Saturday, May 11, 2013

What do you think? Conversation with the Department of Education and CEC Members

On Wednesday I was among 15 other special educators/ members of the Council for Exceptional Children admitted into the holy epicenter of our country's education decisions- the United States Department of Education in downtown DC.

They tagged us with visitor badges, gathered us in the lobby and waited until we were all together to escort us upstairs. It was clear we were not to go anywhere in the building without our escorts. I'm not sure what they thought 15 teachers would do if let loose in the building, but I'm pretty sure they thought whatever we would do would be nefarious. Come to think of it, they were probably smart to stay with us. Never underestimate the power of a group of special education teachers. Particularly in the midst of testing season.

Escort services aside, it was a honor to be there, sitting around a conference table in that building, being asked questions about how current policy and decisions impact our students and ourselves. It is rare that policy makers stop to ask teacher opinions, and rarer still to be invited into the very place where decisions are made, offered a seat at the table, and have people genuinely listen, respond, reflect, and guide discussions around our concerns.

Before we arrived we were asked to reflect on the impact new teacher evaluations have on our practice, both good and bad, as well as how the Common Core and VA's SOLs play out with our students.

These are risky questions to ask a group of educators, and you very well could end up with a mutiny on your hands. But the conversation made me proud of our profession and the other teachers in the room. People spoke passionately yet rationally about what's happening in our schools. We talked about the frustrations with the alternative assessments for students with intellectual disabilities and how these assessments negatively impact our students, not just in the current school year but in designing their futures. We talked about data collection and how schools don't quite know what to do with all the data they have. We listened to one another tell the same story over and over again. Each story took place in a different setting, with different students, different grades, different administrators, but the bones of the stories were all the same. I wish I could retell every sentence uttered that afternoon because many of them were powerful. These were passionate people who desperately want the best for children. It was hard to listen to that group of teachers and think that we are a profession of lazy, uneducated, irresponsible and uncaring individuals as we so often get portrayed.

Some of the educators in the room are on their second career. They have experienced what life looks like outside of teaching. One passionately and articulately stated that "I have never had a job where I wore more hats... and that makes for hazardous working conditions". 

We all sat silently for a minute, letting that sink in as she explained how she saw these hazardous conditions evolving. And it's true. When you do too much you can't do anything well. I think that sums up my current frustrations about profession and my specific job. And I won't lie, I've been doing soul searching on whether or not I can stay in this profession. (More on that later).

Whether or not anything will come of our Wednesday afternoon conversation remains to be seen. But it was nice to be heard. Participating in a discussion illustrating our common difficulties, concerns, and successes was a powerful experience. It's rare as teachers we get to talk with one another across schools, states, and districts and not just share horror stories but instead have a meaningful debate on pros, cons, and possible solutions.

I have a lot to mull over in my head and more posts are coming on this afternoon...

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