Steve Wood's
View from the Classroom

Getting Ready for...
September 18, 2001

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A year ago at this time, I began the school year rather disgusted because my teaching assistant hadn't received the kidney-shaped table I'd ordered for her the previous spring. The purchase order simply disappeared without a trace in the administrative paperwork two-step.

I've seen this dance before. It's best performed by those who have never tried, or have forgotten how, to teach a group of kids at a round table where you can't reach across and touch a hand to bring a child effectively back on task. I'm beginning to think George Orwell's Animal Farm was written about teachers who became school administrators.

Kidney shaped tables can run $150 on up, depending on how large and how fancy a table you want. I ordered a rather conservative table that looked sturdy from the catalog listing. I also wisely kept a photocopy of the purchase order. I also unwisely let a very nice administrative secretary have the photocopy when she checked for the order. I never saw the photocopy again and was advised to resubmit the order. I could hear the music and the footsteps as the words were uttered.

Now, here's the gotcha. You're thinking this is a rant about a silly table. Like the man who bemoaned having no shoes until he lost his feet, the table has become passé at this point.

Four years ago, after a disastrous experience when the school board hired their minister as my assistant, I was allowed to choose my own teaching assistant. Yes, intelligent administrators actually shared the holiest of holies in education -- power! I hired a person who'd selflessly functioned for several years as a volunteer. She was a quick study, picking up concepts and nuances that took me years to learn. Unfortunately, she was only a six hour part-time employee.

Each spring our part-time assistants receive a form letter that essentially says, "Thank you very much, but you're fired. We'll let you know next fall if we want or need you." I'd tried in vain to have my assistant moved to full-time permanent status during her second, third, and fourth years of service. She deserved the extra hour of pay, since she stayed and worked for free during that hour anyway. She really needed the hospitalization package that comes with full-time status, as her husband's insurance wasn't very good.

A few days before the new school year began, my building administrator called in reference to the letter he'd requested that produced the column Why I Prefer Macs in the Classroom. He said our arguments for using Macintosh computers in our classrooms were pretty impressive when compared to the "Evil NT techie's" rationale for PCs. At the end of the phone call, he advised me that I'd again have to write a letter of request, justifying the continuing need for an instructional assistant in my classroom.

This dance is a minor variation of the administrative lost-your-order two-step. I believe the appropriate music may be slightly different as well. Each year my caseload dramatically decreases because my sixth graders go on to another teacher in another building when they enter the junior high school. Since ours is a highly transient community, a few others move away without notice each year over the summer. Each fall semester, diligent school psychologists take up the slack with new referrals and placements and my numbers are right back to normal by October or November. And every year, I'm told I don't deserve an instructional assistant based on the "low" fall caseload.

Let me tell you about that "low" caseload. This fall, it includes more full-time special education students than I've had in the eight years I've done this job. At times during the school day, my classroom contains more students than our primary regular education classes! While my assignment is teaching elementary students with learning disabilities, other students with far more severe disabilities are regularly placed in my class, including those with physical impairments and severe emotional handicaps. One current IEP and emergency plan mandates that someone from the "LD staff" is to immediately go to a student when the student is with his homeroom for required one-on-one assistance during emergency drills. That is supposed to happen while I may have other students in my classroom. Hmmm...

When the call came in from my building administrator, I was in the process of preparing IEP summaries of my children's needs for their homeroom teachers. These forms aren't required by any law or regulation. I could just as easily tell each teacher to see the kid's IEP. Instead, I try to make it easy for them to comply with the required regular classroom accommodations listed in the student's Individualized Education Plan. I was also doing the forms on my own, summer vacation, time.

So...I had to break off that silly use of summer time to participate in the summer-vacation-administrative-lost-your-assistant two-step. The first job was to call my assistant and make sure she continued to have the patience of Job and was still waiting, should I say eagerly and breathlessly, for the call rehiring her at just over minimum wage for another year.

Remember that I had alluded to the fact that this is a bright girl.

When I called, she told me that she and her husband had decided, "in the absence of a job offer from Backwash Elementary," to take a position at a private school this year. She said she loved the job, the kids, and working with me. She apologized for leaving me "help-less" (which I was, anyway). She showed no animosity towards an employer that expected so much from her and treated her so shabbily.

Now I know that some of you public school administrators reading this rant would immediately consider doing the right thing. You would have quickly decided to forgo that second or third donut at administrative meetings, called up the bright girl who needed adequate insurance coverage for her family and say, "Hey! What if we could put you on full-time with benefits! Would you consider coming back then?" I even foolishly wrote the president of the school board, who incidentally teaches in a neighboring district, and suggested as much.

So you see, I really don't much care about the kidney-shaped table anymore. I'm wondering how on earth I'm going to teach eight reading groups plus several individuals, four math groups plus a whole lot of individuals, two English groups, five spelling groups (and a partridge in a pear tree), do observations as required by law outside the classroom, attend placement conferences (outside the classroom) as required by law...by myself.

When the infamous call came in, I was chomping at the bit to get done with the paperwork and get started preparing for my kids. Now...I'm trying very hard to get "it" back. I'm trying not to whine too much. I'm working on not being vindictive.

One parent, trying to be helpful, asked me, "Do they need to be sued?" Instead of answering honestly, "You betcha," I just said that we'd get along somehow.

A Happy Ending?

I wrote most of this column in the middle of August. Today, September 18, 2001, my new teaching assistant started work, just over a month after the beginning of school. She's going to be a real dandy, thank goodness, but she works only 4 1/2 hours per day, leaving the Metropolitan School District of Backwash in noncompliance with various state and federal laws and guidelines only 2 1/2 hours per day. When the boss called to inform me, he was disappointed at my response, "It's better than nothing." He can't and probably doesn't want to know about all of my hopes and dreams for my kids this year that got chopped by his lack of resolve and understanding and the superintendent and school board's stinginess.

On the way home from work today, I had the sound track to the film Teachers going flat out on my truck's stereo. I just bought the tape used on eBay. I've written before, that I occasionally watch the film to get "it" back. Maybe it was Ian Hunter's proud lyric, "I'm the teacher." Maybe it was the beautiful cloudy fall day. Maybe it was God's answer to my frequent prayer, repeated again this morning, entreating Him to strengthen me for the task.

I think I'm getting "it" back.

Oh, yeah. I was going to just buy a kidney-shaped table out of my pocket. I resubmitted the purchase order for one today. I can hear the music already.

Odd thoughts while shaving between paragraphs:

For those of you who have written questioning my invective for George W., Congress, and before the election, Albert, this column describes one kind of stuff that's wrong with public education. Another is the issue of poverty and environment that recent reports consistently link to school failure. Testing and accountability and all the rest won't cure these kinds of cancers in our public schools. It takes committed parents and teachers and administrators and school board members. It doesn't hurt if there are a few selfless volunteers from the community as well.

Update:

My new assistant still works just over half a day for just over minimum wage, but I do have a college freshman workstudy student two full days a week to help out. We're close to meeting the bare minimum standards to avoid getting sued for denial of services, but the kids really aren't getting what they deserve.

And, the table arrived in mid-November.

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©2001 Steven L. Wood