Advocacy for special needs or at-risk students may come with an unintended “divide” or outright conflict between special and regular educators. As a special educator, I typically get more small group or one-to-one time with students. My relationships with kids develop more easily in that setting. I do more specific analysis and teach with greater individualization than a regular classroom teacher. (If I do not, am I truly a specialist?) The classroom teacher must manage a larger group of kids, stay on a defined pace of instruction, and mediate a wide range of activities. There’s a contrast in perspective, like the difference between close-up and wide-angle lenses.
Why does advocacy for high functioning autistic students tend to trigger more conflict than with any other group of kids? That’s been my experience. It seems to me that classroom teachers more often pull lower functioning kids under their wings. Their typical learners respond to my “orientation” at the beginning of the year and also accept the lower functioning kids quite well. But the high functioning AU kids? Many classroom teachers find them irritating, and to quote one teacher, “obnoxious.” Their students find the AU kid similarly unappealing. When I appear in the room after a crisis at recess, the teacher doesn’t want to hear my explanations for the AU student’s melt-down. The assistant says I am coddling this kid. What has gone wrong?
For one thing, I am not and should not be neutral when supporting my students. If I am not their advocate, if I cannot interpret their behavior for others, who will do that? The kids certainly can’t, and their parents may not even know what happened. It’s up to me to explain that Devon was pushed over the edge by continual teasing, or that Lamar was trying to save face, or that Mike couldn’t handle a power struggle with a teacher. I am seen as “taking the kid’s side” when I provide an explanation for their behavior. And that’s the truth: I AM on their side. Does that mean it’s OK for my student (who is also their student) to kick someone or curse a teacher? No, but the situation is not usually a simple one. Typically, a series of misinterpretations and missed opportunities has led to a crisis. The solutions are also complex. The AU student is as upset and perplexed as the teachers. It takes time to sort through the multiple events that led to the crisis.
How do I negotiate this terrain? I try to elicit empathy for my AU kids, especially from the teacher assistants who will be supervising them through lunch and recess, the two deadly Social Swamps. I interpret the AU kid’s body language and signals of distress. I encourage a light response, not heavy artillery. I try to help adults see what it’s like to be that kid. Am I successful? About half the time, I think. It’s hard to overcome their sense that I am irrevocably biased. It’s hard to overcome their sense that I don’t understand how hard it can be to deal with these kids in a large group. I do try to empathize with the classroom teacher; I have taught very large groups of kids and understand the challenges. And the classroom teacher can still hear the “but…” as I speak.
Limited time to communicate adds to the “divide.” Teachers don’t have time for lengthy conversations during the day. How effective is a five minute conversation, interrupted a couple of times, when emotions are running high? Then there are meetings and conferences after school. The assistant has left for the day. I’ve tried to use email as a backup strategy for eliciting empathy. If you have followed this blog at all, you know I’ve violated email etiquette regarding lengthy messages!
Maybe I am just not great at “Crucial Conversations.” I am going to read that book ASAP since I face a few crucial dialogs in the next couple of weeks. Hopefully, I will also post a review of my success with that material, proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks!