Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Time, Scheduling, and Special Education

The other day I took part in a conference call with special educators from across the country. The Government Accountability Office had gathered us together to ask about how following the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) impacts our day. How much time do we spend on paperwork? Do we feel that this paperwork helps achieve the goals of IDEA? What would we change? What from the paperwork is beneficial?

It was fascinating to hear other professionals' responses, yet I found myself depressed about the call all weekend. Every educator on the call professed to working hours and hours after the students left. The mind boggling paperwork seems to crush our profession, and many shared about time consuming paperwork that holds them accountable for their actions while taking away from their time with the
students. Many talked about refusing to sacrifice valuable time to work with their students during the school day, which of course means they must do paperwork on their personal time. It was depressing to hear about the paperwork requirements other districts have put into place to be able to prove that they are following IDEA. Some of the paperwork is valuable, but some seems to just be creating a paper trail to protect the school districts from law suites.

One participant made a comment about teachers who choose not to work at home and to be with their families instead of working after hours. It felt that their argument was that those teachers sacrifice time from working with the students for their own personal time. As someone with two young children at home that stung. And keeps stinging. Almost every day I am faced with the decision of what work I am going to take home and what I will leave at school so that I can have a few hours with my family. It is always a hard decision knowing that my students are so behind and need so much in order to catch up. Yet my own children need me too. I know every teacher out there, even those without young children, feel this daily battle. We desperately want our students to succeed, and we want to do everything in our  power to make that happen, so where do we draw the line between home and work? 

We have to be careful of not falling into the "I work harder, longer, and make more sacrifices than you" game. What are we doing to each other? We have to stop being a profession of martyrs. We are burning each other out by not putting any limits on our work expectations. Tired, grouchy teachers do not do anyone any good.

This is true in all areas of the profession, but particularly in special education where we don't give ourselves enough time to do paperwork during work hours. We often feel guilty if we are sitting at a computer working on the paperwork side of the job instead of working directly with students. No one became a special education teacher because they were excited to fill out forms, document daily progress, and find the perfect, legal sentence that accurately describes how a student is performing in the classroom. We worry that the classroom teachers will judge us for sitting at a computer, and we often judge ourselves.

The paperwork is a significant part of our job, and one that is often overlooked. It is seen as less valuable because it does not directly touch kids. Yet the paperwork is valuable, but only when it is done well. When true data is in place and the paperwork communicates a full picture of the student we are able to gain new perspectives and develop more meaningful plans to help the child learn. We can accurately assess where the student is performing and what the next steps are. We gain insight and an understanding, and protect the student from the harsh judgement of other educators who may view the student as lazy or incapable without knowing the student's background. If we skimp on our paper trail we are doing a disservice to the student. Who knows what others reading the student's file will believe about the student after reading our work?

Almost every teacher I know has developed an uncanny ability to productively use every minute of every day. Lining students up for lunch? A great time to work on counting skills or ordinal numbers? "Who is first in line? Who is second?" Valentines Day? The perfect opportunity to teach how to write a letter. Because we are constantly trying to use every second of every day as effectively as possible we often do ourselves an injustice with scheduling. Ask a teacher how many times they use the bathroom during the school day. For many teachers I am willing to bet it is only once.

To be fair to ourselves, our colleagues, and our students we have to be nicer to ourselves. We have to stop feeling guilty for spending time doing paperwork, for not taking work home every night, or even for giving ourselves a twenty minute lunch break where we are not pulling students for a lunch bunch. There will always be work to take home and students to see, and there are days we will sacrifice our personal time to get these things done. But let's support each other when we choose to create some sort of balance. Let's remind one another that we work better when we work smarter and not harder, and that our students benefit from well planned lessons instead of ones planned on the go because we did not have planning that day. Let's advocate for our planning time with our administrations and not be worried as being seen as lazy or not child focused for asking to have the time to do an essential part of our job. 

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