October 17, 2016
As a corporate level executive turned substitute teacher, I blogged of my first teaching experience at a public high school (From Corporate Executive to High School Substitute Teacher), where I referenced my next teaching assignment as a middle school substitute teacher in a LIFE (acronym for Learning in Functional Environment) Skills classroom. Although I am a student at heart and now pursuing my second masters—Human Services Counseling, Life Coaching, I frankly know little about public education, the teaching profession, classroom management, and the behind-the-scenes struggles and rewards of the teaching profession. Part of my quest is to peek into the world of today’s teaching environment and share my observation, thoughts, and impressions.
I accepted a half day LIFE Skills teaching job. Assuming I might be in over my head by accepting this assignment, I emailed the teacher asking how I could best prepare for my first LIFE Skills class. Mrs. Walker* never replied. Oh no, I swallowed hard, doubting whether I could handle this, but then I remembered the high school experience I survived the week before, and told myself, “I got this.”
When I pulled on the front door of the school around 10:30 am, I was surprised that it was locked. I was buzzed in after pressing the call button. Security procedures have certainly changed since the last time I was in middle school. Is this a sign of the times? After I registered with the substitute teacher administrator, I was pleasantly surprised she asked questions to learn more about me and why I wanted to be a substitute. Once she learned I had no experience as a LIFE Skills teacher, I could read the look of concern on her face. I couldn’t discern whether she was more worried for me or her students—my guess was for me as she commented that I should be fine with the two great paraprofessionals (paras) in the class. They knew the kids, the routine, and could show me the ropes and keep the kids in-line. As she continued to explain how the paras knew what to do, she mentioned the only reason they needed a sub-teacher was because state law required a teacher in the classroom. Although I believed her intentions were to ease any concerns, I left the office feeling unwanted and just a powerless figurehead.
One of the LIFE Skills kids opened the classroom door, and I walked into a windowless room with a large kitchen area as big as the instructional area. A speech therapist, Mrs. Smith*, was leading the class discussion with the teacher and the paras (Mrs. White* and Mrs. Black*) standing around watching. No one approached me, so I quietly reached out my hand to introduce myself. Mrs. Walker appeared nervous, as I asked about the afternoon plan. She said the paras would explain everything and then left. Since the paras were not very welcoming, I just stood behind the students listening to the speech therapist. Within minutes the two paras bolted from the room without any explanation or indication on when they would return. Mrs. Smith and I worked together for another 15 minutes.
I found it interesting in how they teach special-needs students. The kids were all in a U-shaped desk configuration with the therapist standing in the middle. She would tell them to put their heads down on the desk, close their eyes, breathe deep, and relax. After 20 seconds, they picked up their heads with faces that represented happy, sad, confused, or in whatever mood Mrs. Smith would request. She would ask what things made them happy or sad. She would then ask how they would communicate with a best friend who moves away. Answers included write a letter or call them on the phone. Next, Mrs. Smith would ask for two volunteers—one to make a call and the other to receive it. The two kids would role play, which was then followed by classroom discussion on how the call could have been better. The questions and role playing were powerful techniques to keep the kids engaged and improve their mental and emotional capacities.
When the instruction ended, Mrs. Smith packed up and left me alone with the 12 kids. Then some of the students began packing up for lunch and were trying to leave the room. The lunch bell would not ring for another 15 minutes, and the paras were nowhere to be seen. I was alone and had to step up ass teacher. I told everyone to come back and sit down at their desks, because we were not finished with the lesson. Hannah* and Michael* became anxious and started putting on their backpacks. When I said it was not time for lunch yet, Hannah looked at the computer clock and her panic about being late for lunch subsided when she saw it was 11:10 am. She knew the exact time when they were to go to lunch, 11:20 am, which was 5 minutes before the normal bell. Hannah just stared at the clock, waiting for it to change to 11:20, while I corralled most of the kids back to their desks. I started asking questions about pets. Who had pets? Who wanted pets? What kind of pet did you have? I was buying time and hoping Mrs. White and Mrs. Black would return before 11:20; otherwise, I expected a few meltdowns if I didn’t let the students leave for lunch. The two paras arrived back at 11:19 am—my prayers were answered. They apologized for leaving suddenly and explained that a LIFE Skills kid from the other class went missing, and they needed to help find him. Outcome—safe and sound. The paras took the kids to lunch and left me to my half hour lunch break.
The paras basically ran the day with me asking a lot of questions. I tried to learn more about them as people and why they picked this profession. In general, I found they were not talkative or communicative. They were respectful of the system that required a sub-teacher to be in the classroom, but I felt they had no value for me. I asked how I could help and support, and they gave me assignments such as leading the science lesson, reading stories, and helping with language arts. They took the kids to the bathroom, lunch, and walks around the school. I have a great respect for teachers and paras who have dedicated their lives to help kids who are mentally and emotionally challenged. Mrs. Black told me she has been doing this type of job for 17 years. The paras’ class management style was fairly strict, and of course, they physically handled the children. Lots of no’s, “come over here”, “leave him alone”, “do your work”, and “stop.” They did counterbalance with “thank you for…”, “great job”, and “you did good.” I think the paras were slightly nervous about what I thought of their classroom management, because it’s different than the normal classroom environment where you can’t touch the kids. I told them I thought they did a “great job” managing the kids, and I meant it. Sometimes you have to firmly grasp a kid around the shoulders and escort him to another part of the room if he is not complying. Although there was some stern correction, most times the kids complied after 1-3 verbal requests. I thought these LIFE Skills middle schoolers were better behaved than the last sub assignment I had at the troubled high school, where I had to press the white “call” button to get assistance.
Upon introspection, maybe Mrs. White and Mrs. Black were more stand-offish, because they didn’t know what I would think of their style without prior reference to a LIFE Skills classroom. What I saw and experienced was appropriate, and although I did not feel welcomed, I do have high respect for these paras. I looked up a LIFE Skills Para job posting on the district’s website and was shocked to learn they make about $20,000/school year.
Back to the school day. This middle school has two LIFE skills classes that alternate classrooms—one is higher functioning and the other lower functioning. After lunch the lower functioning class had language arts which entailed tracing letters to make words. Unfortunately, some could not hold a pencil. Others could not focus, but just banged their hands on the paper and desktop and then stood and leaned against the wall. One might say, what’s the point in having these types of students in class? When one of the adults talked to these students, I could see them comprehend the message. I see the value of having them part of a group, and interacting even if only through observation. As foreign as this world is from my own or any personal experience, I can honestly say I enjoyed my day with these students. I got to learn about this world and interact with the more communicative kids. These same kids returned later that day for creative arts where they colored. Most sat at their desks with marker and paper, while I sat in the middle. I praised their drawings and asked questions. Later I read a book about a cat named Fluffy. My time with these kids was special in many ways.
My favorite class was teaching science to the higher functioning students. They had studied solids, liquids, and gases and were moving onto recycling. They got out their notebooks and had to name 5 solids, 4 liquids, and 2 gases. This was a continuation from the day before. I distributed a reading package on recycling and had each child read aloud one page to the class. The reading abilities varied, and I would help each student sound out words as necessary. I would estimate their average reading level at 2nd grade.
I learned that the pecking order was the regular classroom, special education, LIFE skills, and adaptive behavior. Throughout the day I overhead conversations between the paras. Surprising to me, one of the kids in the higher functioning LIFE Skills classroom tested academically at on-level and above in math, but his autism and resulting classroom behavior was too distracting so he was assigned to the LIFE Skills class. The paras believed he was not being served in his best interests. I asked who makes the decision (teachers or administration), and the paras did not know. It made me think of my sister-in-law, who is a well-known advocate for students’ rights for state-funded education appropriate for their needs. Is this child receiving the education he is entitled to by law?
I felt my experience in the LIFE skills middle school classroom was eye-opening, educational, and enjoyable on many levels. I would love to sub for a Special Ed classroom next before returning to LIFE Skills. LIFE Skills truly takes a village, and thank goodness the paras were so knowledgeable and dedicated, because they certainly aren’t showing up every day for the paycheck. My only complaint about my experience was the paras lack of engagement with me as the substitute teacher, for which I don’t know the underlying reason. Perhaps future sub assignments will give me better insight into the perceptions held by teachers for sub-teachers. My only remaining questions are whether other LIFE Skills programs and children are receiving the same, better or less quality education. I have no reference on how this program stacks up. Of the kids who were among the lowest cognitive functioning, I think they need one-on-one instruction to help them live up to their full potential. My heart goes out to the parent of a LIFE Skills student to find and facilitate the best care and education within the public system.
*Names have been changed to protect individual identities.