Publication Type: Web Article
Year of Publication: 2004
Laura Reasoner Jones experiences some feelings of abandonment when she visits the families of pre-schoolers she worked with as a special-education teacher before taking a technology-in-the-schools job.
Jones, L.R. (2004). Preschool redux: Revisiting my families. Teacher Leaders Network diaries. Retrieved from the Teacher Leaders Network 11 Apr 2008. Link: http://www.teacherleaders.org/old_site/diaries04_05/LJ41_04_05.html
I Revisit My Families
On every school night during the month of May, I have had the choice of two activities: doing interminable sets of abdominal crunches, pushups, sprints, and 3-mile runs as part of the Outdoor Conditioning Christmas "gift" given to me by my daughter, or keeping appointments at my former students' homes to review their digital portfolios.
I have loved almost every minute of these home visits, although I have had to put aside my ego a couple of times, and bite my tongue another couple of times. It has been both an interesting and infuriating month.
I start out with the easiest phone calls, the ones to the families who were not in the middle of some kind of transition when I left in January, and begin making the appointments. We plan for about a half hour meeting after school, before the witching "pre-dinner" hour for preschoolers, a time I remember as highly volatile with my own children.
My task is to show the digital portfolio on my laptop, explain how to use the CD I have made with the pictures, the PDF and PowerPoint files, and then have the parent and child fill out the self-perception forms that are the cornerstone of the Teacher Research project I am finishing to present at NECC. Last year I learned the hard way that not all families have programs like PowerPoint, and so I also make PDF files that most people can open and can email to family members.
Andy's house is my first stop. Things have settled down so well in this family. His mom has gotten through her medical crisis and everything is good. Andy's speech has improved to the point that he will be dismissed from Special Education in the next week, and his family is very pleased with his progress. One of my survey questions for the kids is "What are you really good at?" His answer is "Spreading peanut butter at school."
Next stop is Hank's house. Most of the family is there; Hank's three brothers and two sisters and his wonderful mother. And he is talking! He even talks in front of me, which is a big change. His new teacher has worked wonders with him.
His self-perception survey is interesting, though. Two of the questions go like this: "I like to talk with grownups" and "Everyone understands what I say." The kids choose a smiley face for "yes," a neutral face for "sort of" and a frowning face for "no." They are used to this, as we used these faces for determining if their homework was hard or easy. Last fall, Hank felt everything was easy-talking, being understood, you name it. This spring, he accurately colors in the "no" face in answer to the statement "Everyone understands what I say." He is right. They don't. But he is making a great deal of improvement.
When I come in, they show me the lemon cake that Hank has helped his mother make for this special occasion. I am honored. We all sit on the back porch and eat cake and drink lemonade, the school-age kids starving after their hard day. The whole family is glued to the portfolio, and Hank is able to talk about the fun we had together. His mother says several times, "We miss you." We make plans to meet at the swimming pool, where I can be an extra pair of eyes for her with the six kids, and we can talk. It is fun.
BJ's house is next. He is getting ready to go Kindergarten, having improved dramatically in speech, but still needs help in fine motor skills. I left his new teacher with a lot of testing to do—not the best thing to do to a friend. His self-perception has changed over the year also. Last fall, his only concern was that people sometimes didn't understand him, an accurate representation. This spring, he indicates that people usually understand him, but that he doesn't like school and does not like to cut, glue and draw. This is also very accurate, and very sad. He is going into Kindergarten with undeveloped fine motor skills, although both the home program and the private preschool worked intensely with him.
His mom and I chat after we all see the portfolio. She says that she and BJ still talk frequently about how much they miss me and my great toys. We confer on the plan for next year, but I am careful to support all the decisions they have made. I have to be very careful not to be his teacher any more. It is not hard here; his mother and his new teacher have done all the right things.
The next week brings a visit to Jose and his wonderful loving family. They have just returned from an extended visit to help Jose's grandmother in Venezuela. His sister has missed two months of school, and Jose has lost most of the English he has learned in the three years he has lived here. His mother and I know he will get it back, but it is painful to watch him struggle. He won't get any Special Education services in Kindergarten and no English as a Second Language services either. I can say nothing.
Jose's mother, his sisters and I all watch Jose watch the portfolio. He is enchanted by the pictures of himself, and laughs out loud at the picture of his mother in the reindeer sunglasses. I love this family. His mother is very computer-savvy, and runs a Spanish-language accounting firm out of her home. I show her how to change the words on the PowerPoint and we talk about using this portfolio as a tool to teach reading to Jose and his older sister. He will be fine, I say over and over.
When I call to make the appointment with Gabrielle's family, her mom invites me to come for dinner. I am taken aback at first, but quickly decide that of course I can go. I am not her teacher any more, and who cares? This will be fun.
I get to her house on a Thursday night, willingly forgoing Outdoor Conditioning again for a good meal that I did not have to cook. I sit and watch Gabrielle play very appropriately; she shows none of the anxiety she showed a year ago. We review the portfolio, and then I send Gabrielle's mom out of the room with her perception form to complete so that I can do Gabrielle's self-perception survey without the pressure of her mother hearing her daughter's answers. I learned this last year in this family and have employed this technique ever since with everyone—separate rooms and out of earshot. Kids learn early what the parents want them to say, and I want honesty.
Gabrielle is a very perceptive little girl. Last fall, she indicated that she did not like school, and was unsure of drawing, cutting and gluing, the very things she was in Special Education for. This spring, she moves her answers to the "sort of" (neutral) column for the questions about liking school and drawing/cutting/gluing. She gives an emphatic "Yes" answer to the comment "My friends like me." These responses are very gratifying for her mom, her school and me, after all the work we have put in to ease her social anxiety. We are getting there!
And then, who walks in? My best friend and replacement teacher, Mary! What a wonderful surprise, orchestrated by Gabrielle's mom. The three of us sit outside at the umbrella table on the patio and eat and chat while Gabrielle and her little brother play on the swing set. This family, which was approaching a dysfunctional level last year at this time, is normal. I love it.
I track down Emma's mother's new cell phone number—the family has had their phone disconnected. She is pleased to hear from me and we set up an after-school appointment. Again, most of the family is there: Emma, her two older sisters and her mother. We enjoy the portfolio, do the forms, and then I realize what all of the shared glances are about: they have a prepared a special Peruvian feast for me—afternoon tea with Peruvian pastries. This is such a treat, far from the South Beach Diet I try to stick to.
Emma's mother shares the location of the Peruvian bakery they patronize—only a few blocks from my new job location. We make plans to meet there for lunch. I hear about the Spanish immersion program that her sister Natalie is in, and that Emma is waiting to hear if she is accepted. They talk about the Peruvian dancing classes they take. I realize again that we "Born in the USA" people overlook and ignore the rich culture that our new families are bringing with them. I admire this family for not letting the American culture take over their children's lives. I leave this talented, smart, loving family carrying gifts of pastries and handmade pictures from the girls. What a joy it is to see them; I feel as if my work was really valued.
The next night (no Outdoor Conditioning again!), I head over to Leon's house. I am very curious to see how things are going here. When I last saw Leon, he was talking a bit at home, but not talking in the speech sessions or at school. But his new teacher made a radical move in her approach: doing all language work in the preschool classroom. His mother was not pleased about this, and the replacement teacher and I had several conversations about how to work with mom, but I think she did the right thing. And, it worked.
Leon is using short phrases with me, a virtual stranger. He "jabbers away," according to his parents, and they are very pleased. In fact, they are so pleased that they have pulled him out of the Home Resource Program against the wishes of his teacher. Hmm. I keep my mouth shut as they say, "He doesn't have to be perfect; he is doing OK."
In the short time I am with him as we look at his portfolio, I have to agree with his new teacher; I would not have dismissed him from Special Education services either. He is only using two-word phrases and they seem stilted and awkward. It is too easy for these kids to slip back, or to stop making progress, and getting back into the program for services is a bear. But it is also rather refreshing to have a parent say "He doesn't have to be perfect." I wonder how long that attitude will last in this pressure-filled county.
Leon is entranced by the portfolio pictures of him and his mother playing with my toys. When I pack up the computer to leave, he turns and stares at me, tears in his eyes. It is very clear what he is thinking: "Why are you leaving before we play with toys?" I am clearly a disappointment to him tonight.
It is very difficult to schedule the last two appointments. Kerri's mom is skittish as always. I push back a little, and she agrees to have an after-school appointment, with me promising that it will only take 15 minutes. It is tricky coming back into homes like this; I made sure that I told my former boss that I was doing this so there would be no problem on that end.
When I get to their beautiful house, I am welcomed with Kerri and her little sister running up to the door. Kerri says, "Hi, teacher!" This is the first time I have ever heard her put two words together! Her little sister is using full sentences, so the difference in development is becoming clearer every day.
We start to talk about Kerri's new placement in daily school-based preschool special education services, but all of a sudden, Kerri's aunt appears and her mom has to run out the door to an "appointment." OK, I get the picture. I can come, but she doesn't have to talk to me.
I really betrayed them, I feel. I didn't mean to, but I pushed them into testing and then into school-based services, ripping out the fragile support system I tried to build. They are alone now, and the school has taken over her education. I hate this. If I had stayed, the end result would have been the same, but I could have supported her through the change, and I could have made sure that the school gave her the support she needed. I hate myself for this.
And then I finally make the appointment with Byron and his family. These parents work two jobs each, and leave their kids in daycare for eleven hours a day. But they willingly make arrangements somehow for me to come after dinner one night, yet another missed Outdoor Conditioning. I lock all the doors on my car and brave their marginal neighborhood to see them one last time. I know this visit is going to be difficult. When I last saw Byron, I had managed to help his parents understand that he needed formal testing before Kindergarten. He has taught himself to read English fluently, but after four years in daycare, cannot even draw a circle. I am thinking 'Learning Disability.'
He was scheduled for testing the month after I left. I called and talked to the team of psychologists and social workers testing him. But I had no credibility; I was no longer his teacher and could not provide work samples, write a long report to go in his file, or attend the staffing and the eligibility meeting. And so now, as I sit down with his family, I am very apprehensive about what I am going to hear.
It is worse than I could imagine. The first thing they say, in broken English, is "We no happy with new teacher."
I don't know what to say. His dad goes on. "She does not, she is not, she does not like him. She say he is problem."
I can imagine. I know her, and I know Byron. He is one tough little kid with a real stubborn streak, but I like him very much. He has had to work hard to stay afloat in his daycare center with his significant learning problems; he is a survivor.
I start to say, "Here is the name of the boss," but then I stop and look at them. "It's too late." They nod. "I'm sorry." They nod again. We all sigh.
But then we open up the portfolio, and have a wonderful time. All of the family, Byron, his sisters and parents, are riveted to the screen as the pictures of him and my comments go by on the PowerPoint. I ask him to read my comments, and he sight-reads almost every word. And this is something I had written for adults, not for kids. He has such a strength here.
Then they run and get their new camera, an inexpensive digital camera with little 10-second movies of Byron playing soccer. We download these onto my computer, and we all watch them in the full screen and cheer as he makes a goal. It is great.
As I pack up, I think that I am leaving on a good note. I say, "He is going to get help in Kindergarten, right?" His mom nods and runs into the other room, bringing back the sheaf of eligibility papers familiar to any special education teacher. I scan them quickly and am dismayed to see that he was only given a label of Speech and Language Impaired, not the Learning Disability label I would have advocated for. I try to get out without showing my frustration and anger, but I don't think I was too successful.
I leave in a hurry, angry with the whole special education system. I betrayed this child too. If I had been there for him, I would have made sure the testers saw the whole picture: his strengths and his weaknesses—the discrepancy between ability and performance that is so crucial to the LD diagnosis. He needs more than this Speech label; he needs to get those Learning Disability services now, in Kindergarten. And he will miss out for two or three years of school, because now he will have to truly fail to get that LD label and those services.
In addition, because he is not a native English speaker, it will probably take even longer to get the help he needs. I could see that in his parents' eyes too; they know that things are not right, but they don't have the language skills or the knowledge to fight it. So they feel they have to trust the system. They trusted me to help Byron, and I didn't. I abandoned them.
I am not over this yet. I don't know when I will be. Maybe when I see them at the local Festival in a few years, or at the high school Homecoming parade, when his sister marches for her school, and they can assure me that things are OK. But I don't think that will ever happen. I will always worry about him, and be angry with myself for leaving and angry that the system failed him. I don't know.
My research presentation for NECC is called "Change Made Visible: Reflective Portfolios for Preschoolers and their Families." But I am the one doing the reflecting. And I don't like all that I see.