Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Lessons In Unexpected Places

This essay was originally published on The New York Times, Schoolbook:

In Praise of Paraprofessionals

This is an accident, and it is a problem that is easy to fix,” Ms. Javier told me when I thanked her and apologized to her on behalf of one of our students, who had left his backpack filled with his baseball equipment at the park.

We were already on the bus back to school from our field day when he remembered and tried to make a run for it. Ms. Javier slipped off the bus and headed back to the park, solving the problem in an instant by simply going the extra mile. When she met us back at the school, backpack in hand, she was smiling, as she always is.

“You know, with these kids, their possessions are a big deal. It’s not like he would just go and get another.” Ms. Javier tells me what I already know, but she is the one who really understood enough to see it as worth her time to get off the bus and go back to the park.

Ms. Javier (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, as are the names of all students in my posts) was a paraprofessional in my class this year. Four of my students’ special education classifications this year have qualified them to have a paraprofessional.

A paraprofessional, commonly abbreviated as “para,” is a teaching assistant whose primary responsibility is to one or several students whose Individualized Education Plans, or I.E.P.s, require that they have extra support.

My class this year had two paraprofessionals, one who scribed for a student and another who translated my lessons and provided support for the beginner English Language Learners (E.L.L.s) in my class.

This was my first experience having a para in my class. I was tentative about the arrangement, not fully understanding the role that would be played by these other adults in the classroom — not sure how I should change my lessons to work them into it, or how helpful they would be to my students. It turned out to be an experience that benefited both my students and me.

Ms. Javier is the para for the E.L.L. students, and from the very first day in the classroom, she dove deeply into her responsibilities. She read my lessons and previewed my worksheets, translating important words and creating glossaries for her students to keep on their desks.

She noticed students who were not assigned to her, but who she thought she could help, and took them under her wing without being asked. She stayed after school every day to help the special education coordinator in my school organize his files, and she volunteered her personal time to work at the Saturday tutoring program.

Ms. Javier had gone above and beyond each and every day for the entire year (and probably for most of her life). She seamlessly fit into the class and anticipated every need that we could have. When I would think about doing something, she would beam and show me that she had already done it.

A lot of people go the extra mile. Ms. Javier has done it selflessly, without hope for reward, and without a hidden agenda. When she is asked to take on yet another task without any form of compensation or promotion, she is eager to do so, eager to touch more kids’ lives. She truly believes in even the most difficult students. Sometimes she will be asked to work with a particularly troubled boy in another class, and when he runs down the hall in a tantrum, she is right there behind him, smiling.

“That boy has a lot of energy,” she says, where others would sigh in exhaustion and frustration. Ms. Javier keeps going back, treating the students like they are her own children.

We have all learned from her this year. My students have benefited from having such a kind, gentle, caring individual in their lives, tirelessly helping them and supporting them. The school has benefited from the many hours she has donated, and the enthusiasm with which she has committed herself to learning new things and becoming more of an asset to the school. And I have benefited from seeing someone so graceful and joyful each morning, reacting to situations with a generous outlook that I wish that I had.

“In the morning, I think about my problems for a little while, and then I put them in the drawer and start my day,” she explains, when I ask her incredulously how she maintains such an unrelentingly positive outlook. “You have to enjoy your life.”

Paraprofessionals are an underappreciated group. The way that they can affect a student and a class is not something that can be measured with any ease. Often they work with some of the more challenging kids and switch students throughout the year, adapting to new situations to meet a new set of needs.

Because of their impermanence, people often think of paraprofessionals as replaceable — one may be substituted for another from day to day. But at graduation this year, Ms. Javier sat on the stage and cried while she watched the students that she had helped get there.

“Do you think next year I will have a student like Allie?” she asked me, mourning the loss of one. To the students, she was not replaceable — and certainly not to me.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Who's to Blame? (or what?!)

I remember learning the phrase 'se me olvido' in my high school Spanish class.  It's a miracle that I remember that, and I make no guarantees that my recollection is accurate - Spanish was just one of many classes in which I barely squeaked by.

It's apt that I recall this phrase, which essentially means 'I forgot', given my propensity for forgetfulness during my adolescence.  I forgot my homework in my locker.  I forgot my sweater.  I forgot about the test.  I forgot to come to class. 

'Se me olvido', as I recall, means literally 'it was forgotten to me'.  It always struck me as funny that Spanish was a language that didn't take responsibility for losing or forgetting things.  Rather, it personified inanimate objects, and assigned the blame to them.  My homework was forgotten to me. 

I think of this often these days - not because my forgetfulness has persisted (though it has...a bit), but rather because I hear my students do the same thing so often.

I will see a child sitting idly in front of the computer, an ask them why they aren't getting started.

"It don't want to turn on." they will reply, calmly, as though there is nothing that they could do to overcome the will of this machine. 

"It don't want to work."

"It don't want to move."

They use this phrase to describe an array of scenarios, driving me to wring my hangs in frustration. 

"It doesn't have wants!  It's a computer!" I declare, and they look at me as though they couldn't possibly care less about the distinction.

In four years, they haven't stopped giving inanimate objects responsibility for their actions.  The only thing that has changed is that now and then, I find myself slipping it into my conversations too.

After all, sometimes it does seem like a computer has a mind of it's own - wants and needs that it is imposing upon us!  Sometimes it it nice to just assign blame to the object that is causing you trouble, rather than carry the heavy load of responsibility around with you.  

Trying to open a jar in my kitchen, I'll groan in frustration. 

"It doesn't want to open!" 

And then I'll grin inwardly at my error.  Just further proof that their way of looking at the world has altered my own. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Relax and Reload

I went to the doctor on the first day that school was out, in an attempt to discover the cause of my recent headaches and fatigue.  It was my first time in years going to the doctor, and I was happily surprised by the experience.  He sat with me for forty-five minutes, asking questions about my relatively benign symptoms, and seeming genuinely interested in my responses. 

I told him that I was a middle school teacher in the Bronx, and he replied “Oh, well then I’ll have to address you with extra awe and respect!”  This made me smile, because it’s always nice when someone outside of education professes to understand how challenging this job is.

Just the other day a friend had said to me causally, “Oh I really need to get into teaching so that I can have my summers off.”  This is the type of remark that slices me, making me feel at once a little embarrassed by my leisure time, and incredibly lonely in a conversation where the person who I am talking to so clearly misunderstands the nature of the work that I do. 

I want to strike back, tell her that I should get into her field so that I can have measurable success, financial compensation for my efforts, a nice, clean working environment, problems I can solve, and no one ever cursing at me or fighting me hand and foot every step that I try to take.  Or I could just say that I should get into her profession so that I don’t have to be underestimated by so many people in the world. 

After a series of questions about my lifestyle and health history, and a review of blood tests, my doctor declared me an incredibly healthy 26 year old. 

“Have you considered that perhaps it’s more mental fatigue than physical fatigue?” he asked me, and seeing my less that receptive expression, quickly finished with, “not to say that it isn’t real, but very real fatigue can be caused by mental exhaustion, and you have a pretty tough job.”

I nodded, acknowledging this, but not ready to give up on the idea of a pill that would bring me back to life in the afternoons, when my eyes have been rolling back into my head in exhaustion. 

“How many kids do you teach?”

“I teach 30 kids three subjects in a class that is half special ed, and have general ed.” I tell him, picturing the classroom and the kids in it as I speak. 

“Well that’s a lot...”

“Yea,” I say, and I am surprised to feel my voice break and my eyes well up with tears.  I blink furiously - after all, this is a relative stranger I am talking to, and there’s no reason to get so mushy!  “It is a lot.” Again my voice betrays me, and in frustration I commit myself to silence, smiling brightly at the doctor, and nodding to show my agreement, and my surrender.  Perhaps it is mental exhaustion after all. 

He advises me to see how I feel now that school is over for the summer, and refers me to an optometrist to see if my eyes are the cause of my headaches.  I agree to do this, and leave the office feeling a great sense of relief. 

I don’t know if it is the fact that he ruled out other causes, or just the fact that it was the first time I have ever had a doctor sit and talk to me for more than ten minutes.  The more I find myself thinking about it, feeling a bit embarrassed by my emotional reaction, the more I know that my relief came from the empathy that he had.

Teaching is really really really hard.  All teachers know this.  It can be wonderful, it can be rewarding, it gives you your summers off.  But it’s really really really hard.

I know that it’s hard for it to be appreciated by people on the outside.  I myself am guilty of underestimating the amount of work that it takes, the level of emotional exhaustion that accompanies it.  Every day you face new challenges, that have to approached in a new way.  You success is based on a hundred factors that are out of your control, and on the compliance of people under the age of fourteen, who are fighting daily battles of their own, and whose decision making is impaired by an over abundance of hormones and peer pressures. 

It’s hard to appreciate it for what it is.  We’ve all had teachers, and they always had that big book filled with answers, and they were older and wiser and bigger than us.  How hard could it be?  Maybe it’s not as hard for everyone - some are surely better suited to the profession than I am, so perhaps it feels more natural to them.

Teaching isn’t the only job that is hard, and it may not even be the hardest.  But it is one that leaves you threadbare, and depleted by June.  For the next two months there won’t be hard work, and there won’t be lesson plans or presentations.  But it will be another kind of work - the work of rebuilding, so that in September you have a whole self to give to your students.  For teachers, summer is not just a time to relax, it’s a chance to reload.