Friday, August 15, 2014

Education's Bottom Line

I teach teens with moderate to severe intellectual disabilities. That means that they range from struggling and needing support to understand their world the way the rest of us do, to nonverbal, and needing toileting, feeding, and extensive physical and life skills support.

Most Resource Teachers (RTs) try very hard to do a good job of preparing these students for the world that awaits them: an rather unforgiving, rigorous world that has high expectations and low pay. We do what we can to teach everything from basic nonverbal communication skills through to household management, financial skills and employment expectations. Because of the vast range of kids we work with, school recycling has become a very popular way to work on those job skills. Students generally travel about the school with Educational Assistants (EAs), collecting bottles and cans and sorting them into recycling bags, where the custodians will gather and dispose of them.

When I took my current secondary school position, three years ago, I'd returned to high school following a long break during which I'd taught elementary resource, done a masters' degree in Australia, and dealt with pressing family issues. So I brought a reasonably fresh perspective to the high school scene, and what I saw concerned me. The pattern of our intellectually disabled teens cleaning up after their more privileged peers, to me, sent a problematic message. Why should intellectual disabilities relegate a person to menial tasks? Why couldn't these kids learn a broader range of employment skills? I decided to find out.

I'm an incurable crafter, and at some point that first year, I came across a Cricut die cutting machine. It crossed my mind that if EAs were to cut out the component parts, there was no reason our kids couldn't assemble Christmas gift tags. So I used the money they'd earned by working in our school coffee shop and I purchased our first Cricut machine.

That year, we sold gift tags at ten for a dollar. The kids assembled them, but they also participated at their level of competence, in taking and filling orders, distributing the tags, and keeping records of who had paid. I made a point of taking them with me whenever their earnings were due to be deposited, and they brought back their receipts to report to the class. We started chalking up our profits on the class whiteboard, and we began to save towards the community goal of a trip to Victoria for Operation Trackshoes.

Soon, we branched out to more elaborate offerings. They sold like hotcakes! So that you will understand that we are not talking about sympathy purchases, I will show you some pictures of what they made:

Before long, people started asking us whether we would have cards for other occasions. We produced some really wonderful ones for Mothers' Day, and then for Fathers' Day. Our local teachers' union contracted with us for fifty cards, to celebrate the retirement of fifty local teachers! The kids did all of the work marketing, promoting, and selling the cards. The EAs, God love them, designed and cut the components.

While all of this was going on, I was also teaching concrete lessons in how to conduct oneself in the workplace. Thanks to some excellent videos from James Stanfield company, we were doing role plays, discussions and written work on the topic of how to keep a job. Some of the students started using the language of instruction when they went off on work experience, saying things like, "We'd better work hard, because we need to be ninety day survivors!"

The students knew that the work they were doing had value, because people were paying for their cards and complimenting them on their work. They knew that the work they did had to meet a standard, because people would only purchase well made cards. They were excited that they had something to offer that people wanted, and they understood the concept of work ethic in a way that no amount of discussion would have imparted on its own. The district work experience person assigned to the special ed students, Dale Andersen, was so delighted with what she saw that she spread the word to other high schools. Now, she and I are working on developing a program for the district that moves well beyond recycling, into real-world job training that is reinforced in work placements.

We're thrilled and the kids are empowered. This is a big success story, and when I retire, it may be my legacy. But we afforded our new die cutter (a Silver Bullet - the Cricut couldn't keep up with demand) because we, the special ed department, have the task and the budget of running the secondary school coffee shop. We also manage and run the snack shop. Thanks to the foresight of our administration, we have a budget that allows us this kind of experimentation, due to a simple profit margin.

But what happens in schools where the kids aren't affluent enough to buy coffee and snacks? What happens in inner city schools, where kids are coming unfed and under funded? The opportunity we developed in my school for our students with intellectual disabilities is a huge success - but should it only be the kids in our particular neighbourhood who can afford to develop these skills?

Or should we, just possibly, contemplate the idea that all students deserve a chance to be the best they can be? Should we, maybe, fund schools so that students in inner city schools can also have a chance to be partially or wholly self supporting? 

Or do we want to privatize schooling and relegate my students to the back of the bus, where they will learn to fully appreciate the enormity of their handicaps, the degree of their dependence, and the need for handouts? Apparently the BC Liberals support this latter approach.

I don't know about you, but I think many of these kids can support themselves with dignity. The rest can contribute to their care. And that's my bottom line.

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