Sunday, May 23, 2010

Be Very Careful Who You Trust

I have been wanting to share this story for many years but have kept silent from fear of being stigmatized, labeled, thought to be "crazy"; I could go on and on. But I have decided that it is an important tale to tell. If my experience helps one parent prevent one child from being abused by a doctor or other misguided, sick individual in a "helping" profession, then my sharing is worthwhile.  Several months ago I wrote a letter to the doctor who acted quite inappropriately and maliciously when doing an exam 30 years ago when I was 16. I wrote to him because I hoped that at his older age he might have some decency to admit and realize the harm of his actions. I also wrote to free myself of the burden of shame that I have carried for 30 years. Here is the letter, with names obviously omitted.

                                    December 30, 2009
Dear Dr.*****,

I will assume you most likely don’t remember me, though I remember you quite well. It’s been about 30 years since I was a patient; I visited when I was about 16, after gaining 20 pounds in a brief period of time. My doctor, Dr.*****, was up in ****, CA and I was living in****, CA where I was a straight A honor student at ****High School.
I was a scared teenage girl, who had visited several doctors for a multitude of allergies and apparent immune system related ailments. From the age of 8, when my family moved to CA from NY, I suffered a variety of symptoms from a highly disturbing croup type cough to more disabling neurological symptoms related to leg weakness and difficulty walking.  All of this I disclose in the remote case you might remember the scenario. I was referred to you by either Dr. **** or Dr. ****, both doctors whom I had seen for treatment.
After listening to my mom tell of my prior medical history, you told her ( as I sat listening) that I was obese and that all I had to do was eat “ ½ of what I was eating.” My mom told you that I was terrified to eat because I had gained so much weight in such a short period of time.  When she told you that all I ate in a day was a sandwich, your curt reply was, “Then only have her eat ½ a sandwich a day.” 
Now if poor bedside manner wasn’t enough, and I know that there are probably brilliant physicians with equally poor relating skills, you went on to ask my mom to leave the room so you could examine me. I was terrified and still remember wondering what in the world you were going to “examine”. I knew enough that the thyroid gland, which is supposedly why I was there, was not under a dressing gown . I remember lying on the examining table while you did a breast exam. You told me that there was “nothing wrong with me” and that I was just a “hysterical young girl.” You continued your breast exam as you mockingly called me hysterical as I stared at the lights in the ceiling. The next thing I remember the nurse was taking my blood pressure and you were telling my mom that I am just a hysterical young girl and that I should not be taking the thyroid pills. Your advice was to come back after being off the pills for a period of time. I did not tell my mother why, but I told her that I was “NEVER GOING BACK.”  We ended up making another trip up north to see Dr. *****, who determined that I did indeed need to be on thyroid medication after all.
In the years that followed, I slowly became healthy as I graduated high school at the top of my class. Still overweight but not “obese”, I began struggling with my fear of eating. I would intermittently starve myself, losing weight in a very unhealthy way, and I was terrified to ever eat more than ½ of anything. When I ate the whole of something, I often purged, fearing gaining weight more than anything else. I managed to stop the unhealthy practice of purging during my pregnancies, in my 20’s, but when I wasn’t pregnant, I was starving, binging or purging. I didn’t want my children to be raised by someone tormented by an eating disorder, so I sought help. With the help of several therapists and an excellent psychiatrist, I finally stopped my unhealthy destructive habits about 15 years ago. I am in normal and healthy weight range and finally no longer terrified to eat a “whole” of something. I work out regularly and work to combat any self limiting thoughts that threaten my health and well-being.
I am now a healthy, vibrant, stable 45 year old woman with a B.A. in Psychology, a Masters in Clinical Psychology, and an elementary teaching credential.  I have worked hard to raise 2 wonderful children, one at MIT grad school, the other finishing up her B.A. at a CSU.  I have managed to restore my metabolism to a functional level after years of battling my weight. I exercise 3-4 times a week and eat a reasonably healthy diet. From all of the years of purging, however, I have required a great amount of dental work and my smile has suffered from the embarrassment of showing my weakened teeth.

So, why, you might be thinking, have I decided to confront you now?  Here are some of the reasons:
1)    I wanted to contact you several years ago (15 years ago) and take legal action, but was advised against it by my therapist who indicated that any court proceeding wouldn’t be easy for me and would likely result in “me” defending my sanity. I am sure also that the statute of limitations had long passed as well.
2)    I am finally free of the obsession that plagued my life, although I am somewhat bothered by what appears to be a dramatic link between the words you said and the action I feared: “eating a whole” and gaining weight. I am wondering how many other young women who were treated by you developed eating disorders from your recommendations.
3)    I am hoping that my words elicit a response where you can justify your actions. Giving you the benefit of the doubt, perhaps there was a rationale for calling me a “hysterical young girl” and doing a breast exam without my mother in the room. Somehow I don’t believe that there is a justification for your actions; perhaps you were a younger cocky doctor at the height of your success and thought nothing of victimizing an innocent young girl. You knew I was way too scared to report what you had said and done; and from my history, you knew that you could make me out to be an “unstable teenager.”
4)    I see that your professional life has been quite successful; in fact, I saw your name as an advising editor/physician for Shape magazine several years ago and have read several of the studies you worked on. I can’t help but wonder if I am the only victim of your indiscretions. 
5)    I am aware that you are advancing in age and I would appreciate the opportunity to have some closure about this experience. If you have the courage to reply, I would love to hear your comments and response.
You can reach me through email, ****** or by mail:*****or by phone (209) *****.

Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. 
*** *****
I mailed this letter on the last day of 2009. I mailed it to both the University Medical School office where this doctor works and his beachfront private practice office. Have I heard from him? Of course not.  Although it might be a beautiful opportunity for closure if he ever did contact me, I don't expect anything from him. I wrote about the release I felt by sending this letter in another blog post: Forgiveness: A Gift I Give Myself

Please share this story with anyone who might be unaware of the dangers of leaving children unattended in the hands of "professionals". Most of all, listen to your children and be sure they feel safe to tell you anything!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

We Don't Need no Stinkin' Scantrons

As I was driving to work yesterday, the very first day of STAR testing, a rush of thoughts came over me. Even though I am not in a "testing grade" in Kindergarten, of course I am impacted by the insanity as teachers around me begin to see scores stamped on kids foreheads instead of eyes that reveal stories of each learner's journey.
As happens to me often, a tune got stuck in my head and I couldn't get it out. The tune was Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" and here's the version that my brain conjured up:

Another Buck in the Fund

We don't need no stinkin' scantrons
We don’t need no merit pay
Negative press from all the media
Arne leave the teachers alone
Hey! Arne! Leave teachers alone!
All in all it's just another buck in the fund.
All in all you're just another buck in the fund.

 Thankfully for you and for me, I could not come up with another verse, but feel free to make suggestions in the comments below!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Teaching: Clown at the Party or Daycare Provider?

With all of the media attention on our nation's problem :"education" and how it has become a problem of "bad teachers" I feel compelled to shout from the rooftops once again as I have begun doing every time I need to speak of injustice, or just plain stupidity. Wait! That's right, teachers are supposed to be "not so bright" right, incapable of the critical thinking that can facilitate even forming the questions and opinions to be shouting about? Well, not this teacher.
 Like many of the teachers I know, I am  highly educated yet I never stop looking for opportunities to learn.  I have a master's degree and decided to teach not because I couldn't do anything else but because my heart called me to use my intelligence, compassion and passionate creative drive to help children find their sparks, their lights and their will to do something meaningful in life.  Yet what do I do each day, armed with my passion for teaching kids to read, write, and learn about life's amazing opportunities for math, science and learning and sharing about other people?  I run a part-time daycare while simultaneously trying to provide an engaging, challenging, developmentally appropriate learning experience for my other students.
Yes, folks, that's what I said. I am, more than anything, a surrogate parent to many of the children who enter my room every morning. And I am not setting out to bash parents. It might sound like I am angry, and yes, that is true. I am angry at the parents who decided to send their 4 year-olds to school, fully knowing that their kids weren't ready and just planning on the idea that they might need to "do kindergarten twice." Neither of these children follows classroom expectations a good portion of the day: just yesterday, both wandered around the classroom every chance they could get, stuffing my belongings in their pockets, sneaking into the opposite sex bathroom down the hallway, chopping crayons in half and then bringing them to the rainbow carpet to throw them at friends. And when they are not absorbed in such non-learning-engaged types of disruptive behaviors, they are scribbling frenetically across their work, cutting anything and everything in to hundreds of tiny pieces of paper and tossing them to the ground, and the final kicker: tattling at every opportunity, proclaiming the injustice that someone pushed them when I just observed that they tripped over their own shoe and fell down.
Please don't think that I don't understand children. I understand that they tattle to make themselves feel more important, and that they need to feel wanted to engage in class, and that we must make class so entertaining and wonderful that they will want to participate. I am part entertainer, part story-teller, coach and provider of endless encouragement when the demands of the system force me to require much more of kids than is appropriate for their age.
Perhaps my point has gotten lost in this rant, and luckily not too many people will wander across it. I am frustrated by a lack of shared responsibility for giving kids what they need. I have some wonderful parents of children in my classroom who read to their kids, do their best to get them to bed early, talk to them and give them skills to work out their problems and who generally act like parents. I have others who simply wander along and either "don't know" what it takes to raise a healthy, emotionally stable child or can't be bothered to have the self-discipline to be a consistent parent who doesn't let a child's tantrum sway each decision.  And for the record: I am not talking about parents who are working 3 jobs, trying to make ends meet, and struggling to provide the resources their child needs. Most of those parents actually give their children the most valuable gift of all: consistency. Being a firm, loving parent requires no money at all. Just time and dedication and self-discipline.  Whose job is it anyway?

Saturday, March 6, 2010

When Values Collide: The Dilemma of Switching Schools

I hadn't actively set out to find another option for next year, though I wasn't completely surprised by my eager reaction to the news that a kindergarten position would be open in a private school I had learned about through my tutoring students. At the beginning of the school year, just days before school started, I had quickly turned down an opportunity at this school, as I had already committed to having a teaching intern this year. I also suffered from other fears: leaving and beginning anew so close to school starting, changing grade levels, and abandoning my teaching team.
So, here I am, after a wonderful first interview at this place that felt more like a peaceful retreat center than any school I had ever visited, gleeful thoughts racing, fears raging and guilt over leaving my school all intertwined in my mind. I know in my heart that I must push myself through the guilt, consider my own happiness first and foremost, and understand that I can help others best when I am peaceful and in a place congruent with my values of integrity, authenticity and a love for learning.
I know what some will say  I am bailing out of public education, abandoning the kids who need me most, running to an "easy" territory where I don't have to work as hard. Here is what I conclude: I am considering working in a place where I can truly teach, address the needs of all learners, and work harder because I am renewed by an environment where the whole child is valued.
This school has 8 basic standards that drive their instruction: Think, Read, Write, Learn Languages, Reason Mathematically, Know the Past, Think Scientifically, and Know Yourself.  The students go to Art, Music, P.E., Science, Spanish and Garden every week.  They offer scholarships to families who can't afford the tuition and are committed to including a diverse population at their school.
As I walked around the campus this week, I saw kids engaged in active learning, using technology to connect with others around the world, researching topics of interest, and kids attending a variety of special classes as I mentioned above.
This week I will return to teach a lesson and talk more with the staff about how I can contribute to the learning community there. I am excited, apprehensive, and grateful for this opportunity. Wish me luck!

Saturday, February 27, 2010

This is Just a "Snapshot View" : IEP of an Asperger's Student

"This is just a snapshot view." The school psychologist's words rang out in the tense IEP meeting. The "so-called experts" were giving their opinions based on brief observations and testing sessions that gave them glimpses into the capabilities, challenges and growth of my student, a lively 5 yr. old girl, Susie (not her real name)whose diagnosis of Asperger's Disorder seems to explain some but not all of her quirky behaviors.
Not one question was asked of me, the teacher, during the first 60 minutes of the meeting. The speech therapist was the first to speak after introductions were made. She began discussing, in painful detail, every test she administered to a group who seemed to already know that Susie would not qualify for speech and language services.
The scene clearly depicted my role as a teacher/advocate for Susie: I sat closest to my student's parents, who were on my right, followed by an advocate, then Susie's grandfather, a retired administrator. To my left was my student teacher/ intern, followed by the Special Ed brigade: the resource teacher, the Special Ed Director and her fast-typing, tape recording assistant, and finally, the school psychologist who had sat with me for many of my lunch hours, asking me questions and rephrasing my answers to fit the "district lens."  All of the detailed information and accounts of emotional breakdowns and social-emotional challenges were somehow omitted from the psychological report.
At one point, after the speech therapist had rambled on, painfully reviewing each test she had administered, I jotted down my thoughts on the psych report so that my intern could see. Was I going crazy or were my observations carefully neglected and absent from the report? "These were not my words," I scribbled furiously on the page. Although the report stated, "The teacher reports..." the words that followed were not mine. They did not even come close.
As the school psychologist discussed how my student did not qualify for any special ed services, the advocate and the parents asked questions. Her father began to speak first, "If Susie does not require an "aide", then why does she have one?" Every single person in that room knew that Susie had help so that the children in the classroom would not be injured by one of her impulsive pencil poking episodes or so that Susie would not run into the parking lot and into the street if she chose to run away. Silence was followed by some clever sidestepping. The resource teacher spoke," Well, she doesn't have an aide. The teacher has a classroom support person to help her." Technically, I suppose they were right. The person helping Susie was a yard duty and grandma of another kindergarten student at my school. No training, no real support, but merely a warm body placed in my class to help ensure the safety of Susie and her peers. Not one person voiced this fact as the recording device monitored the awkward silence.
I was so proud when Susie's dad raised the question," So, if Ms. D. is a classroom support person, as you say, is she there when Susie is absent? Complete and utter silence was broken when the resource teacher began her sidestepping song and dance once more. "Well, uh, I'm not really in a position to say," she stammered. He interrupted her babbling and looked at my intern and I. "Well, there are at least two people in this room who know the answer."  Finally, after an hour of b.s. I was invited to speak. "No, Ms. D. is not in the classroom when Susie is absent." Victory, I thought as the district folks buried themselves in their own lies.
After the school psychologist finished her "much too long" explanation of how the district could not qualify Susie for any special services, I was invited to speak but only after the advocate and the district staff bantered back and forth about a request for an outside evaluation. The scene felt combative and hostile; I struggled to find the right words as I was keenly aware that I was being recorded.  I felt a lump in my throat, tears well up in my eyes, and began babbling about how Susie was so much more than a "snapshot view" of test sessions. I told them how I worried about her transition to first grade as transitions are very challenging for her. I thanked the parents for our teamwork and celebrated how far Susie has come this year. She does not poke people in the eyes any more though she does stomp on teachers' feet, put her head up my shirt, try to pull down my skirt, and just 2 weeks ago tried to choke a little girl who is her "best friend." Susie has made progress due to the unrelenting positive beliefs and hard work by her parents, my intern and I. Because of her progress, the special ed director had the nerve to say," If Susie were truly impaired enough to qualify, she wouldn't have made such great progress."  So I suppose if I had done a half ass job, Susie might not have made progress and she would qualify? The logic baffles me. The whole thing simply makes me angry as well as sad.
Currently the parents are demanding an outside evaluation to make sure that the district has been correct in their evaluation. I hope that Susie gets her needs met and sets a precedent for the many others who fall through the cracks every day.
If you have stories, comments you would like to share, please feel free. Together we can advocate for children who need us most.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Teachers Held Hostage

On a daily basis, more and more pressure is added to the teacher workload. Endless standardized tests, heightened expectations for growth and an increasingly diverse group of learners are  challenging teachers enough without the added pressure of the unique behavioral challenges today's students bring.
In my school, teachers often feel as if they are "held hostage" by students whose behaviors require very frequent individual intervention. In my kindergarten class, I have had a child poke students in the eyes, choke other students, body slam peers and stomp on others' feet  while the administration deems this child unable to qualify for any intervention or special services. Of course, suspension is not an option either, as kindergartners are never suspended at my school. My principal is proud of his "low suspension" and low "behavior referral" data without critically evaluating the reason behind the data. The real issue is that teachers often don't refer students to the office for discipline reasons because the principal often blames the teacher for "not engaging" students adequately. Even more importantly, students view a trip to the office as a "break" and not something to be avoided. I am not saying that some teachers don't "over -refer." And I know that when an environment is engaging and challenging at the right level some of these behaviors don't surface. I try to reflect and try every strategy under the sun before I send a child to the office.
When teachers at my school feel safe enough to be honest, they report that they have a handful of kids who have been "repeat offenders" since we had them in kindergarten. If our school-wide Positive Behavioral Intervention System is so great, then why are these students still wreaking havoc on the classroom environment in 4th grade?
As I look at my own class profile, I reflect on the kids who take my attention away to the point that I lose track of my lesson. Some kids, not ready for school, are here for free daycare. Their disruption affects everyone's learning, yet if I ask for help I am given the message that there is something wrong with my teaching.  Aggression, emotional lability, difficulties with attention seem to be a clear problem in my school and most others I have read about. Yet teachers are asked to do more, work harder and just "teach better."
Sure that will fix the situation. If someone were truly a hostage, would sending in food and water be the ultimate goal? Or would administrators be working to alleviate the hostage situation? I think we know the answer, now, don't we?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

When Goals and Practices Collide: Part III

In Part I: When Goals and Practices Collide, I described a practice at my school where kids get recognized for achieving a score of "proficient" or "advanced" on district benchmark tests. I asked some questions about the impact of this practice on students.  I also asked readers about their impressions of such a practice and I thank those who responded.
In Part II, When Goals and Practices Collide I examined some of the practices and strategies my school is using to address and reduce our achievement gap. I wanted to hear what readers thought I should do before I shared what I have done thus far to address the issue. Thank you to those who responded and helped me think more critically about the issue.
In this post I will share about the actions I have taken thus far and ask for your input on what to do next. I do not want to be silent, yet I must also keep my job. And yes, I do have tenure.
Last year, I voiced my concerns when I heard we would be having "awards assemblies" for 2nd-5th grade, based on district benchmark tests. My principal's response: Don’t worry, we will work out the kinks next year and everyone will end up getting an award. Those who don't meet the advanced or proficient category will get a "rising star" award when they show growth. My thought: Won't everyone know that rising star means  "proficient wannabe "? I let the issue go when I realized that I would need to do some research behind this practice and see if I was totally off-base. Besides, it was the last quarter of the school year and no one else seemed to be upset about the issue.
 Fast forward to this year: As pictures of classes were added to the “achievement wall”  and I scanned the pictures, counting the kids, I realized that only the “award winners” were pictured with their teachers. Since I don’t attend these ceremonies ( as  a K teacher we don’t get invited) I can only imagine the looks on the faces of the kids who are left out. I have also asked some teachers who are present and they all say the same thing: the kids left out are disheartened and marginalized by this practice. Do they say anything or stand up for the kids? Everyone seems afraid to speak. ( and that is me making a generous conclusion as I am angered by the lack of courage and authenticity among my peers. It bothers many, yet no one speaks?!)
I took some time to reflect on my anger and frustration with this practice and decided to ask my principal for a meeting. I emailed him asking for a time so that I would not "chicken out" and remain a quiet objector. I decided to begin my questioning with something administrators love to talk about: research and data.
  I asked about the research behind awarding kids medals for reaching a certain number score on a test. He mumbled something about how the practice of  recognizing kids increases motivation.
I then asked about the pictures.
His response: The pictures just happened. A parent was there taking pictures and suddenly there were class pictures and they were up on the wall.
My response:  I could feel my blood pressure rise and my mind begin to race as I hammered him with questions. Do you know the impact of kids walking through that cafeteria, realizing that they are not in the pictures with their teachers? Do you know the impact on their younger siblings who now think that their older brother and sister is not smart? Inside me, a little voice was telling me to "shut up" but I couldn't. The words just shot out of my mouth.
His answer: I really hadn’t even thought about the impact. You make a good point, but it’s done now and we will have to consider it for next year.
My response: NEXT YEAR?  I must say that my inner voice was screaming obscenities at him for being so mindless and allowing a practice to impact kids in such a big way but " not thinking" about the consequence. Being in total shock at his revelation of ignorance, I mumbled something about it not being too late to change for this year. I told him that I hoped I would still have my job after voicing concerns and he laughed, saying that he needs teachers who question.
Really?  If he really wants teachers to question him, then why must I write this blog anonymously, venting here instead of making meaningful change by mobilizing fellow teachers and parents.  If he really wants us to work together to solve this issue of the achievement gap, then why does he rarely open the dialogue in staff meetings so that we can question decisions and come up with solutions?
I have spoken with a few parents of my former students who are upset about the practice, though a bit reluctant to speak out. I assure them that administrators often listen to them more than they listen to us. If enough parents object, will my principal take the pictures down at least? Or insist that ALL students are in the picture? There are students, including special ed students, whose name will never make it on that wall. If that is the case, then how are we promoting equity at our school?
I ask a lot of questions. I wonder if I am just in the wrong school for me. Are there other schools out there using similar practices and kids are growing and thriving at school?
Thanks for taking the time to read and I hope you share your pearls of wisdom.