I used to teach learners we then called “special needs”. They were not physically challenged. They were not mentally challenged in the sense of having a disorder within the real of DSM III (as it then was). They were challenged by the education system which did not suite them and, in most cases, by parents who were not always sure they liked them.
There were sixteen of them. They came from what we may call distressed and dysfunctional families, but they called their parents mum and dad and their place “home”. They didn’t take drugs and we didn’t give them drugs – Ritalin was not available when I began teaching, though beer was in widespread use (even in the staff room). I did not hit them, though other teachers routinely did – it was a different time, one where physical punishment was metered out by Assistant Principals, some of whom were bullies.
There was not a national curriculum or key stages which these young people had to pass through. I was simply asked, as a teacher who had a degree in psychology, to work with them “and see where I could take them”. I was expected to enhance their reading, writing, number and social skills, but targets were not set and I was not subject to high stakes testing. I did, however, report on progress to my Principal and all parents every two weeks.
I had few resources. I had a book allowance, a radio and a TV set and I begged, borrowed and occasionally land-leased things I needed. These included a dartboard – if you want to get 15 years olds manipulating numbers fast, play darts; seven sets of domino's, used to teach life skills; packs of playing cards to help them understand the power of memory and learning; literally hundreds of magazines, newspapers, old photographs and like resources we used for building our idea and challenge collages; a reel-to reel tape recorder for our weekly radio broadcast to the whole school and dress up clothes for our fortnightly plays.
We had fun. Laughter was the order of the day. We also did a lot of work. Writing scripts, creating news collages, telling stories of families, learning how the horse racing and betting game really worked (four of the kids in the class had to put their parents bets on the horses at lunch time and over the week-end: a great opportunity to teach about risk, probability and the management of uncertainty).
By the time we finished our year together, each of the young persons in this class had a reading age equal to their actual age – a real achievement. Each of them secured 85% or higher on a “maths you need every day” test we devised. Each of them had made a public presentation, participated in a great deal of team activity and would be assessed by the school psychologist as having a high emotional intelligence quotient, despite their lack of IQ.
When we were leaving the school – me to take up a Research Fellowship and some of them to start their apprenticeships or go into the world of work – we were pleased to have worked together. Several stayed in touch.
Over twenty five years later we had a reunion. All but one showed up – he had died in action in the Falklands war (“he was always a bit of a nutter, that Ken” said his best friend, Angela). All were or had been married and all had daughters or sons, many of whom they brought to meet some of their old teachers. There were four of us they made a b-line for. We had, according to them, given them the spirit and the support to at least try to be something “out there”, they said.
One was now a local Councilor, Chairman of the Public Works Committee. Not a brilliant young man, but street smart and very focused. Two owned pubs and were quite wealthy. Several were self employed and, seemingly doing ok (“but don’t ask too many questions”, said Blethyn-the Blond Bombshell, as she was known in class). All were in cars much better than mine, though it was not always clear whether legal ownership was a matter still in dispute.
What mattered most to them, they said, was that the four of us teachers cared about them as people. They weren’t numbers, not check marks, not accountability statistics – they were Aiden, Angharrad, Blethyn, Mike, Sandy, Glyn, Wyn-Wynne and their friends. We showed respect. We also, they said, made them work hard, even though it didn’t always feel like work.
I had kept some of the tapes of our weekly newscast to the school and played them for them. They fell about laughing at how they sounded and at what they felt was important. They also started correcting each others grammar as we sat with a pint in the room at the back of the Craven Arms.
It was a year in my life. But these young men and women have shaped my life. They showed me that, even amidst hardship and stress, one can learn, be inspired and engage with others in pursuit of a project that matters or an activity where you can feel oneself learning. It also taught me the importance of the nimble professional, able to craft activities appropriate to the moment, the people and the goal. We weren’t told what to teach when, we had to work that out. We earned the respect of the community through our inventiveness, creativity and passion for learning.
I spend some time in schools now. I see many teachers doing remarkable things and young people responding as they have always done to genuineness, warmth and empathy. Our learners constantly surprise us.
But I also find a temerity amongst teachers, a fear of risk. I sometimes find fear of accountability – the stress of Provincial Achievement Tests. I often find a sense of despair that they cant do all that is expected of them by the Provincial curriculum – not quite the bible, but certainly regarded by many as the handbook to the holy land. Some cherish their professionalism, but many feel that it has been lost – certainly in the eyes of the community.
I wrote some time ago that it is time to give schools back to teachers – to trust them again and to give them room in the curriculum at all levels to invent, create, inspire, challenge and take risks with ideas. It is also time to rethink accountability and to focus on the teachers accountability for the work of each student in real time. It is time for real learning. It is time to recognize that, as far as learning outcomes are concerned, less is more. Less curriculum demands and more learning; less standardized testing and more person to person accountability; less fear and more inspiration.
Ironically, we were doing real learning in my class with the sixteen young men and women I taught in 1972-3. It was certainly real and life-long for them when I met them in 1999 in a pub in Cwmbran. They cared about their learning some twenty six years later.
I followed up with ten of my class last year. Two more of the sixteen had died – cancer. Six had the experience of seeing their sons or daughters graduate from university with a degree – the first in their families long history ever to do so. One, a car dealer, was now a multi-millionaire – when I knew him he survived by stealing from his mothers purse. All but one have grandchildren and they spend their grand parent time teaching them to read, write and do math. They know, first hand, the transformative power of learning.
Schools shape generations and can be inspiring places. To inspire learning, we need space and time. Space in the curriculum and time to customize that learning for every child. Now is the time for us to show just what we in Alberta can do when we set our minds to it.
One place we can learn from is from our special needs community and the teachers and staff who serve them. They are and have always been pioneers and I am proud to have once being a part of this cadre of innovators and imagineers.