There are two crucial reasons that I’ve been thinking a lot about beds today.
One, I just returned to brutal reality after a blissful week of Thanksgiving vacation–many joyous, restful days of cooking, hiking, reading things that weren’t written by or for a nine-year-old, and catching up with friends, including (more later on this) one of the teachers whose practice most shaped my own in my first teaching years. So, when the alarm clock rang in the Monday morning darkness, I thought, as I often did throughout the day, a lot about the virtues and benevolence of bed.
Two, when I finally wrapped up most of what needed done today and went out to my car in the Monday evening darkness, I flipped on the radio to a SleepTrain commercial. With a cheerful piano tinkling in the background, the announcer informed me that “SleepTrain employees receive over 200 hours of training in order to help you select the best mattress.”
So, first things first. The best thing I did last week, besides staying in bed. Because schools in my district close for the whole week of Thanksgiving, and schools in her district, well, don’t, I was finally able to observe Ms. Bo in her program–much like my own, it’s an inclusion model where students with a wide range of disabilities attend general education classrooms with modifications and support.
I wish you all could have been there. Ms. Bo is a phenomenal educator and all-around quality human being–she has a centered, grounded way about her that’s hard to describe. So many teachers of young students or students with the most significant cognitive disabilities fall into the baby-talk trap that I associate with puppy wranglers: they dial their enthusiasm up to 10 on a 9 point scale and overwhelm us all with the squealing amounts of FUN!!! we’re gonna have. Ms. Bo is less effusive, but more human: she speaks to everyone with the same steady warmth and dignity, the same clear confidence in the potential that she sees. Teachers see it, and it strengthens their belief in their abilities to reach their inclusion kid with the techniques that they’ve been honing on the rest of the room. Paraeducators feel it, and they try a little harder, persist a little more, aim their own practice at getting what they just saw Ms. Bo get out of the kid that they work with.
Kids understand it on a visceral level, and they respond, often, by becoming the kid she saw in the first place, perhaps before anyone else did. The one who did that worksheet. The one who raised a hand. The tiny first grader, clutching the attendance folder, walking alone and with purpose from the classroom to the office and back. “She’s one of mine.” We follow Bihlil into the classroom, where she sits with her peers, turning her body to her partner to share an idea about the calendar, listening politely when it’s a classmate’s turn to talk. The classroom teacher slips her a penny to velcro to her incentive system. “Five pennies and she gets a mint. Mints rock that kid’s world.”
Here and there, throughout the room and throughout the school, I see little visual supports and cues, ways of communicating classroom and social rules and expectations, the this-follows-that of schedules and rubrics, and I know that Ms. Bo had a hand in making the learning environment salient in this way for her students. And it doesn’t take much to imagine Bihlil without those systems. I remember the first autism class I observed in, how utterly devoted one non-verbal child was to pulling her clothes off and shredding the toys. I saw that same child, three months after the teacher started working with her, sitting upright and reaching precisely for 30 different pictured nouns. An hour into my time with Ms. Bo, she received a phone call from her other site about a behavioral emergency: a student she had successfully integrated into the general education environment last year was now displaying such severe aggression that the new teacher found it necessary to evacuate the class.
I remember so much of it–picture schedules and severe aggression, and above all Ms. Bo at the center of it, training me and others while she taught the students in her class. We met at a non-public school–the place, I often say, where the district sends the kid and the money when they don’t know what else to do. NPS placements are typically offered when a student’s behavioral, health, or academic concerns go so far outside the range of what’s typical in the district (even among children with special educational needs) that it’s necessary to look outside for appropriate services. In the case of the Archway Center, our students often had severe, prolonged aggressive incidents that lasted upwards of 20 minutes and typically required physical restraint–since our students ranged in age from 6 to 22, some of those tantrums were thrown by ‘kids’ who weighed upwards of 300 pounds.
I had the middle room, for students who had moved up from the younger class; Ms. Bo’s program was largely geared towards students who were aging out of special education and into their adult lives. My charges included a boy who self-injured at the rate of over thirty attempts per minute if left to his own devices and a young nearly-blind lady who spent her days alternately humming to herself, hitting her head with her fist, attempting to pinch me, and experiencing seizures.
In retrospect, it utterly baffles me how I fell, through Archway Center, into the teaching profession. I started as a substitute paraprofessional; two weeks in, the administrators offered me a permanent teaching gig, saying that our state had a program which would allow folks like me to begin on “emergency” credentials and take classes towards an official certificate, at night, over time. That route to certification has, in theory, ended, but across our state and across our country, classrooms continue to be staffed with teachers who are not fully credentialed–and at times, with teachers who have received almost no training before assuming their positions at the head of their classes. This summer, I was one of the facilitators at the New Hire Institute put on by my district: one of my charges was a fresh-faced recent college graduate who, prior to her acceptance into a 2-year teaching fellowship which shall not be named, had never worked with more than one child at a time. When I met her on Monday, they hadn’t given her her assignment yet. By Wednesday, we found out together that she’d be teaching a multiple-grade special day class for students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders, a disability category she had never before seen embodied in a single child she’d worked with, known well, or even glancingly met. The following Tuesday was the first day of class.
I’ve kept in touch with Heather as she’s played out her teaching story. She’s managing. Others help her. She’ll get through her first year the way I got through mine–every week, she’ll learn something she should have known last week, and the next week, she’ll be ready to learn a little more. It’s a lot like how I trained the first paraprofessional I got who was a completely new hire–the woman who had never so much as babysat a typical child before I was told to assign her to my most complicated student. It’s the way all of us manage, the way we help each other, the way we’re all fixing the plane as we fly it. She’ll get through, because there are people like Ms. Bo out there, teaching people like me to be a little bit more like them.
The last thing I did before leaving the building Monday night was to put away the clipboard with the complicated behavior system that I’d more or less trained that new hire to implement, more or less the way that Ms. Bo had trained me. I flipped on the radio and listened to the jingle. And I realized that this ad campaign, if true, meant that everyone selling a mattress at Sleep Train has significantly more formal training than the average new professional for children with disabilities.
And this ultimately should, mattress quality be damned, make it just a bit harder for us all to sleep at night.