Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Failing As A Teacher

This is about how one of my biggest failures as a teacher
turned into one of the most important lessons I ever learned.

           I'm not sure everyone understands what is actually taught when you teach severely intellectually challenged students. What I thought I was supposed to be teaching my students thirty years ago was simply very elementary or pre-school skills. Shoe tying, counting, colors, telling time, counting money, days of the week, months of the year, writing their own name and address, and basic Dolch List words (sight words and safety words, like: to the, he she, danger, stop, closed, exit, etc). I also taught grooming and self-care skills, like brushing teeth, nail care, applying deodorant, matching clothing, and hair care. We taught manners: please, thank you, excuse me, how to use the elevator and how to ride the city bus. Instruction also covered how to answer a phone, including copying down a phone number to call back. Remember, these things could not be taught just once, and then we'd move on to the next skill. Everything had to be demonstrated, modeled, and repeated many, many times, and then taught in various settings, so the skills could be "generalized" to different situations. That was one of the hardest parts. One of the statistics we used then was, "Tell a normal child fifteen times; tell one of our kids forty-five times."
        I had a rambunctious student, Eric, who was fifteen years old, and an eager learner. He had prematurely white hair, cut in an old-style flat top. Eric wore thick Coke-bottle like glasses that were so heavy he was always having to push them  up; even having a heavy black strap securing them around the back of his head did not prevent them for being down at the end of his nose most of the time.  
       This young man was motivated to be employed. Someone had thoroughly impressed the benefits of having a job on him, and Eric really wanted to "get to work" as soon as possible. He even walked like he was on his way to a job he couldn't wait to get to; he strode everywhere with purpose. His functioning level, unfortunately, was going to put him in a sheltered workshop. Those workshops were reserved for students who had reached the age of eighteen. Eric had a few years to wait.
        Because he simply did not yet understand the calendar, the months, and the years, Eric asked almost every day "how soon" he would be able to go to work. He accepted the answer, "As soon as you get everything on this Working Skills Checklist checked off."
       Eric would always reply, "Then let's get busy!"
       He was making steady progress on his counting and money skills. Telling time was going to be more difficult, but would be easier once he improved his number skills. After all, we had nearly three more years to work on it. However, the terribly difficult hurdle for Eric on that checklist was learning his basic colors.
       Most four year old children know their colors. All we expected was red, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple, pink, white, black, and brown. We started in September. Eric struggled mightily. He would scratch his head, shake his head, and even pound his forehead, while thumbing through all the photographs and color cards. We would play easy matching games; pairing color cards with objects and word cards. Eric could not even match the word "red" with an red circle and a red apple.
       He had learned only the sight words for red, blue, green, yellow, and orange by Halloween. Two months into the school year and I had taught him only five color words, and none of the colors. This was disappointing, but I did not let Eric in on my frustration. We met every day with high energy and encouraging words. "You are going to learn all these colors, Eric, and then we will have a color party!"
        In the meantime, we played every game and used every visual and tactile strategy in the arsenal of the occupational therapist at Emerson School. Colors and Eric did not mix.
        The first weekend in November, I drove to the southside Minneapolis house of a friend, who was a fellow Emerson teacher.  Her neighbor was having a very late-season garage sale. As my teeth chattered, I started poking through a stack of the neighbor's old Discover magazines. One of them had an article on color-blindness. I jokingly said to my friend, "Maybe this is Eric's problem!"
        I bought the magazine and took it to the school nurse on Monday morning. She ran over to the Minneapolis Schools district offices and borrowed a test kit from the Nursing Supervisor. She would get Eric right after lunch and test him. The color test used numbers and shapes, hidden in pictures that had different colored bubbles in them.
Sample test item....Can student see the red square and/or yellow circle?

        Eric knew his shapes, but he could not find the square or the circle. He failed the test,  He had Deuteranopia…this type of color blindness is characterized by loss of green vision and color distortion in the red-green-yellow part of the spectrum. The red and yellow "bubbles" appeared to be the same color as the rest of the bubbles.  Almost everything Eric looked at appeared to be either brown, muddy gold, or tan. He could detect a few shades of dull or dark blue.
      Red looked like camouflage green, bananas looked tan, grass appeared to be brown or gold. This made me the most sad for him...can you imagine NEVER seeing green grass? Poor Eric!

                           WE SEE:                                                          ERIC SAW:

       So, I had spent (wasted) all of September and October, two whole months of Eric's education, trying to teach color identification to a colorblind student. I felt like a complete idiot, and utterly ineffective as a teacher. Now, in hindsight, I can chalk it up to my youth and inexperience, but it does not diminish the obvious failure of my instincts. We switched gears. Eric had to learn to compensate for not being able to see colors; no amount of remedial instruction was going to teach him his colors. Instead of labelling colors, Eric needed to be able to identify items by size, shape, function, and texture. "Bring me the book with the kitten on the front", not "Bring me the red book."
      This was also going to make it more difficult for Eric to function in a sheltered workshop environment, where many tasks are color-coded on purpose, so clients are not required to have a high level of reading. It would still be possible for him to succeed there, but he would have to be taught ways to compensate. "Compensate" was going to be an important skill for Eric the rest of his life.
        I guess that is my lesson from Eric. In my early years of teaching, I thought about just TEACHING kids everything I could. That's not completely wrong, but it's not always possible. I had to accept that I was not going to be able to teach Eric his colors. I had to teach him how to make up for, or how to live successfully with, not being able to see colors.
        Being able to compensate for lack of something is an important skill for everyone. If you can't do triple digit decimal division in your head like my husband, you adapt by getting out the calculator.  I have girls in my class right now who have no father in their lives. How do they compensate for that? Well, there are good ways and not-so-good ways. We try to teach kids positive ways to compensate. We try to teach about balance in their lives. So many things missing; and how to make up for them all? It's what gets me up every morning.