My post today is a bit about Ben, but more about my reflections of my time as a classroom teacher. Whenever I learn about autism or sensory processing, I first think about this new understanding from the perspective of helping my son, but then I think about the larger impact in my work as an educator. The techniques and truths that I have learned will benefit more than just my son.
Today's post is a self-reflection. As with most of my posts, it is based on my unique perspective and experiences, but I hope that you can gain some insights from them that can translate to your personal circumstance, whether you are a parent, teacher, autistic adult, or simply an interested reader.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve enjoyed learning. That was the major reason that I became a teacher. I love kids but, even more so, I enjoy helping others learn. I love watching the look in someone's eye when they "get it". I love feeling the energy and buzz that comes with learning.
I still work closely with teachers, but I no longer teach in the classroom.
I thought I did a pretty good job as a classroom teacher. My students were generally happy and they made learning gains. I spent lots of time planning with my colleagues. I spent lots of time thinking through the lessons I would teach. And, during the school day, I worked hard every minute. I didn’t sit behind my desk- I was up teaching the kids. I worked hard after school too. I was one of the teachers who the custodian had to kick out in the evenings. I was devoted to my job. Still am.
After two years of learning about sensory processing and autism, I now realize that if I were ever to go back into the classroom, I would do so many things differently.
Here is what I know now that I didn’t understand then…
1) I didn’t understand OTs.
Let me start by saying that I love the OTs in Ben’s life. They are the critical factor to helping him achieve at school. But back before Ben's diagnosis, I didn’t understand their role or how what they were doing in therapy directly benefited the students in my classroom. To my untrained eye, it looked like they were playing games and if I were to be completely honest I probably harbored a little irritation that they were taking time away from the real work the kids needed to do in the classroom. Now I know I was so, so wrong. First, OT is fun. Sadly, if school in general were more fun, kids would probably learn more! Secondly, the games played in OT all have a necessary purpose. For example, when kids swing on the monkey bars, it actually builds the muscles needed for fine motor skills, skills like writing essays. Back then I had no idea about a sensory diet. I knew that kids needed time to run off their energy, but I didn’t understand the power of a five minute energizer in the class. I see now how the work that OTs do has a direct impact on classroom academic performance. If a kid is not in a calm, alert state, learning is nearly an impossibility. I wish I would have understood the power of Bridges and Brain Gym and the other tools that were put in place early in my teaching career to support the body/brain connection. I would have used them much, much more.
2) I didn’t understand sensory behaviors.
As a teacher, I thought I understood student behavior. I thought I was great at handling behavior “issues” because I almost never had to send a kid to the principal’s office. I could handle almost anything myself. I knew about attention-seeking behaviors, students behaviors to gain power and control, defiant and aggressive behaviors. You name it- I’d dealt with it. However, I never truly understood the impact of the sensory world on a person’s behavior. It didn’t occur to me nearly often enough that some of the behaviors that I was seeing were not a child trying to cause me difficulty. I didn’t understand that the child who fell out of his seat may have been trying so hard to pay attention to me that he literally couldn’t stay in his seat and pay attention at the same time. I didn’t understand that the child tapping his pencil while he worked wasn’t doing it for the express purpose of annoying me (well- maybe sometimes...). It was probably his way of organizing his thinking. If I had understood these sorts of things, I would have punished less and put more strategies in place to support the children’s sensory needs.
3) I didn’t understand autism at all.
In my time as a classroom teacher, I never had a student on the autism spectrum in my class. I knew of these children in my school, but they were always in the self-contained classrooms. If I had been given a child on the spectrum to teach, I would like to believe that I would have read everything I could on the subject so that I could have educated myself. I would like to believe that I would have sought input from the experts at my school to help me and attended trainings if I could. These past two years have taught me a lot about autism, and I hope that the lessons I’ve learned would have transferred into my teaching. I have learned that children on the spectrum need structure and predictability. They need classroom routines that are posted and stay consistent from day to day. They are typically visual learners. They need to be warned before sudden changes in their routine. Social stories are so helpful, because you can read a story of what’s going to happen, and it helps to prepare them for this change. They are literal thinkers. Expressions like "This is a piece of cake" are often confusing to them. I have also learned that autism is a spectrum, and most likely I taught an undiagnosed autistic student at some point in the past and just didn’t know it. I hope I served that child well.
4) I didn’t understand IEPs nearly well enough.
IEPs (Individual Education Plans) are written for a student with disabilities to outline the individual goals and objectives for that calendar year, based on the assessment information collected on that child. When I was a teacher I relied too much on the special education teachers who worked with me to know the child’s goals on the IEP. I looked at their IEPs from time to time (mainly for their testing accommodations) but didn’t keep them in the forefront of my planning for that child. I didn’t collaborate frequently enough with the ESE teacher. I wish I would have utilized the experts in my school more when I had difficulty with students rather than trying to figure out the best course of action on my own.
5) I didn’t differentiate nearly enough.
As a teacher, I spent a lot of time and energy thinking about how to group students. I thought about which child shouldn’t be sitting next to which child. I thought about who should go in which reading group together based on reading levels. I even thought about how to create assignments for the various learning levels in my room. But as a teacher I still defaulted (subconsciously) to teaching in the ways that worked best for my own personal learning style. I think that we often teach others in the ways that we ourselves learn best. If I were to go back in the classroom now I would talk less and observe my students more in order to find the right teaching style to meet the needs of my unique group of learners.
Teaching is a hard job. Those who have never taught have no idea just how grueling and also rewarding it is. Teachers are a blessing and a gift because they touch the lives of our children every single day.
I am grateful every day for the work teachers do.
I am in awe of them and seek to make their lives easier whenever I can.
I am so glad that Ben has an amazing teacher and team that works with him every day. I am grateful that they have the benefit of understanding more about sensory processing and autism then I did when I was a classroom teacher.
There is a saying that when you know better, you do better. My eyes have been opened to a whole new sensory world, thanks to my son.
I hope that by sharing my journey with others, they too can learn and grow.
It will be interesting to see what I have learned in five years' time.