the following way. I have tenacious. I don’t believe in giving up. Some see it as being stubborn, ungiving but when you know you want and need something, nothing should stand in your way. There is always a way to succeed. It is a matter of picking the path and the tools for the journey. Not everyone’s tool kit is the same so you have to learn to pick and choose wisely for your needs. And be flexible to change the tools when things are not working.

I had to work harder to be average but to be above average, I had to work harder, smarter and be perfect. Trust me perfect doesn’t happen often but that doesn’t mean I can’t strive to be perfect. Define what perfect means to you. Perfect isn’t always the A on the paper. Sometimes, it is more about knowing you can repeat a skill; remember a formula for math or science or sharing with another person something you learned. Perfect is being proud of who you are and knowing that learning is a life goal not a week goal.

When I was in high school, I had a drama teacher that said “you can do and be anyone you want to be, just believe and you can reach it”. At that point, I became Determination. I set my dream, visualize myself being that person and there is no settling for less than I believe I earned. I don’t believe I am entitled to anything. I believe you have to work hard; prove your abilities and show someone you are worth a chance.

You have to have integrity of who you are. There is no dishonor in admitting that you don’t know something. There is more honor in admitting you need help because you are reaching out to another. We don’t get by in this world on our own. I admit it on a daily basis that I don’t know something. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle in asking for help. For every confident day, I have a doubting day. For those doubting days, I have friends and families that help me rally and remind me of whom I am. The most important aspect of this is to make sure you surround yourself with positive people that can lift you pass those rough days.

As an adult there are still days that I wish I could be like every other typical adult. I wish I could add numbers in my head and not have to count on my fingers or use a calculator. I still have math anxiety and struggle with daily math tasks (checking account never balanced in my favor).

There are days that I wish that internally I could feel organized and calm instead of always feeling like I missed, lost or forgot something. There are days that I just wish for silence. I hear all things around me (conversations, air vents, computers and birds). It becomes overwhelming and it stresses me out. I have learned to tune out the world but there are drawbacks to this strategy. I miss the social interactions because I have to shut myself in my head to get work done.

There are days that I wish that I could shut up. Yes, there are days that I am so excited about the little things in life that I distract others. The struggles that I had as a young child are right there shaking hands with the adult me. As an adult we like to think we mask it better than we did as a child but I am not so sure that is true. There are times that I just feel like I am in a sports car in high gear moving at a 25 mile per hour.

Although my learning disabilities are with me daily , I can say I am perfect the way I am. I have learned to accept who I am and what I am not. I have learned to march to my own beat. I believe either you march with me as a partner or you can march to your own beat and we make wonderful music together. There are things that I will never be in life. For example, I will never be an editor of a newspaper or author. I will never be the person that you ask to help a difficult math problem. The person I am today is not as good as the person I will be tomorrow. Every day is a learning experience.

Are there days I wish my learning disabilities weren’t with me? Yes. But then No. The lessons I have learned over the years is what makes me who I am. I am the person that will reach her hand out and offer you assistance. I am a person that has compassion and accepts others for who they are. I am the person that will stand up and offer a voice for others when they cannot find theirs. So the gift of my learning disabilities is priceless.

Jeannette Van Houten
Proud owner of my learning disabilities