`Garbage coming!'

by Roy Brummell
Guyana Chronicle
January 28, 2001

SPECIAL education students usually have serious problems to overcome.

For one student, the problem may be academic. For another, it could be academic and /or emotional.

Then, there are those who suffer varying degrees of blindness or deafness, or were born with weak spines and a host of other physical handicaps. However, having to overcome the constant verbal wounds by his peers and the snide remarks of general education teachers, may be the hardest battle to win.

It was rumoured some years ago that one New York City principal might telephone another to say "Garbage coming!" This was their code announcing that a special education student was being transferred to another school.

A student could transfer, because he/she has moved to another part of the city, but principals are happy to have students with behavior problems transferred. Principals cannot transfer students, but they may complain daily to a parent about a child's behaviour. Sometimes, an impotent parent may buckle under tons of telephone calls and letters and, in desperation, transfer a child.

Perhaps, it is the principals' insensitivity which led some official to decide that they must take at least six special education credits. (Incidentally, one of the requirements for being an American principal is up to 18 university credits in school management and supervision. Up to 1988, when I last taught at home, a Guyanese principal-to-be did not have to do this.)

New York City principals (and elsewhere in the USA) rate their teachers satisfactory or unsatisfactory at the end of each school year - June. Each principal is rated by the superintendent of his district. A teacher's rating is based on punctuality and attendance, rapport with students, effectiveness of lessons, class control, etc. Principals are very hard on teachers who cannot control their classes since, to a superintendent, this may be a reflection of a principal's weakness.

There are special schools for the blind, deaf, wheel chair-bound, etc., but other predominantly general education schools have separate special education classes to deal with academic and emotional problems. These are the schools whose principals would love to have all of their special education children disappear for two main reasons.

One is that their special education students do not usually perform well on the city's tests. This usually affects the schools' overall pass percentages in reading and mathematics. The other reason is that special education, for many principals, teachers, parents and members of the public, is synonymous with terribly inappropriate behaviour. I understand both concerns, but many people prejudicially look for inappropriate special education behaviour with both eyes, and having none to see that of general education students.

At the junior high school where I began my New York teaching career, many of the worst behaviours I heard about were by general education students. Some of my general education colleagues complained about their students vandalising their cars. Others had been threatened with violence. A few had been hit or spat at. One teacher had even suffered some broken bones in his hand, after a student pushed a desk at him.

Perhaps, most of these teachers were close to erupting physically. However, that could have meant some form of discipline or dismissal. It seems exasperating that students can threaten and hurt teachers, but teachers are not allowed to do the same. In my view the law preventing teachers from cursing or hitting students makes sense.

To begin with, some teachers could be made so angry by students that their blows might be fatal!

Secondly, a teacher should always be wary about hitting back, since he could be "jumped" by a gang of students (and perhaps relatives) after school. My third point in support of the law is that it is unprofessional for a teacher to curse and hit a student. The teacher's revenge should be to get the offending student to worship him. Oddly enough, it seems that the law is there to help teachers.

If a teacher is being attacked, he can defend himself, in or out of the classroom. A teacher can also try to arrange a conference with a student's parents. It must not be assumed that, because a student behaves inappropriately, his parents are no better. Most parents, regardless of their circumstances, want their children to be well-behaved academic performers at school, even if those children's behave unpleasantly at home. Consequently, most parents will try to support a teacher.

In my second year, there were two incidents which tested my belief that a teacher should not hit back. The first was `O's glancing kick, while the second was `Q's attempt to spit on me. Both of these gentlemen were my eighth grade students, and both attended school occasionally. Whenever they attended, they had difficulty following classroom routines.

One day, `O' left the class unauthorised. As he was leaving, I followed him to the door, emphasising that I had not given him permission to leave. He was already in the corridor, but turned suddenly, fired a kick at me in the doorway and bolted. The spiteful blow glanced off my thigh. It was very tempting to give chase, since I was (and still am quite quick), but doing so would have meant chaos, as my class would certainly join the chase with obstreperous yells.

Other classes, alerted by the commotion, would flash like multiple darts from their rooms. Soon the school would be roaring with waves of frenzied hunters, most of whom would be unaware of what they were hunting. Finally, I would be instantly fired!

`O' never returned to the class. I tried to contact his parents, but without success. `O', it seemed, was still running several months after his kick. However, the long arm of law lassoed him. About a year after our incident, I learned that he was being held in a facility for juvenile offenders, in some far off New York town called Turkey Hill. The man who told me said: "How appropriate!"

Eight years later, when `O' was 22, we literally walked into each other at a train station. He recognised me first, and extended his hand for a handshake. I was glad to see him, not because of bitterness, but just to know that he was alive. He said nothing about his uncouth behaviour of eight years prior to that day, nor did I remind him of it.

As was the case with `O', `K' spat at me for being very stern. I was lucky that he did this from some distance away. He too bolted from the school after his despicable act. In his case, though, I made contact with his mother, who brought him to school after he had been in hiding for about two weeks. We discussed what happened; she had him apologise; stated how embarrassed she was and promised that he would be different.

`Q's attendance and behaviour improved dramatically. He tried his best to be friendly by cleaning the board, passing out texts and volunteering to read. He read better than nearly all of his classmates. However, his comprehension and arithmetic skills needed much improvement. Thus, when he graduated from junior high school, he was still a special education student.

Some three years later, we met on a street. He clutched me in a happy polar bear hug, saying: "O, Mr. Brummell, I'm in high school now you know, and I'm out of special education."

As I hugged him back, I said to myself: "How sweet this is, `Q'!"

It was awkward leaving the Bishops' High School as a senior master, and beginning as a regular substitute in New York. Nevertheless, after a little over three years, I was appointed. (Appointment comes after the completion of a Masters' degree, several other requirements, and observed proof that a teacher knows his subject and can control his class.) I was very delighted with my appointment, since substitute teachers are sometimes "bounced" from school to school by appointed teachers. Worse yet, at the end of every school year, substitute teachers are notified in writing that their jobs cannot be guaranteed for the new school year. Substitutes could find jobs in other schools, but starting over is always difficult, with a new faculty and class.

Two years after my appointment, I was tenured. In another two, I would be serving as an education evaluator. Unfortunately, the latter two did not happen at the junior high school where I began. Around March of 1994, the staff was notified that some teachers would be sent elsewhere for the September, 1994 to June, 1995 school year, because the school was reducing its number of students.

I was one of those teachers who would have to leave, but not before a few more interesting experiences.

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