Some of my earliest childhood memories involve me taking home extra mimeographed school exercises to "teach" to my imaginary class. In one of my childhood homes, the white-paneled closet door actually functioned as a quasi-chalkboard if the colored chalk was damp. I spent hours "teaching" my class, even making up grade books. And although my route has been somewhat circuitous, I am an educator. When I tell people I love teaching, I sincerely do.
Today I had my first return to a classroom since the beginning of May, 2008. When the substitute teacher coordinator called me on Monday evening to see if I was available to teach today, I was incredibly excited because I would be teaching again. My spirits were only dampened slightly when I found out I was subbing for a K-4 special ed teacher, but only so because I've never subbed before (other than what college profs do for each other when someone is sick or traveling, which really isn't subbing).
The three kids I dealt with today each had a different disability. Ryan is 7 and has Down's Syndrome. He is very smart, but his trisomy 21 is pretty severe and he has a very difficult time communicating. Put him in front of a computer with educational games, and the kid is practically a savant. Work with him one-on-one, and it is a challenge. You have to use a combination of sign language (modified) and short commands, along with a certain amount of intuition. Ryan spends all day in the Lifeskills classroom; half day with the teacher, and half day with the aide, although he does do morning assembly, lunch, one lesson unit, and recesses with his regular class.
Brice is 5, I believe, and has spina bifida. He is wheelchair-bound. He's a sweet kid, but all the aides and other teachers independently said the same word to describe him when bringing me up to speed: manipulative. He tries to use his disability to get others to do things for him. They told me one day he had all his teachers and parents convinced he was freezing cold (to the point where his mom was called and she took him to the doctor) only to find out he just didn't want to be at school, so he acted cold to get out of it. Brice is in his kindergarten class for the whole time (half day) but the teacher is with him to help the classroom teacher and keep Brice on track since his incentives/learning rewards are different than the other students's. Today Brice got a new wheelchair, which brought with it the bonus (for me, the sub) that he was out of the classroom for an hour and the difficulty of getting him focused again after all the excitement.
Lastly I had a little bit of dealings with Chloe, an absolutely adorable 7 year old who was born with a cleft palate. It has since been repaired, but her speech is very affected. She is in and out of the Lifeskills classroom, depending on what is being covered in her regular classroom and her occupational/speech therapy schedule. She thought I resembled a human jungle-gym while waiting for the bus, but that was fine with me.
Next to the Lifeskills room is the other special ed room which is dedicated to students with autism and learning disabilities. Ryan & Chloe spend time in there when recess has to be indoors (like today because it was so cold) or when the two classes combine for "Friday Cafe." Playing with Ryan during his second recess, I got to meet Skylar, Dylan, and another boy whose name I never learned. Skylar is a walking example that ADHD is indeed real, and many kids diagnosed with it do NOT have it. Dylan is autistic as is the third boy, except the third boy is a barely-independently-functional autistic. (If you think of autism as repetitive motions, single-mindedness, that sort of stuff, he is one click above that. He will play with the same toy all day, but he is capable of other independent functions like using the bathroom.)
Working with these students was rewarding, rewarding in a very different way than collegiate teaching is. But what moved me the most today was seeing these students in their regular classrooms. The other kids didn't seem to care that their classmate had a disability. Ryan's classmates converged on him when he was in the room, wanting him to play with them, giving him hugs. Brice's classmates ooohed and aaahed over his new chair, and when they saw the "movie" they had made where they said what their dream was (a la MLK, Jr.) no one laughed when Brice was unintelligible and had to be prompted by the videographer.
My generation made fun of the kids on "the short bus." Some of them still do.
These kids don't.
Maybe someday they will; kids become cynical with age. Hopefully, though, having these experiences so young will help stave that off. And I hope we adults learn from them, too. Normally subs are met with, well, a certain amount of mischief. These kids weren't scared that I was new. They clamored for my attention. They behaved and participated. (Well, mostly.) The autistic child whose name I didn't catch came to me during my lunch for a hug. One of the aides saw that and was floored -- apparently he usually hits people and never wants a hug, let alone from a stranger.
Working with these kids regularly isn't my calling, but now I have even more respect for those who have dedicated their lives to working with them. They deserve our support, as do their parents. And you can bet if they call me to sub in this classroom again, I will be glad to do so.