Friday, April 15, 2005

A Collection of Individuals

This was, by far, the most social week I've had at D'Youville. Two of five professors that we have were at a conference in Montreal leaving us more free time than we probably needed. But it did give me pause to think about the people around me, as fellow future teachers.

Although, in a way, I will be competing with those around me for jobs, the market is large enough that the competition is likely never to be head to head. Thus, I feel free to look at my classmates as if they were future colleagues. But what is the nature of teacher's collegiality? I can't know the answer to this until I join the profession, but I'd like to make some speculations.

There is a strange tension in teaching where the union, belief in co-operation, and the social aspects of learning are all central to the profession; yet, most teachers spend their careers completely isolated from their colleagues. I enjoy the idea of team teaching and professional collaboration—I've experienced some really nice collaborative work in the corporate world—but, I really get the feeling that the only time teachers get together is when they are not working, which is a really odd situation. I think that professional relationships which are focused on break time, lunch, P.D. days, and contract negotiations are, by their very nature, difficult to manage.

There is an intimacy that emerges from having to actually work together. I feel this with the other students in my cohort. I feel we've come to know each other in very deep ways. There have been soul bearing moments, behaviours that could only emerge in an environment built on trust, and some dangerously honest talk and action. There is a lot of impassioned speech on what kind of teachers people do and don't want to be—but I'm worried that this kind of professional engagement with colleagues is only possible at teacher's college.

That being said, I've seen a lot of other students, in other cohorts at D'Youville, who are doing time with other people doing time. Getting things done and just watching the clock. I would find that kind of experience disappointing to say the least. So, even as students it seems rare that there is real co-operation happening.

I think creating strong professional relationships is going to be vital for me, and I think that this can only happen in the context of team teaching, coaching, or extra-curricular team leadership. I have a lot of respect for and pleasure from those around me and I'm going to endeavour to continue working with them, not just around them, when this all wraps up in a few weeks.

In academic news, on Tuesday morning we presented our Autism/Asperger's lesson to our Exceptional Needs class—who were uncharacteristically subdued. The amount of planning that had gone into it, and the diligence of one particular group member really made it a great success. I learned a lot about teaching social interactions to students with serious social deficits. The amount of rational processing that has to happen in order for highly functioning autistic kids to understand facial expressions makes me marvel that it is even possible for the rest of the world.

The coming weeks will prove to be heavy, which is really no surprise. I'm approaching this time with mixed feelings—a struggle between the excitement of finishing a task and the sadness that accompanies the end of anything.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Meeting the Needs of Exceptional Learners

The death of Karol Wojtyla seemed to pass without comment this week, despite the fact that D'Youville is a college founded and run by a Catholic order. Flags were at half-mast, but I really did not sense any change on campus. There were no assemblies, let alone conversations, marking his death. Despite my disappointment—how many times will I ever be attending a Catholic college when a Pope dies?—it is comforting that the school promotes secularism to the point where only the statues, building names, and nuns gives you any indication of the school's religious leanings. I imagine I would not have enjoyed this semester as much as I have if I'd been immersed in a highly charged Christian environment.

One of the other really nice things about D'Youville is the fact that one of my required courses is Meeting the Needs of Exceptional Learners. This course has consisted of a week by week survey of all of the conditions, ailments, and exceptional situations I can expect to meet in an education system which embraces inclusion (the notable exception is gifted students). The semester started with an overview of IDEA legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Canadian Special Education Regulations, as well as the IEP (Individualized Education Program) process. These laws and processes are all geared toward the inclusion of students with special needs into mainstream classrooms.

The conceptual framework behind inclusion and the ensuing controversy in the early 1990s was fascinating. It was a battle that I lived through and simply never noticed. The belief that all students, regardless of their ability level, must be educated in a "least restrictive environment" caused a firestorm of protest from parents and teachers of non-disabled students at the time. The concerns that including students with disabilities in mainstream classrooms would harm everyone in the process turned out to be unfounded and this seems to be largely thanks to an intelligent approach which addresses each case on its own merits.

From this early introduction to the world of special education I have been learning about everything from Mental Retardation to Epilepsy to Learning Disabilities to ADHD. Every week we spend half the class learning about the specifics of the condition or disability and the other half is spent learning teaching techniques to best address the needs of students living with the disability. As if this wasn't enough, there are some other qualities of this course that make it one of the best I've had the pleasure to take at D'Youville.

First and foremost, Professor April Rockwood is the strongest prof I have. She has a PhD and is a certified Occupational Therapist (OTR)—which translates into a course which has a conspicuously applied bent to it. She is clearly very knowledgeable on every subject she covers and is totally honest about the limits of her know-how. When asked a question that stumps her, she follows up the next week with an answer. We have spent at least 25% of our classroom time out of our seats, reinforcing the importance of all aspects of learning. She takes psychomotoric learning very seriously and has designed the course in a way that allows for the greatest amount of freedom in instructional techniques. The core information is given to us in a handout which she goes over in detail, fielding any and all questions. After that, it is pure application. We have also had a series of student presentations on teaching techniques for a number of different disabilities. In fact, next week I will be part of a group leading the class in teaching students with Autism and Asperger Syndrome.

Prof. Rockwood's ego is well hidden, as I have found to be the case with many people who are involved in the field of special education and disabilities in general. With mainstream students a teacher can be rigid, self-centred, and unresponsive, and most students will still find a way to learn (as horrible as that sounds). When teaching students with special needs, laziness and disengagement are simply impossible; having to always be aware of the effectiveness of techniques, constantly adjusting, reflecting, and abandoning approaches in favour of other possible options is the starting point for any special ed teacher. It seems to me that these teachers need to be the most patient, empathetic, organized, and reflective of all educators and I've benefited in incalculable ways from my exposure to the field.

From what I understand, most teacher's education programmes do not include the teaching of exceptional learners, and beyond the benefits I've outlined above, I feel that I will have a competitive advantage when it comes to looking for work. If I have to come up with one criticism of this course, it is that it has caused me to experience a serious bout of Medical Student's Syndrome by proxy for any future child I might have—but that probably says more about me than it does the course.