On Friday, I just finished my 19th year as a Special Education teacher and my 23rd year of teaching overall. I have often compared teaching to baseball.
First, it takes place over a set period of time. Baseball has 162 regular-season games plus 33 pre-season games for a total of 195 games. In my school, we have 191 school days. Major League Baseball also has a potential of extra playoff games, while teachers give final exams.
Second, both of our rosters change from year to year. We see old favorites retire (graduate) at the end of the season and rookies (freshman) appear at the beginning. We both take the raw talent we have and encourage all the players to work as a team every game.
Third, when our seasons are over, we both abandon our stadiums (classrooms) and think about the off-season. While relaxing, we plan for the next season and strategize how to improve on our record.
A few years ago, I realized a disturbing trend. Every year, I would sit in our welcome back/orientation meeting for returning staff. In the past, I would always scan the room and look for the returning veterans, teachers who I can go to for advice and encouragement. Over the years, that number has been decreasing. Last year, I realized, as I scanned the crowd, that I had moved categories and was now the all-knowing and grizzled veteran. It was quite a shock as younger teachers began to seek me out for my advice.
One of my favorite Palzewisms came about by accident. It was several years ago and I was having a very hard day with several of my students with autism. I was short-staffed that day and a few of the students decided that this particular day would be the right time to have a full-blown meltdown. It started when Greg heard Anna sing the “Scooby-Doo” theme song, which she does on purpose to annoy Greg. Gregs screaming made Ladrodney run to the refrigerator to eat a stick of butter leftover from the rice crispy treats. As we tried to wrestle the stick away from him, Diego ran over and started throwing the paper from the paper shredder into the fan! Now, most days, this chain of events would usually end with me just shaking my head and dealing with each student one on one until all the “fires” got put out. Unfortunately, this was not a “usual” day as Karl decided that this type of behavior was not OK with him and I needed to get control of the class quickly. He conveyed his opinion by biting my arm when I was distracted.
I let out a wail that would make Chewbacca proud and all four students scattered to the corners of the room, somehow instinctively knowing that a line had been crossed. As I examined the fine dental impression Karl had left on my forearm, one of my aides, sensing the student’s fates were in danger, shooed me from the room with the instructions that I should go and write up an incident report.
I went to the teacher’s lounge instead. There, I met one of the new teachers in the building.
“What do you teach?”
“Special Education,” I answered, “The severe students”
“Oh,” she said, “ I heard it takes a special person to that type of work” I knew she was trying to encourage me but I was not in the mood.
“Well,” I replied,” I hope they hire him soon!”
Since that day, that has become my Palzewism, my off the cuff remark to that particular comment.
Over the years, I have learned certain tricks to avoid those types of days. I truly enjoy my job especially when I discover a student’s trigger. I have fun trying to figure out what will do what to whom, whether it is Scooby-Doo, Stick Butter, Shoes that are untied, or whatever it may be. I like putting on my detective hat and then designing classroom routines that decrease (if not eliminate) the majority of the triggers.
Of course this year, with the Covid-19 pandemic, I didn’t get to finish out the season. We left school on Friday the 13th in March. We were in the process of dealing with: LaShawn standing on tables to get attention, Andrew sticking his fingers in the fan, Dafne yelling “banana” to anyone who walked in the room and Demario, a six-foot five-inch student who likes to kiss the top of my head. We were making very good progress toward decreasing those behaviors. I put the fans higher in the room and turned over tables that were not in use at the time. “Banana” was starting to get replaced by a short “Hi” and a wave and I started wearing a hat when Demario came to me for science. I considered washing my hair in tabasco sauce in order to give him a negative reaction but decided this was a less radical approach.
During a typical “season”, I would “coach” each individual student in how best to navigate not only, my class but high school in general. I was just beginning to see some cohesion and students actually “helping” their fellow students when the pandemic hit. This interrupted our process. If we were allowed to continue, most behaviors would be extinguished by the end of March. April would have seen more cooperation and friendship among the class, as we would have multiple outings including a “Brewers opening day tailgate party”, a Special Olympic Track Meet, and a meal with all of the families at Parent/Teacher conferences. We missed out on a year-end field trip to the Milwaukee County Zoo or the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
I am most sad about Graduation. I have the honor of knowing my students for seven years since most of them stay in school until they are 21. They do not get a diploma but a “Certificate of Completion” instead. I then get the honor of escorting them across the stage in order to receive their certificates from the Principal! That is usually the last day I get to see them, talk to their parents, and let them know how much they meant to me these last years. This year, I am sad that Karl, Ann Marie, Dolores, Raishaun, Deajanique, and Thomas will not be in my class next year. They have brought me laughter and joy. They have made me proud, watching them grow into the young men and women they are today. They have humbled me when I realize that the knowledge they have given me has greatly surpassed what I doled out to them. They embarrassed me when the tell me I am the best and they will never forget me. They make me cry when their last words on the final Zoom meeting are “I love you!”
So, this season comes to an end. My veterans “retire” and my rookies are waiting to greet me in August. I will discover new behavior quirks and triggers that need to be dealt with before any type of learning can be started. My job is to take a rowdy group of individuals and turn them into a winning team. The struggles are intense but the rewards are infinite. It takes a special kind of teacher to accomplish this monumental task year in and year out.
I hope they hire him soon!
As always, please feel free to share or leave a comment if these words have impacted you in any way.
Check out my book “You Turned My Mourning Into Dancing!”