An Interview with an Amazing Teacher

Kathy Bates

“…the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s essay, The Crack-Up. 

It’s hard to believe it has been 30 years since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law. The civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability has allowed many of us to have higher expectations, not only of society but also ourselves. Now we can work towards our own American dreams. That said, we still have a long way to go before the playing field is leveled for people with disabilities. Although the ADA has helped to improve community inclusion with Title III of the Act, which requires that all spaces open to the general public be accessible to people with disabilities, there has always been significant gaps in education and employment. According to the 2019 Report on Disability in New Hampshire, produced by the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, about 49% of people with disabilities have some college education, which is slightly higher than the national average of 44% for people with disabilities. However, the higher education rate for those without disabilities is over 68%, both in New Hampshire and nationally. The level of education and rate of earnings are strong indicators of our ability to participate in the economy and community life.   

If these gaps in education and employment existed way before COVID-19, social distancing, and remote learning, then it is going to take a while to get back to where we started from but not all hope is lost. Here is the good news, the US Department of Education does not intend to make any meaningful changes to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees students with disabilities a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). According to education advocates and attorneys, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) should be run the same way as any other year, just held virtually. Students that are regressing or falling behind are entitled to compensatory services or extra services that are designed to help them catch up. So, parents should continue to advocate for the educational rights of their children because the IDEA is still alive and well!

With schools opening in just a few short days and COVID-19 effecting every aspect of our lives, this is sure to be a school year like no other in history. With so many questions left unanswered, to gain some insight I interviewed Mike, a local special education teacher who works with students in grades 6 through 8, through email. 

Like many other schools in New Hampshire, Mike’s middle school has decided on a hybrid model. Mike told me that “Students will go to school two days a week (either Monday and Thursday, or Tuesday and Friday) and then be expected to complete self-directed reinforcement activities out of school another two days of the week.” Wednesdays are reserved for thorough cleaning and remote learning. Parents can also choose a fully remote option.   

When asked if he was up to the challenge Mike said, “I don’t think I’ll know if I’m up for the challenge until we get there and see how things play out. I mean, I love teaching more than anything in the world, and the team I work with is incredibly talented, highly trained, and very committed and determined individuals. If anyone can make this work, we can.” Later on, in the discussion he went on to say “I feel at ease in the classroom, confident, I know what I’m doing. But I was in the grocery store the other day, and there were more people in there than I felt comfortable with, and I started to get really anxious.” When thinking about his students Mike said, “Face masks for everyone will dramatically reduce our ability to communicate effectively; keeping our distance from each other will be extremely difficult to maintain, and could erode the sense of community we try so hard to engender in our students.” When talking about his students Mike explains that his students have less tolerance for frustration, and they experience serious anxiety. Some of the interventions they use, such as quiet conversations and back rubs require being up close and personal. Mike explains further that altering a student’s environment quickly is sometimes necessary, “Students are more likely to allow themselves to be vulnerable, be more honest about their behaviors, and will be more open to resolution. That might mean moving the students, or, if they’re really heightened and can’t be moved, removing the rest of the class. What’s that going to look like under COVID conditions?”   

When I asked Mike what he thought his biggest challenge will be this year, his answer did not surprise me at all. “The most challenging part for me will be planning. It always is, but this year will be even more difficult. Right now, I have more questions than answers, in large part because I’m getting new information almost daily from the district and from the union. Who will be in which cluster? Those groupings will significantly influence planning.” 

“I think I’m going to need a lot of support from my team, and they’ll need the same from me. And I know that we’ll do that for each other. We’re very tight knit and we know each other well enough to anticipate where, when, and how to assist one another.” Mike expressed the need for patience and understanding from parents and the general public. He is also concerned about the need to have administrators be very accessible. He made sure I understood that their jobs are already very difficult, and COVID-19 was only going to make things that much more complicated for them. “We’re going to be rolling out an entirely novel approach to learning in the fall. There are going to be some bumps along the way.” 

In every question, Mike answered his compassion and love for his students came through loud and clear. So much so that he made me miss being a classroom teacher, and I really want to see him in action someday. Mike says, “Kids have a deep capacity for empathy, and they want to contribute to their communities in positives ways. Their buy-in here is absolutely necessary to getting this right.” He also said, “I am looking forward to seeing my students more than anything. I wish there were a way to communicate just how amazing my kids are.”  

From where I sit … I’ve seen and read a lot of news stories about dedicated and enthusiastic teachers who are going above and beyond to help their students learn during the pandemic. I know Mike has that part down. When I was a teacher one of my goals for the school year was to always look for teachable moments during the school day. I think that there are many teachable moments brought about by COVID-19, especially when it comes to issues like citizenship. I think this experience can bring out the best in everyone, especially teachers because this situation may help them be a little more creative and think outside the box when developing lesson plans for their students. Remember to thank the teachers in your life … from a distance.