Sunday, March 23, 2014

Chemical Warfare Part 2

(Please see part 1 if you have stumbled upon part 2 first)

Keeping to my word, after our first meeting, I sent suggestions to Ms. Footinmouth.  I inquired how Nehemiah was progressing on a regular basis until Christmas break. Everything seemed to be getting better, and my son was not crying as much to go to school. Though something still did not feel right, and I thought it was just the Mommy in me harboring some resentment from our first meeting. Sadly, I was wrong.

In April, after no news except for good news at the second set of conferences, I received a long email from the teacher. The email stated how she has been struggling all year with my child. She shared how his behavior was not allowing her to spend enough time with other students because she had to remind him to take out his materials, repeat directions and get him to focus. He was being sent to the principal's office that same day for his defiance during math, and she was really not sure what to do anymore. She requested a meeting with me, and said she would have "lots of data this time."

So, I called in a sub, left my job as a reading teacher in a high school behavior disorder program, and drove straight to the school. I was not sure what to do, but I knew we needed to meet immediately. I arrived at the school and went to the principal's office.  I walked in and the secretary called the principal out to chat with me. I explained that I wanted to discuss some problems we were having. When he brought me into his office my son was sitting in a chair, puffy eyed, scared and shaken. He was eight years old, but looked so much younger. I asked to speak to Nehemiah privately for a few moments to calm him down.

Nehemiah was crying softly, and when I asked what happened he explained that he had not heard the bell again. I was confused and further prompted to understand what he meant. The bell the teacher sets everyday to signal when reading was over and math was to begin. He had been reading, and had not heard the bell go off, and when the teacher came to his desk he did not have the math assignment done because he was still reading. So, she sent him to the office for not listening. I called the principal back in and asked what the reason was Nehemiah was in the office. He was very nice, and tried to explain that the teacher felt the office was a better place for him until he could focus in class.

I did not know what to do, but I asked to speak to the teacher for a few minutes. I really only had one question I wanted answered, and it was near the end of the day so we waited until she was free. Then I left Nehemiah and Evelyn in the hallway with a book, and went in to see the teacher. She was ready to go with her collected data this time. She had a statement from the PE teacher that Nehemiah did not always follow the rules, and ran around without knowing how to play the games. She had scores showing his math was not getting completed each day, and that his handwriting was awful. I went through the papers, and asked,"What is he doing instead of working on his math?

"Reading. He comes in from recess and is to read for fifteen minutes. Then when my timer goes off he is to put away his book and complete the math page I place on their desks after recess. He never does this. Instead he ignores the bell and keeps reading." Ms. Footinmouth answered.

"Do you ever tap him or remind him?" I asked

"Well, no. He is supposed to be practicing active listening skills, and this is another sign that we have a problem." She replied with a tight smile.

"You know, I love that he reads, because he had a hard time reading until last year. He had some trouble with phonics, and hearing the letter sounds. We did a lot of work over the summer and all through last year with his first grade teacher. I am so glad he is reading so voraciously now. Yet, I do not condone him not completing his work. On the other hand, have you ever gotten so wrapped up in a book you have completely zoned out the entire world? I do it all the time. In fact, I get so into my book I have to be doing something actively with my hands or everything disappears. So, it seems to me you are punishing a little boy for enjoying the fact that he can read now. I actually have all the data I need. Thank you for your time, and I hope you have a great rest of the year. I will address your concerns, and we will come up with a solution." I said as I rose from my seat.

I was met with silence, as I walked out of the school with my two children. That evening I spoke with my husband, Gavin, about all that had transpired. We both knew that there were issues in the academic areas and were not sure how to address them with a teacher who deemed our child as a troublemaker. So, we made an appointment with an educational specialist in Des Moines for the following week.

After four hours of testing she determined our son had a Central Auditory Processing Disorder. Where learning is a little more difficult because he has trouble hearing sounds, and processing a request with multiple steps. He needed to train his brain how to process auditory material. This will often mirror symptoms of ADHD and can cause reading and speech delays. Upon hearing the diagnosis, we knew it was our son. She also pointed out it was hereditary and asked if either of us had problems with noise as a child. I recalled crawling behind couches when we had a lot of people over, or when it was loud. I had frequent migraines starting at age nine related to noise, and I still have ear plugs I carry in my purse for when I feel overwhelmed with noise. We discussed our concerns with this professional educator and she asked how his demeanor has been throughout the year.

We explained that he was becoming increasingly apologetic, sensitive and cried more than he ever had. He was constantly thinking he was doing something wrong, and was in trouble at school because of his behavior. We do not condone bad behavior, but some of the things we had learned were happening in his classroom made us realize something was not right. This is when the educator shared that we needed to do what we were already contemplating and remove our child from this school setting. We had already shared this seemed to be our only option, and we could not see another way around it.

We drove directly to the Superintendent's office and informed him of our decision. It may have seemed drastic to some, but when it comes to caring for your children you have to do what you feel is right. I sent an email to the teacher informing her that her services were no longer needed for our child, and hoped that it was easier to do her job now.  She replied she was "so sorry to hear he was leaving, and really was going to miss him. She said she felt sad she never even got to say goodbye."
 Really?!? My faith allows me to give it all away and that is exactly what I had to do. For, I know that actions speak louder than words.

As for educating our son, our amazing mother's took over as teachers during the day. I created a curriculum and instructed every night after I got off work. Twice a week one of his grandmas would usher Nehemiah to and from Des Moines for some assistance learning how to process and focus. Every other day he would work on the material I had assigned.  This made such a vast improvement to Nehemiah's confidence level, and I know that we did the right thing.  It was a lot of work for our mothers,  and there is no way to repay them for taking on this task. We know we are blessed to have amazing grandparents for our children, and that Nehemiah was able to learn in an environment where he felt comfortable.

This is a key element in a successful classroom, and if you are lacking this your students do not receive the type of education they deserve.  We learned a lot as parents and educators through this whole process. It was a saga that has led to a lot of research and further fueled my passion in the classroom. I earned my Masters of Arts in Teaching in Special Education after this incident, and now use this experience to help me make better choices in my own classroom. My students deserve to have an educator who will do whatever it takes to increase their learning, and to allow them to be who they are. I truly believe that twenty years from now your students will not remember a specific lesson, but they will remember how you made them feel. Therefore, I hope to provide the type of education that lasts a lifetime.  An education that may have nothing to do with how well I mapped out a unit, how many tricks I used to teach multiplication facts, nor how effective my grammar lessons were. I hope they learn how to treat others with respect, care for everyone, and that solving a problem is not about medicating the symptoms.  I hope they realize that sometimes it really does take a village not a prescription for medication.

Please read, share and contact me with any questions or concerns. I am really glad I could speak with a few readers last week about ways to assist their children. If you know of anyone who would find this useful please send it on to them. After a few parent discussions I am planning out future blogs to answer specific reader questions. So, if you have an educational topics or concern you would like covered let me know. After all, we are all in this together. Please, enjoy some pictures from my own village/classroom below:

A classroom built by 4th Graders
Family Game Night 



Sunday, March 16, 2014

Chemical Warfare...Part 1

Climbing A Mountain of Snow
Parent Teacher conferences are one of my favorite times of year. I love to have the opportunity to brag about "my kids" to their families. It is a great opportunity to see the kids sharing what they enjoy most about school, and discussing strategies to help in areas of weakness. Though, each year I flash back to the worst and best parent teacher conference of my life. This one was with my own child's teacher, and it is one incident, which helps me find perspective when I face a challenging student.

"Welcome! Would you mind if a student teacher is allowed to sit in on your conference this evening?" the teacher questioned as she guided me into the room.

"Of course, I do not mind at all." I said happily. I was introduced to the student teacher, and we all settled into our chairs.

 "I am so glad you could make it tonight. I wanted to talk with you about putting your son on some medication for his ADHD," the teacher stated seriously.

"What? Wait. I am confused. What are you talking about? On second thought, just one minute." I replied, as my mind raced as a parent and my jaw dropped as an educator.  I took a deep breath, held up my index finger, promptly shushing any response from the teacher sitting across from me. Then I promptly turned to the student teacher.

Dog pile on Bubba

"I am really glad you are in this meeting with us today. I am an educator myself, and I really hope to help you learn a very important lesson tonight. Your mentor teacher has just created an opportunity for some powerful learning.  First, you should NEVER, EVER start any meeting with a parent suggesting medication. You should also never diagnose a child with any disorder because that is not your job, nor are you qualified. Also, before you start a conversation with concerns about a disorder you may suspect, in October, you had better have some reasons to support your thoughts, and some data to back up your educated observations. Otherwise, you just have an opinion that might piss a parent off, and pit them against you. Oh, and NEVER wait until parent conferences to discuss an issue you have been having in class." The student teacher was holding her breath, and I was just finding mine as I swung around to look into the red faced teacher opposite me.

"Now, what are your concerns Ms. Footinmouth (not her real name). I will give you some time to share your data and discuss ways to assist my child in your class." I stated curtly, and waited for an answer.

Camping at Denali with his best friend, Otis
"Uh... I...I ...Um..." Ms. Footinmouth stuttered.

"Okay, let me ask you this, Do you have data?" Ms. Footinmouth, shook her head and looked down at the table. I felt my blood boiling beneath my skin, but knew at this point my need to scream would not be productive. I had already proved my point, and now I just wanted to know why this teacher felt qualified to diagnose my little boy with a disorder and automatically request medicine. So, I took a deep breath and tried to separate my emotions as best I could.

"Explain what you are seeing in class that makes you feel he needs to be evaluated by a medical professional for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." I gritted through my teeth.

"He is constantly distracted and off task. When he is reading, and our math bell goes off, he should put his book away. However, he completely ignores the bell and keeps reading. He is constantly staring off into space, and seems to be in his own world. He has to move a lot and will not sit still in his seat. He is not reading well, and his math scores are low." She rambled after more shaking and stuttering.

Little Susitna River

"This is the first I have heard of these concerns. I wish you had come to me sooner. But for now, have you sat in his seat?" I asked as I thought about my little, tiny boy sitting in this room under her direction every day. The little boy who would categorize and log rocks based on their properties in his notebooks at home. The little guy who sat for hours setting up farms with his toys, and climbed trees to read books in the quiet.

"What? No, I do not sit in their chairs." She scoffed as if I were an unintelligent buffoon.

"Okay, get up let's go sit there now." I said as I stood, and stared down at her. Eventually, she rose and walked me to his seat. I slid into the seat and looked around me. I observed aloud.
Historical School @ Hatcher's Pass

"I see the beautiful trees through the window directly in front of him. I bet the wind blows and the leaves dance and create cool designs. I can also tell you he probably enjoys watching the cars go down the street directly in front of him. In fact, he could probably tell you when the postman comes each day. The pencil sharpener is to his right. So, I imagine the kids who come to sharpen their pencils spend some time talking with him, and the sound of the grinding may be pulling him out of the educational environment. I also see that his desk is in a straight row, but they are also touching the desks around him. I can imagine the continual vibration and movement of others creates a distraction as well. Do I need to go on?" I asked, as I slid out of the chair. Ms. Footinmouth shook her head, and we wandered back to the meeting table where the student teacher sat quiet as a mouse.

"Look," I sighed. "I am not opposed to hearing your thoughts on the needs of my son, but if you
World's cutest students
are going to jump to medicating my child for being a boy you need to understand that I will never wage chemical warfare on my children. No one can convince me medication is the answer, especially after you have no data showing specific behaviors or interventions. Part of our job as educators is to learn how our kids learn best and create an engaging environment for them. I know this is difficult, but simply stifling a child's natural need for movement and expression only creates an environment of negativity devoid of imagination and creativity. I will speak to my son about behaviors, and hold him accountable. I am also going to hold you accountable for creating a better seating arrangement and will send you some strategies to best assist students who have trouble focusing. Until then I expect that you will discuss strategies with your teacher intern to develop better communication skills between the teacher and a parent. I also hope you will let me know when you find something that works, and let me know what does not. I will gladly support you, if you can find a way to support my son." I said as I gathered my purse and rose from my seat. Ms. Footinmouth sat in stunned silence as I shook the clammy hand of the student teacher. Then, I walked out of the room, and cried the entire way home.

Nehemiah, our fun little guy at age 7
  I cried not because I felt sorry for myself. I cried because I was completely embarrassed for the profession I love so much. I cried because I knew there are some parents who would be making a doctor's appointment right now. I cried because our society has become accepting of diagnosing every single issue so we can throw medication at it. I cried because I was feeling awful that my child had probably been dealing with the wrath of this impatient, uncaring teacher all year. I cried because I realized he had been trying to tell me in his own way every day. He cried almost every morning before school, begging not to go. So, I cried for failing to find the reason behind his tears as I rushed him off to the bus in frustration.

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Happiness is one of those things we all strive for, seek when we have lost it, and take it for granted when we have it.  In my philosophy class in college we had a heated debate regarding the word happy. It was interesting to hear the different view points about this five letter word. I truly believe that happiness is a choice (and I still have an 8 page philosophical essay to back up why I feel that way). Granted sometimes it is a difficult choice to make when life has thrown you a curve ball. Yet, if you choose a smile, and give it all to God, you can find the glory in each and every day.

Sometimes, you have to DECIDE to be happy. The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon is something I read after taking the 4th grade teaching position at a tiny school district in Eldon, Iowa.  Cardinal Community School District is a dynamic district, always seeking ways to ensure positive vibes are being cast out to our students, families,  community, co-workers and the world in which we live.

This past week, Cardinal Community School District is taking time to celebrate our greatest asset; our KIDS!!!! It is Student Appreciation Week; therefore, we have had many fun activities for students to enjoy. We just want them to know how much we appreciate having them in our classrooms. One very special project was inspired by the awesome video from Pharrell Williams, "Happy."  It seems to be our mantra, which coincides with our motto to "Do No Harm."  We do whatever we can to make our kids happy not just educated.  We developed this video to show all the world what happiness in education looks like.

We had a crew who filmed kids dancing, having fun and had enough footage of giggles, laughter and joy that we could have created a, "made for TV movie." However, I condensed it as much as I could, and am delighted with the outcome.    Share it, spread it,  sing it, shout it and please, please, please get up and DANCE TO IT!!!!