A Personal Aside
In an earlier post entitled, On to a new adventure… I described my thought process leading me to leave academics and work toward becoming a teacher. I felt that this path would allow me to more directly make an impact on the lives of autistic children. In pursuit of that goal, I had accepted a paraeducator position working with autistic kids.
Well, starting next year I am going to be a teacher! I have been hired as a teacher working in a small classroom with somewhere between 10-15 children with autism. Placement in these classes is based on need, profoundness of behavioral issues, past history of classroom disruption, and IEPs. It is still unknown precisely what ages I will be teaching, but it will likely be children ranging between the 3rd-5th grade, and more likely 4-5th grade.
A logical conclusion to my scientific trajectory
I consider this position the logical conclusion of my scientific education. I worked for 12 years in academic science, first by studying the role of different brain regions in learning and memory. Then I moved into translational neuroscience wherein I worked directly with collaborators studying human behavior and I modeled those behaviors in mouse models. I extended this in my postdoctoral positions. Now I finally get to practice what I have been preaching for the last decade. I now have the opportunity to directly help autistic children succeed in school and life by directly applying my expertise in behavioral neuroscience. I also get to finally work toward helping kids like my late brother to succeed in school. I could not be more elated!
My sincere hope is that the last 12 years of “getting into the minds of” children and young adults with neurodevelopmental disorders, mice, rats, monkeys, sea lions, etc. has given me a sufficiently well stocked toolbox that I can teach autistic kids effectively. It is clear that these kids do not to respond well to a typical classroom situation. In fact, they have explicitly shown they do not function at all in that environment. That is where I come in. It is not going to be my job to get in front of class and lecture in math or language arts and then make the kids do problem sets. My job is to do whatever it takes to help them learn, help them function in society, and help them be better people.
Specifically, I am not going to approach this position by teaching in a traditional manner. I know from experience that standing in front of a classroom and lecturing to autistic kids rarely ends the way we want it to. These kids developed differently than most of us and thus they see and interact with the world differently than we do. I am excited that now I have the unique opportunity to use my experience as a behavioral neuroscientist to get into the heads of these kids and see the world through their eyes. Then, when I feel I have something of an idea how they interact with the world, I can develop a curriculum unique to each child that will help them flourish, learn, and succeed in their studies!
In other words, I get to “science” as a verb every day. I get to observe, collect data, form hypotheses, and test them! In this case, rather than a scientific experiment, I get to test if I have been able to develop an understanding of how one of my students thinks. If I am right, then I can move forward with his/her education with a new respect for how they view and interact with the world. If I was wrong, I regroup, go back, form another hypothesis, develop another approach, and try again!
A challenging road…
I am under no illusions that I chose an easy path. The challenge is what I am most excited about. Some teachers I work with have made me promise them that I will not be just “[A] facilitator of mainstreaming”, but rather I should take the full burden of educating these kids directly on my shoulders. Their point is simple: Sometimes in self-containment units we focus so hard on the behavioral issues that we unintentionally neglect the academic and educational requirements that are placed upon the children. In these cases, these kids sometimes receive less of an education than even children placed in resource classes due to intellectual disability.
In this way an ineffective teacher can hold kids back rather than push them forward-especially in a specialized classroom setting. As such. it is essential that I work as hard as I can to help guide and redirect problem behaviors in these autistic kids (these kids are put into these classes because they are too disruptive to be in normal classes after all); however, it is no less important that these kids keep up with the curriculum, lest they fall further behind.
One of these teachers made her expectations of my future teaching career crystal clear, “They hired you as a teacher. SO TEACH!” She is right. That is my responsibility. My responsibility to each autistic child in my class is that they will receive at least as good an education in my class as they would in mainstream. I will not condescend them or insult their intelligence by not holding them responsible for learning the material the rest of their grade is learning-and I will hold myself responsible for teaching them everything they need to know to succeed.
So now the fun begins!
Now that I am going to be an elementary school teacher, I feel like I have not studied for the test! It is exciting to realize how much I have to learn.
I know inside and out the challenges I am going to have with regards to the behavioral issues in autistic children in this age group. I have been informally studying it since I was that age. What I am contemplating at present is the best way to simultaneously help redirect problematical and distracting behaviors while concurrently teaching these autistic children the information they need to succeed in subsequent grades.
I am currently downloading every resource I can to help me understand the best way to actually teach kids in general using a range of teaching methods. I have downloaded the writings of Maria Montessori, all of the Common Core federal and state standards, relevant behavioral modification guidelines, etc. on my iPad and ready to be poured into. I also plan on liberally sprinkling in lessons about art, explicit motor skill development, and mad-scientist science experiments to help the kids have a well-rounded education. I hope that by applying a holistic approach to learning, I can make the necessary connections that will help each academic lesson “click” for each child.
A promise to my future students
My promise to each autistic child in my class is that they will receive at least as good an education in my class as they would mainstreaming. I will do everything in my power to help them grow as a person as well as a student. I will not condescend or demean them nor shall I insult their intelligence by not holding them responsible for learning the material the rest of their grade is responsible for learning. And I will hold myself responsible for teaching these kids everything they are responsible for. In other words: I will hold them personally accountable for everything they need to know, but only to the extent that I hold myself personally responsible for giving them the tools for success.