Friday, December 6, 2013

My Son with Special Needs Taught me More about Education than Seven Years in the Classroom



I am the product of a classical education. My mother, an English teacher, and my father, an attorney, instilled in me a respect for education that I embraced in my youth, fought like hell against in my adolescence and rediscovered in adulthood. I realized my calling as a teacher while on a backpacking trip through Europe shortly after graduating college. At the time, I had $20,000 in student loan debt, a degree in English, and virtually zero career prospects upon my return from abroad (see reference to English degree). As we wandered the streets of Prague, Florence, and Paris, I found myself unable to avoid the pull of Kakfa, Dante, and Hemingway; these men had defined my understanding of these cities, and I talked Brian’s ear off about their influence on modern culture. In those moments, my desire to teach was born.

Of course, upon my return I had begun to sing a different tune and thought that I could “do better” than teach. But despite a top-notch education from The University of Texas and a set of useful skills, I couldn’t find a job. Like others from the everyone-gets-a-trophy generation, I expected the offers to come streaming in. Moreover, I was told that my college degree would be worth more than the debt I acquired to earn it. With limited options and a waning confidence, I decided to revisit the notion of teaching and applied to Texas State's graduate program in education. I earned my teaching certificate and Master’s degree in Secondary Education two years later and entered the classroom still wet behind the ears, but passionate as all get-out. I fell into my role rather seamlessly. I found I actually enjoyed puzzling through discipline problems and, even though I had practically no idea what I was doing that first year, I loved my job.

Now, in my 7th year in the classroom, the only thing that’s changed is the expertise that comes with experience. I don’t feel like a braggart admitting that I’m good at my job. I’m not perfect, but I enjoy it and I forge relationships with my students that are real and based on a mutual respect for each other and the subject matter. Most importantly, we have a good time and we learn, read, and discuss. And I’m fortunate to teach on a campus that focuses on real education, not just test scores and school data. 

But yesterday in class, my eyes were opened to something I’ve known all along: despite the aforementioned positives, I’m beginning to see the perils of traditional education. It began innocently enough. We’re in the process of reading Antigone, the classical Greek drama about a young woman who risks her life for a morally just cause. To tie in poetry and help them relate to the greater themes within the work, I decided to spend some time listening to and annotating protest music. While discussing Pink Floyd’s message of anti-establishment in “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” I described the band’s beef with traditional education and the notion that school is purely a stepping stone for one’s career. I explained this in the context of mid-century British prep schools, not realizing that everything I said was true of our own system of education until a student told me as much.  


The incident gave me pause. I’ve known for some time that our country’s current system of education will not be terribly useful to Quinn. This isn’t to say that I don’t have high hopes for his future, but American public schools focus almost entirely on academic intelligence. Standardized tests quantify how well a student can read, understand math, and essentially take tests. College entrance is based on test scores and GPA, while only a select few are accepted based on kinesthetic intelligence or artistic talent. Our country is built on the foundation that one’s ability to pass an exam is the only measure of intelligence. And despite having many students over the years who couldn’t pass the state tests, I haven’t taught a dumb kid yet. What most traditional educational models refuse to accept is there is more than one kind of intelligence. 

And now I’m torn on the usefulness of this model. First and foremost, I see that our success in our capitalistic, consumer-driven world is based largely on the size of one’s bank account. In turn, one’s bank account grows with one’s willingness to follow the rules, go to college, and get a good job. Is this really the success I want my children to strive for? Moreover, what does that mean for Quinn? Down syndrome presents itself in a number of ways, the most notable being intellectual delays, but he’ll be smart in other ways. He may love music, be a gifted athlete, or excel in interpersonal relationships, but I can’t currently think of an educational model that supports those talents alone. And where will that leave him? Where will that leave any kid with a learning disability or even a lack of interest in the common core?

This brings me back to my return from Europe when I was 22. I was bright-eyed and hopeful, anxious to prove my worth to a number of prospects that wanted little to do with me. Wasn’t this the whole reason I earned my degree? 

Well, no, actually. 

I went to college because it was expected of me, but I stayed because I learned to love learning. I had no idea when I selected my major that I wanted to be an English teacher. I chose this field of study because I was good at it and passionate about it. It was education for education’s sake, not as a precursor to my career. And all I really wanted to do was sit around and talk about literature (and try to look cool in coffee shops with my American Spirits and a battered copy of Love in the Time of Cholera…I was a pretentious little thing).

The beauty of this path is that in following what I loved, I discovered my calling to teach. I still get to sit around and talk about literature all day. But am I fueling a broken system? In the end, I'd like to think that I'm making the most of what I've been handed. I can't single-handedly change education in this country, but I can teach my students to think for themselves, embrace their diverse skills, and encourage them to value learning simply for the sake of knowledge, not as some precursor to vocational wealth.

But now I feel a new calling given Quinn's special needs. I cannot allow him to fall through the cracks of a system that will never truly appreciate his special gifts. Perhaps private education is the proper route for him; I'm not sure the public school system can meet his needs, nor will it value all the wonderful things he has to offer a world that is obsessed with appearances, financial success, and test scores. He is worth more than all those things combined. I cannot allow him to ever be considered a liability or a burden simply because his other modes of intelligence are ignored. Because really, I'd rather he be happy in his successes than encumbered by his struggles. It's what I want for both my children. It's what I want for every child.

I don't have the answers yet, but I'm on a mission to find them. Maybe it begins with all of us. As adults, we have a responsibility to instill proper values in our children and teach them what's really important. My babies will learn that their happiness is the best I could hope for them to achieve, whether that means becoming a lawyer, teacher, dancer, cashier, or cook. Or better yet, they'll learn that their careers do not define who they are, but are only small pieces of their identities. Because when we teach our children that they'll find success in following their own unique skills instead of trying to force them to fit the mold the world has made for them, that's when real success happens.

3 comments:

  1. Wholeheartedly agree with everything in your post!

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  2. This post was an encouraging reminder! I also took the education route post undergrad, and was not able to find a job. I had placed so much hope in that career path, only to reconsider if it was really what I'm "supposed" to do. Now I'm a mother, and it has redefined my entire identity. I'm glad I'm not alone in this! : )

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  3. I envy your students that they have such a smart and thoughtful teacher. They are very lucky. Good post.

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