Well, I just completed my 9th highly-demanding marathon and I am worn out! NY City Marathon? Nope. Breast Cancer 3-day? Nope. Mud Race? Nope. Obstacle Course? Well, yes a little bit. Dress up and get paint sprayed on me race? Nope, definitely not that. I just completed my 9th year teaching! It was a dramatic race to the finish line to get it all done by the last day. But every step was worth it. I think that teachers are the very best marathon racers out there. We have endurance, passion, and commitment to keep moving to the finish line, even amidst great trials. Sometimes it feels like we are running alone and sometimes amongst others with the same drive. But there’s no sprinting in teaching. It’s all about endurance and focus.
These last few months have given me many opportunities to think about teacher leadership. As a preschool special education teacher, I have the opportunity to make very important recommendations about the future for my students. At kindergarten transition meetings, our IEP team makes the decision about the student’s placement for the following school year. I believe that this is the absolute most important decision in the child’s education because it determines the opportunities and challenges they will have, including the peers they will call classmates. To me, this is one of the most important “leadership” roles each year. I take the role very seriously by collecting important information, preparing the child, and preparing the family. Every year, the goodbyes are hard. But I smile knowing that I’ve made the right decisions, written an informative IEP, and advocated for the right challenges/opportunities to help our IEP team make the right decisions for my students the next year.
A few years ago, I worked with some challenging (but caring) team members who believed that all kids with autism should go to an “autism” class. This highly contradicts my thinking that special education placement should be based on strengths and needs rather than disability. We have great autism programs with great teachers. But other options should be considered as well. We have a program in my district called Cross Categorical Academics for students who need specially designed learning in a small group setting. It’s a mix of lots of different types of disabilities. For some of my students, this type of class is the perfect fit because peers in those classes often have better communication skills and social skills than students who need an autism setting. It was a really challenging to reach team agreement over those kids that year. (We even had to have a mediator!) In the end, the three students were given the opportunity to go to the CCA classes. The kids had worked hard and earned that right. I felt a little bit like a proud mom.
Despite the struggles that year, persisting in what I felt was right for those kids really paid off. That’s where teacher leadership can really be important in special education. We all try to do what is right for kids. Sometimes, team members have different perspectives that seem to disagree. We all come to the table caring about kids and wanting what is best for them. Everyday leadership in teaching means that we must remain strong, gather the data needed, and be the advocate for students in those situations. Teacher leadership is about leading the team in times of disagreement in order to find a mutual solution. Sometimes, that means listening to the objections of others, considering them carefully, and coming to new conclusions. Other times, it means strength and data despite the discomfort of disagreement. The struggle three years ago was an important lesson for me that I reflect on every year during kindergarten transitions.
I think about those three kids a lot and how the struggle was worth it. One of them is now fully mainstreamed into regular education, receiving a small amount of resource support to monitor progress. The other two are still doing great in their programs. Last year, I sent two students to CCA. This year, I had the opportunity to send another student to CCA who was ready for this type of experience. I wonder what opportunities and experiences are in store for him. These moments make me smile as a teacher. I feel grateful for the important role teachers have in the lives of young people.
Goodbye to my class of 2014. You are already missed. I look forward to hearing updates from your families about the big and small accomplishments you will achieve next year!
For me next year, it’s Marathon 10. See you at the finish line.