NLDline

 

TEACHERS AND TEACHING

by Deborah Green



Imagine your first day of school. You enter a big room filled with desks and little cubbyholes. There are bright shiny designs all over the walls. You have a new backpack, and a plastic kit filled with pencils, erasers, and crayons. The bell rings, and a woman walks to the front of the room. She is your new teacher, and you look at her as some wonderful magic being who holds the secret of knowledge in her hands. Six years later, your plastic kit is now filled with gum and candy.  You are polite to your teachers, but make exasperated comments about them behind their backs. You are more interested in hanging out with your friends than in succeeding in school.

As the bell rings for lunch, you are out the door in a streak.  Everyone leaves with you. I can hear your boisterous shouts, and see your playful roughhousing. I, alone, stay behind to talk to the teacher. There's little point in my going to lunch. I have no friends, and am likely to be physically attacked if I go outside. Besides, it's good to talk to someone who likes to explain things to me, and treats me as a human being, instead of an inferior creature, somewhere between amoebae and slug on the evolutionary scale. It's good to be friends with my teacher.

Teachers are important to all students, but perhaps they are most important to children with NLD. As a child with NLD, I couldn't relate to my peers, so I cultivated relationships with teachers. Even now, my strongest school memories are of the teachers who made differences in my life, both positive and negative.  I have little recollection of the early grades. I remember disliking math and art, but loving reading. I especially enjoyed being
read to out loud. My fourth grade teacher read us A Wrinkle in Time and The Phantom Tollbooth. I still remember my pleasure in "storytime." I used to look forward to it all day long. 

The first teacher I really remember was my fifth grade teacher. Her name was Mrs. Skinner. She was an older teacher who kept discipline by being very cold and structured. She didn't take any excuses from anyone for anything. Mrs. Skinner would have been ideal as the matron of a prison, but she was a horrible teacher. As a child, I needed encouragement and praise. Instead, Mrs. Skinner found a way to demolish even my few accomplishments.  We all kept writing journals in Mrs. Skinner's class. I still have
mine, and, while reading through it, was appalled to see that Mrs. Skinner made no comments about the literary quality of the writing. 

Instead, my work was crisscrossed with red lines and critical remarks about my handwriting.  When she wrote my progress reports, Mrs. Skinner gave me checks in
everything except math, handwriting, art, following directions, and social skills. I got minuses in those. She never realized I was reading at a tenth grade level or that I had musical ability. As a matter of fact, once, when I was softly singing along with our weekly music video, she tapped me on the shoulder and told me sharply "Start singing." 
When I struggled with math or art, she left me to my own devices, never knowing how humiliated I felt when I compared my work to that of my classmates.

The summer after I had Mrs. Skinner, I was diagnosed as having perceptual-motor learning disabilities. My parents spent several afternoons that summer, planning my schedule and deciding on special services for the following year. They knew nothing about NLD. The teachers knew nothing about NLD. So I entered sixth grade with an
Individual Education Plan (IEP) that was more a reflection of the school's lack of resources than my needs. Despite having nearly a fifty-point gap between my verbal and performance IQ, I received virtually no help. My IEP stated that I was to attend a class for gifted students for one period a day, and that I should see the school counselor
once a week. 

Fortunately for me, the sixth grade gifted teacher was marvelous.  Her name was Bella Powers, and she was young, energetic, and extremely caring. She never singled me out for anything. I did the same work as the rest of the class. Some work I did well; some was extremely difficult for me. Still, she gave me a lot of praise for trying and admired my perseverance. For example, once we were working on making pinhole cameras. The rest of the class made their cameras perfectly.  Mine looked like a lopsided box, and took fuzzy pictures. Mrs. Powers sat down with me and pointed out everything I had done right with the camera. Then she encouraged me to take shots with a regular camera, which was easier for me, and gave me the satisfaction of having pictures to show to everyone. 
My favorite memory of Mrs. Powers involves a poem. I used to write a lot of poetry in the sixth grade. One day I brought one in to show to her. It was a poem about the days of the week, starting off with the line, "Homework sits on top on Sunday, squashing Sunday flat." I
expected her to read it, say something nice, then give it back to me.  Instead, she read it to the class, basing the entire period on a discussion of my poem. I was incredibly flattered to hear the other kids discussing my poetry and my ideas. It made me feel I was contributing to the class. 

The seventh grade gifted teacher, alas, was exactly the opposite of Mrs. Powers. Her name was Mrs. Turn, and she took a strong personal dislike to me. Unlike Mrs. Powers' class, which was a mix of verbal and non-verbal activities, Mrs. Turn only liked non-verbal activities. She got very frustrated and angry with me because I couldn't do any of the
activities with any kind of speed or talent. We did painting first. All my classmates were good painters and she displayed their work proudly in the classroom. My drawing could have won the prize for "Stick Figures Anonymous." After that we did a unit on the
technical parts of computers, which bored me to tears. She then had us read Shakespeare to ourselves, quietly, every day. I wasn't the only one who hated her. As a matter of fact, half the gifted kids left the gifted program because of her. But she especially disliked me. She would write nasty notes home, noting anti-social behaviors like pinching (which I wasn't doing) and accused me of being lazy and having a bad attitude. At the end of these notes, she would always say, "That is why this student needs to remain in the gifted program with a strong advocate like myself."

One of Mrs. Turn's friends, Mrs. Garcia, was equally nasty. When I started eighth grade, my parents got a computer. I was delighted to have a computer, and found it much easier to write when I could just back-arrow my mistakes instead of having to use whiteout as I did on my typewriter. Most of my teachers were simply happy to have legible work,
but Mrs. Garcia was openly hostile about my using a word processor. She wrote a letter to my mom that said "There are valuable uses for word processors, but they are not appropriate for preparing assignments in Language-Literature." She felt I would just use a spell-check and grammar-check to avoid learning those skills. My mother explained that
our program didn't have those functions. It didn't matter. I turned in a typed paper to her, riddled with mistakes, just to prove my point. She marked me down for the mistakes, then knocked off an additional ten points for using a word processor.

Years later, we taught at the same school. She retired at the end of the year. There was a big ceremony to honor her and point her out as an example of teaching excellence. It was a bitter moment for me. 

As the years passed, some teachers were kind to me and tried to help me find my potential. Others were nasty and condescending. However, because so little was written in my IEP, I had no protection against non-accommodating teachers.

When I was a senior in high school, my social studies teacher gave us a geography assignment. I went to him after class, and told him I couldn't do the assignment, and asked to do a research paper instead. He laughed in my face, saying, "You don't have learning disabilities.  You're in the National Honor Society." However, after I managed to fail
the test, I did notice he was very generous with his grading, and inflated the grade to a C. I guess he figured I wasn't the kind of kid who lied to get out of work and perhaps felt guilty about his reaction. Like many kids with NLD, I was a perfectionist. I worked extremely
hard at everything, though Mrs. Powers noted I was often hesitant about trying things that were difficult for me unless I was encouraged. I responded well to teachers who rewarded me for the process of learning instead of just valuing the final results. And I responded best to teachers who gave me honest praise and encouragement. For some reason, most of my favorite teachers were young teachers. Perhaps younger teachers were more interested in meeting each student's needs instead of following a set routine.  My parents were able to waive me out of a few classes altogether, including art and P.E. Getting out of P.E. was especially important to me. Whenever I was in P.E., other kids loathed me, and the teachers invariably tolerated the taunting and name-calling, in the name of
competition. I was much happier getting my exercise outside of school, and was able to stay in shape by walking and by riding my bike. 

I had some marvelous teachers, some terrible teachers, and a lot of teachers in-between. I think my life could have been a lot easier, and my teachers might have understood me better, if my IEP had been more specific. An IEP (Individual Education Plan) entitles children with special needs to special education services and accommodations. It is
important that a student's IEP be thorough enough to guarantee adequate services. Only then can the student benefit from a free and appropriate public education. 

Today, I am a teacher myself. I teach sixth grade, and am just moving out of the "new teacher" phase. All my students respond to something different, and I find it hard to please everybody. Some students need gentle nurturing. Others need a structured environment or
they "go ballistic." I can understand, in retrospect, why so many of my teachers seemed cold or unsympathetic. It was simply their way of maintaining control. For the most part, teachers do sincerely care about teaching children. There are some teachers who are burned out. There are other teachers stuck in a routine. But, for the most part, teachers will do what they can to help. I believe that if you fight for a good IEP for your child, you will ease your child's path through school. And if you have concerns, talk to teachers directly. Remember--they are some of the most important people in your child's life.


TIPS

1. Remember that teachers are human too. Volunteer to help in the classroom, write a thank you note, or give a small holiday gift. All of these things help teachers feel appreciated, and that appreciation will be transferred to your child. 

2. Be assertive with teachers, but not aggressive. Write down any agreements and have all parties involved sign the agreements.  

3. Ask teachers to notify you if there is a major project due. Children with NLD often need extra help and planning to do a research paper or oral presentation.

4. If a teacher's style doesn't work for your child, ask for a change of teachers. While this practice is normally frowned upon, the child with NLD needs a highly structured auditory classroom. It is best if teachers can be handpicked the year before.

5. Find an advocate to work for your child at school. In many cases, this will be the special education teacher or a counselor. A good advocate can make sure your child is getting the accommodations that he/she needs 

Growing Up with NLD by Deborah Green is now available from: Silicon Heights Computers http://www.siliconheights.com 1-800-654-6623 SKU# DL0827 $25.00 (includes shipping and handling)

To read a review of Growing Up with NLD, by Deborah Green, go to the Library section of the NLD Website or click here on Book Reviews.

Would you like to read some excerpts from Growing Up with NLD? Click to read part of the Prologue, or to read part of Green's chapter on Perfectionism.