High School Report 7
A special education teacher should be one of the most valuable teachers in a school. Not only does she have to know most of the curriculum, but she has to have a vast knowledge of and experience in teaching methods developed to help students with special needs. I have no opinion of the special ed teacher at my high school, because I never saw her in action. What I do know is that her teacher’s aide started rumors about her, and she left a few months into this year.
Each school is obliged to have a special ed teacher, and the school gets government funding for special ed. But the school inspectors came in early September, and won’t be back until next school year, so the superintendent decided to spend the money for a special education teacher’s salary elsewhere. I can see it being spent from my library window: this tiny school is getting its own football stadium, so that the football team can have home games next season, because that is so important for their self-esteem.
So special ed is taught by the teacher’s aide, Mrs. W. The school board has determined that every teacher’s aide, office worker, or secretary must be a resident of this little crossroads with its jumble of mobile homes in various stages of decay. And they have to have a high school degree. To say that that limits the choices is an understatement. Mrs. W. got lucky. She is a 60-ish harpy who views her job as a six-year-old playing school: “Sit down! Stay there! Don’t leave until I give you permission! Pick that up! Come here!” She has lived in this hamlet all her life.
When her students do research, this means that they come to the library, look up a subject of her choice in the encyclopedia, and copy a page of text. Meanwhile Mrs. W. reads the newspaper and occasionally snarls at a student. This “research” purportedly takes place to improve the students’ reading and writing skills.
A few weeks ago she came to me with a question. Her students had to do biology, so she wanted a biology article that she could copy fifteen times to use as a handout. (It’s not really about studying biology, but about practicing reading skills with a biology text.) The problem was, she said, that she didn’t really know what subject to pick. Well, if she didn’t know, I sure didn’t either. So I suggested she take a box of National Geographics to browse. Maybe that would give her an idea, and then I could help her with more specific searches.
She came back a week later. The box of magazines hadn’t been much of a help. I was beginning to feel guilty for not asking her more the week before, but that wasn’t the problem. She maneuvered the both of us into my office so that the students couldn’t hear, and held out the newest National Geographic. “Let’s say I wanted to use an article from this magazine. Which article would be suitable for biology?”
I finally realized that she didn’t know what biology was. So I went through the table of contents with her. “How about this one?” she asked, pointing to an article about volcanoes. I explained that that was really more geology. There was an article about salmon and an article about France. So I pointed out that salmon would be considered biology, so she went on her way with the magazine to copy the article on salmon.
A week or so later something similar. She was looking for an article about economy. I pointed out some magazines that often had economy-related articles, but ended up having to point out specific articles, because if the title didn’t have the word economy in it, she was lost.
Around that time her class was doing “research” again. A boy had to look up economy in the encyclopedia, but he couldn’t find it. Mrs. W. came to ask me in which part of the encyclopedia she should look for economy. Well, in the volume with the E of Economy, of course. I had a very hard time not showing that I had expected that a teacher’s aide would know that an encyclopedia is generally arranged alphabetically.
The article on economy was about five pages long, so she asked me if the dictionary might have a shorter definition? Of course, that’s what dictionaries generally do. Would a different encyclopedia have a different definition or would it be exactly the same text? I could barely keep a straight face while I explained that the text wouldn’t be exactly the same, because then it wouldn’t be a different encyclopedia, but that the gist would probably be the same. I suggested that she have the students research a narrower subject within economy. I gave her a few examples: inflation, the Great Depression, unemployment. But that threw her into a complete panic and she practically fled from the library.
So this functionally illiterate woman was responsible for the education of the special needs students for that year, so that the superintendent could impress the school board with a football field, and hopefully get his contract renewed.
(From a letter in 1996)
The next post in this series is about personnel management.
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