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Teaching: The Last of the Fully Bunkered Down Professions
health / disability issues |
Thursday September 15, 2005 16:27 by Anne Devlin
An account of the experiences of one family and their attempts to communicate with the teaching profession on behalf of their autistic son.
The days have long since passed when we used to regard professionals as demi-gods. Doctors, dentists and others – have to a greater or lesser extent had to come to terms with a better-informed and enquiring public which is savvy about what it wants and needs. We want to know, for example, why we are being prescribed x or y by our GPs, what the side effects are and the pros and cons for our health of using alternatives. Where negligence occurs we are more inclined to take action. Professionals are increasingly aware and respectful of the fact that their clients are sentient beings; capable of studying and understanding the quality of the service they are paying for. We make informed choices about what we want. There are, in fact, no pearls of wisdom and expertise being dispensed. A professional service boils down to parcels and packets of information that anyone with a brain in their head can study and understand if they are inclined so to do. The difference is merely that we chose to pay professionals to make the effort to learn these things on our behalf. We trust them to do the job properly and this trust is an essential part of the equation.
The situation is still far from perfect and some professions are more open and engaging with their clients than others. But there is one profession which has determinedly ignored the prevailing climate and which has so far successfully fought off every attempt to render it accountable for what it does: the teaching profession.
What follows below is a true story. The identities and location of the events described have been disguised for legal reasons. The circumstances of the situation relate to a 9-year old boy with Asperger Syndrome – an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) which has complicated and debilitating consequences for anyone suffering from it.
In order to understand how badly the teaching profession is failing such children it is first of all necessary to understand the symptoms of the condition. Briefly, ASDs impact on children across the whole spectrum of their development: behavioural, social, speech, physical and intellectual problems occur. A child may be exceptionally gifted in one aspect of their ability (say, maths or science) and yet have very little ability when it comes to reading or writing. There are often acute sensory difficulties which result in hyper activity or extreme sensitivity to loud noise or other strong stimuli. Many children will find the classroom situation very difficult and it is often the worst environment for the child – both because of the stress it causes them and because they will have great difficulty in learning while surrounded by distractions that they are unable to block out. Social skills are usually very poor – most Asperger children in particular do not read social signals and have difficulty understanding other people. They seldom have friends and can spend much of their time as loners at school. They tire more easily, can have muscle tone problems which make them clumsy and often have great difficulty getting to sleep at night. ASDs are exhausting and frustrating conditions to live with and, in a cruel little twist of fate, perhaps the hardest thing of all for the children themselves is that by about the age of 8 they become intelligently conscious of their difference and yet can do nothing about it. By late adolescence or young adulthood, many are profoundly depressed – even suicidal. The sad truth is that this need not be the case at all.
An aggravating factor of ASDs both for the children and for their parents is, incredible though it may seem, that the child looks completely normal. In fact, these boys (and they are mainly boys) are often strikingly beautiful children. No matter how much information is offered, no matter how much the condition is explained, it seems that many teachers are completely unable to stop themselves from being deceived by appearances. Thus, we have countless stories of appallingly inappropriate treatment of children in schools. There is a stubborn and ignorant conviction among the teaching profession that these conditions are not any form of real disability (‘isn’t John brilliant at maths? Sure, there’s nothing wrong with him!’), but a result of parental mismanagement and indulgence. There is a wilful insistence on misinterpreting behavioural difficulties which are known features of the condition as something that can be disciplined out of the children with the result that in school many children are, in effect, routinely punished and disciplined for their disability.
It is a savage indictment of our education system here in Ireland that despite all the knowledge that exists about these conditions, so many of our schools are still functioning in such a backward, ignorant and incompetent way. Despite what some people are calling a major epidemic of ASDs there is as yet no training on special needs education as part of basic teacher training.
In September 2003, Billy joined 1st class in the local boys primary school in the town to which his parents had moved that summer. Billy has multiple learning disabilities including verbal dyspraxia, minor and major motor difficulties, an intellectual disability (lower than average IQ) and Asperger Syndrome. He is a challenging child to teach who presents with a range of learning and other problems which are difficult for him and for any teacher to work with. He is allocated a full time Special Needs Assistant (SNA) and 3 hours of one-to-one resource teaching per week – the only time he ever really accomplishes any true learning at school.
At the beginning of the school year 2003/4, the professional team who have been providing therapeutic services (OT and psychological) for Billy, visit the school to explain the symptoms of his difficulties, to help the teaching staff interpret his behaviour accurately and to advise them on how he will best learn. This is an exceptional level of support and very few ASD children in Ireland will have that sort of input at that stage of their schooling. The school is given materials and references to other sources of support, to help in the planning and management of Billy’s teaching. Great care is taken to explain that a lot of understanding and patience will be needed. The principal, the resource teacher, the class teacher and the SNA all attend. Billy’s parents, who are also present, are delighted. This is a great start at his new school and there is every reason to think that a supportive and cooperative relationship has been established in which they will be able to play a constructive and helpful part. They know their son’s condition better than anyone and are well informed about what he needs and what will work best.
The first year goes by uneventfully. Billy seems to settle in well and if the school don’t appear to be overly concerned about involving Billy much in activities and learning opportunities outside of the 3 hours of resource teaching, his parents hope that once he is a little older and better able to rationalise the situation the school will begin to include Billy more directly in the full range of its activities. At the beginning of the second year, Billy’s parents arrange to meet with the classroom teacher to offer information and support for the coming year. They are hoping that a more concrete education plan will be possible this year.
They have been told by the principal that they must in future communicate directly with the class teacher and not via the SNA as they had been doing in the previous year. For some reason the SNA has not been told this herself and clearly takes umbrage when told by Billy’s mother that this is what she has been asked to do. This misunderstanding is the seed out of which develops a year of appalling misunderstanding and routine vindictiveness towards Billy’s parents. They are subsequently reproached by the class teacher for failing to acknowledge the SNAs abilities and she declares her to be ‘excellent’. A ‘them and us’ situation has already been established over a trivial misunderstanding, not of the parents making.
The teacher is not there when they arrive for the meeting. It is rearranged for another day. On arriving for the second meeting, another parent is with the teacher and she uses up 20 minutes of the half-hour that has been set aside. Billy’s parents have just 10 minutes to get through all that they had wanted to talk about: music, sport, socialising, strengths and weaknesses, difficulties with homework, illness and sleeping. It is evident that there has been no hand-over from his previous class and his parents have to start all over again. There is no time to get through it all. The teacher makes it clear that she is more concerned with Billy’s behavioural problems than anything else and suggests that he is not being disciplined well enough at home. This is the only information that she appears to have been given and it chimes with the attitude of the SNA who has constantly asserted that ‘there is nothing wrong with him, he’s just a bit of a loner’ and been noticeably cynical about his difficulties. The class teacher has tried during the first week or so of term to include Billy, she says, but finds it impossible to integrate his teaching requirements with those of the other children.
Worried by this afterwards, his parents set out the concerns they have been unable to discuss and summarise Billy’s symptoms in a supportive and encouraging letter. In the letter they ask to be able to meet with the teacher again and to be able to keep up regular communication during the year. There are tried and trusted learning approaches which could be used to great benefit. Fully anticipating a constructive response, they are dumbfounded when they receive a curt and dismissive two-line note in Billy’s homework book. It ignores the range of important issues raised and no teaching plan for Billy is ever put in place outside of that for his 3 hours of resource teaching. He spends most of the other 25 hours of the school week merely present in the classroom, substantially unable to join in - being supervised by the SNA so that he does not disturb the other children. A good SNA can be a godsend to a child. They are, however, the least qualified people involved in teaching them and yet they spend most time with the child. SNAs are now obliged to attend basic training, but the Department of Education and Science have stipulated that their role is to be strictly limited to physical and practical matters such as toileting and ensuring safety. A valuable possibility deliberately closed down.
Many SNA’s, nevertheless have good experience and are committed to their work. They make valuable contributions by their willingness to help with schoolwork and other educational tasks, for instance. At the beginning of Billy’s second year the principal advertises for several SNA posts. Two hundred people apply. Among the successful applicants is a local farmer’s wife with no training and little aptitude for the work. Among the unsuccessful applicants is a woman with extensive knowledge, training and experience of SNA work. Her application is never acknowledged.
During the year Billy is routinely sent to the principals office for talking too much. From time to time he is taken to task for doing something inappropriate – pushing or pulling hair. He does rash things and is excitable in the classroom. His parents explain again that he does not function well around lots of other people – it causes him anxiety and he is unable to cope with the various stimuli. This results in impulsive and difficult behaviour. He needs to be kept focused. He would very much like to make friends and has learned that being silly is the most successful means of attracting the attention of the other pupils. They find him difficult to understand because of his speech difficulties so generally don’t engage him in conversation. He is unable to join in the cooperative games they play so he spends much of the social time at school running around the yard unsuccessfully attempting to join in. The parents’ requests for a socialising and ‘buddying’ scheme continue to be ignored. Aside from his physical needs he is for the main part educationally and socially ignored other than for the purpose of criticising him. His parents explain that by the time the school day finishes, he is extremely tired and that they have great difficulty trying to get him to do his homework. They believe, along with many professionals, that it is inhumane to force him in this way every night. This is interpreted as ‘a lack of parental cooperation with school policies’ by the principal.
The battle at nights is proving counterproductive and making every evening a misery at home. They ask if some of the wasted time at school could be used for this purpose instead, but are refused. The parents insist they are unwilling to force the issue – it is cruel and upsetting to Billy who is at his most difficult in the hours before bed. It takes them an average of 4 hours at night to get him to go to sleep and he is frequently still awake after the rest of the family has gone to sleep – waking them from time to time. This is not uncommon with such children and many parents are forced to resort to medicating their child in order to be able to function adequately themselves. In the mornings Billy is difficult to wake and is tired before he ever sets foot in school.
There are various concerning incidents during the school year a few of which are described below.
During the year, Billy is diagnosed with vision problems and his optician suggests that he sit at the top of the classroom because of them. This request is given to the SNA to pass to the teacher. The SNA declares that she has never noticed anything wrong with Billy’s sight. The response from the teacher, via the SNA, is that he cannot sit up at the front because it might be a distraction for the other children. He spends the year at the back of the room.
The school has a home-school newsletter which parents are required to sign and return under school policy so that the principal knows that everyone has read it. Billy’s parents have always signed it. However, having moved house the day the magazine comes home from school a few weeks before Christmas, it is buried in a box of paperwork for three weeks after the move. Eventually they sign the newsletter after much pestering from the SNA who says the principal is becoming annoyed about it. Two days later, Billy is punished by the principal because of this delay. His parents protest strongly to the school that it is completely unfair to punish a child for something he is not responsible for and point out that this is probably illegal also. The parents refuse to sign any further copies of the magazine while that is the school’s policy. Billy had been upset and humiliated to have 15minutes docked from his precious soccer time (he has no aptitude for it but is allowed to be the team captain one day a week by the soccer coach to make him feel included). He cries at home about it afterwards.
Billy complains that the SNA is often very cross with him. ‘She doesn’t like me’ he says. The school day-trip, for example, is a nightmare. Seeing his father as he climbs down from the tour bus, he runs towards him, glad to see him. The SNA, despite his father’s presence and clearly furious, comes after Billy, drags him roughly by the arm back to the bus and crossly instructs him to pick up his bag. Billy complains that the SNA has rigidly held his hand throughout the day at the park and has kept him from walking around with the other boys. He has frequently been to this park which is secluded and secure. He has never in his life had an inclination to wander because he is frightened of getting lost. The SNA is also fully aware that many children with Asperger Syndrome intensely dislike being touched or physically restricted. It frightens and distresses them. This has been pointed out to the SNA several times and she has commented on it herself previously. Nevertheless she has deliberately subjected him to tight hand-holding throughout the hours at the park. Having set off in the morning full of excitement and anticipation about visiting one of his favourite places, he comes home miserable and traumatised. He cries about the SNA’s meanness towards him in the car on the way home and is depressed for the rest of the day.
By the time Billy’s father gets to see the principal about this he finds he has been pre-empted by the SNA who has already alleged to him that Billy behaved very badly on the school trip and that she has been forced to keep him ‘held by the hand’ for his own safety. The principal ignores the complaint and dismissed even what Billy’s father had seen with his own eyes.
At a parent teacher meeting a couple of months before the end of the year, the class teacher has said that Billy is making reasonable progress in her view. At the end of the year she nevertheless writes a report that describes Billy as a failure in every aspect of his educational attainment. Both she and the resource teacher make significant references, not to Billy’s needs, but to the difficulties and views of the SNA. He is even criticised for his failure to make friends.
Offended and insulted by this report, and in the knowledge of his teacher’s outright refusal to work cooperatively with them and her stated preference for relying on the prejudices of the SNA, they write a letter to the school to say that the report is offensive and that the situation urgently needs to be addressed before the next school year begins. They describe the year at school as a wasted year and ask whether the teacher considers, on reflection, if she might have done anything differently? The letter is ignored.
The Special Education Needs Officer and the Education Welfare Officer, when contacted, say that they will ask the school to put an Individual Education Plan (IEP) in place for Billy for the next year. The principal refuses to meet with them and Billy’s parents before the end of the school year and insists that he cannot see them until after the beginning of the next term, in September. Billy will be unable to attend school until this meeting has taken place. The principal tells Billy’s father that he is very angry that they have gone outside the school for help.
Another parent at the school tells Billy’s parents that the principal has described Billy as ‘a looper’ to her. In fact, the principal has been equally indiscreet with Billy's parents having discussed in detail his intentions towards other SEN children in the school and expressing his views about the attitudes of their parents. This is shockingly unprofessional and it is an open secret that the school's staffroom is an extremely gossipy environment.
In the meantime, unknown to his parents and without their authority, the principal strikes Billy from the school roll and cancels his SEN provision for the next year (SNA and resource teaching).
Just before the beginning of Billy’s third year, his parents telephone, email and write to the Principal to ask for a date for the meeting with the SENO and Welfare Officer (WO). The principal ignores them. They contact the SENO who contacts the principal and a meeting is arranged a week into term.
The principal is aggressive and resentful at the meeting. He resists the necessity for having an IEP ( a legal requirement under the Education of Persons with Special Needs Act 2004) and is clearly still hugely ignorant of the provisions of the Act – which have huge consequences for principal teachers. The SENO and WO insist that an IEP must be put in place. Billy’s father points out that he has been at the school for two years and that it seems incredible that nobody has ever been concerned that he is doing virtually nothing for most of the time that he is present. He also points out that the last school report is in fact nothing more than a list of the symptoms of Billy’s disability, described as failures and weaknesses. It is the equivalent, he says, of criticising a child in a wheelchair for not being able to walk. The need for regular communication is established.
After the meeting the principal writes to the parents informing them for the first time that Billy has been struck from the roll and claiming that they had told him to do it. The SENO and the Welfare Officer are able to confirm that this is not the case. Because of his own actions he must now, two weeks into the term reapply for resource teaching hours and an SNA. These arrangements had all been in place at the end of the previous year. He insists that Billy is too late to enrol for guitar classes at the school which he was promised the previous year.
As of the 16th September 2005, Billy has now missed two and half weeks of school and is likely to miss a further two or three by the time the SNA is interviewed and appointed and is in a position to begin work – all as a consequence of the principal’s illegal actions against this intellectually disabled child. Billy has been upset not to be at school with the other boys. His classmates have all been told that Billy will not be returning and that he is no longer on the school roll. In fact these children and their parents were all aware of these facts before either Billy or his parents were told.
The Education Welfare Officer confirms that neither she nor the newly formed National Council for Special Education have any authority to require the principal to conduct himself in a constructive way. The only option available to the parents is to complain to the Board of Management of the School, who are for the main part a collection of the local town worthies who defer to the principal rather than the other way around. The principal is basically a law unto himself.
A meeting with Billy’s new class teacher is to take place when he starts school in order to discuss the IEP. The principal insists that he wishes to be present. It remains to be seen whether he will permit a constructive discussion. The signs are not good.
The crime of the parents that has given rise to all of this was their simple request to be proactively involved in their son’s schooling at the beginning of the previous year. This is not a unique story. It describes the experiences of a huge number of parents with SEN children. The difficulty seems to be that teachers are incapable of accepting that parents of SEN children have a much closer knowledge of their children’s conditions and that they could well learn something from the parents if they were prepared to listen. There are no educational guidelines for how to teach a child with an ASD. Each teacher makes it up as he or she goes along. There is no proper scrutiny of how any of it is being done. It is a lottery and the resulting wasted potential for a group of children who can have exceptional abilities in some respects is nothing short of a scandal. This leaves aside the emotional and psychological neglect and basic abusiveness of the system as it currently stands and the infantilising and deliberate alienation of parents. The teaching profession is out of control.
When will the Irish teaching profession emerge from its defensive bunker? When will it learn to respect the legitimate interest that parents have in the quality and management of their children’s’ education? What is the sacrilege, exactly, in wanting to know why and how they do what they do? What is wrong with wanting to know whether it is working? Why is there a problem about offering information and advice that the teacher may not be aware of? Our children are our most precious ‘commodity’, it has often been said. Why do we accept a situation where we hand them over at the age of 4 for most of their waking lives until they are 18, to the control of the teaching profession, meekly accepting that everything is fine, scarcely daring to ask even the most timid of questions for fear of the consequences for our children and for ourselves? Who monitors the professionalism and conduct of teachers either towards their pupils or towards their pupils’ parents? Why is the whole profession concerned, not with the education of the children in their care, but with an egotistical and vein preoccupation with their own professional status?
Why does our education system have virtually no safeguards against the fact that some teachers are simply no good at what they do (as with any occupation!), others are indifferent and more again are downright unsuitable and dangerous? With an illiteracy rate running at 22% it is high time that we stopped allowing ourselves to be dictated to by the childishness and vanity of this profession and called them to account for what they are doing.
Yes, there are teachers who are conscientious and who do a good job – almost certainly the majority. But for the main part, the vast majority have an extraordinarily inappropriate attitude towards parental involvement so that, even where the standard of teaching is good, there is an unhealthy antipathy and prickly resistance to cooperative engagement with parents. This is greatly to the detriment of the children they purport to be concerned about.