*All names are fictional; all stories are true*
“You only have seven students? I wish I had seven students.”
If I had a dollar for every time, I heard that throughout the year… Well, I wouldn’t be rich, I’m sure I’d still have to teach… But maybe my Starbucks budget would be bigger?
I’m a PALS teacher. PALS is my district’s “unique” way of classifying the class, it’s known as PPCD throughout other parts of the United States, and I’m sure by other names in other places, but it’s all the same thing. I teach special ed for students from the age of 3, who are my EC students, the age of 4, who are my PreK students, and the ages of 5-6, which are my kindergarten students. The range of ages that I teach, means, depending on when a student’s birthday is, I can have them anywhere from 4-3.5 years to 1 year. And since I teach PALS, I sort of have a melting pot of students, I get them all. I get autistic students, speech delayed students, emotionally and/or behaviorally disturbed students, intellectually disabled students, students with health issues [students who might be absent a lot due to asthma or other similar health issues], students with genetic disorders [think down syndrome or fragile x, for example], or students just classified as NCEC, which means that they might have an issue, but it’s too early to classify them with anything. When they’re done with me, I decide their fate. They might go to Lifeskills or SLC, which is Lifeskills but more structured for students, who might need that structure. Or maybe they’ll go to PSI, which is for students, whose disabilities severely impair their performance in cognitive and developmental areas. Occasionally I have a student who might go to a BSC class, for severe behavior issues. We also have TREK, which is inclusion with built-in time to address sensory or other issues, or they might go into a gen ed class.
I absolutely love what I do, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but it sure as hell isn’t easy because my students don’t really see the world as other people.
This year, a student of mine, who I’ll call Aiden, will be graduating from me. I’ve had Aiden since he turned three. We came back after being off a month due to the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and Aiden’s apartment had flooded, and they stayed in a hotel near our school until they found a new apartment, which zoned them to my school. I’ll never forget my first year with Aiden. On the first day of school, we went to the playground for recess. Nobody knew anything about Aiden. We weren’t at his initial ARD [aka an IEP meeting, we call things strange acronyms in Houston] because he wasn’t originally zoned to our school, he just sort of showed up. I bent down to tie my shoe, and the next thing I knew Aiden was gone. I started freaking the fuck out because I didn’t even see him run away. He was there less than 30 seconds ago, and that’s all it took for him to disappear. After almost dying of a heart attack and screaming for him, one of the fifth-grade teachers came up to me with Aiden in her arms and asked jokingly if “he belonged to me.” Why yes, he does. And that is how I learned Aiden was a runner.
We had a lot of adventures with Aiden during his first year. He used to love taking all his clothes off in the cafeteria during lunch. He would steal other student’s food. He would try to run away from the cafeteria and he’d just think it was funny. He loved to turn the lights on and off constantly in the classroom. He wouldn’t sit still at all, and it took about a year before he was able to sit at the table and pay attention to what I was teaching. I’m happy to say we’re mostly past the stripping now, and he hasn’t run away in a long time. I may have cried last week during class pictures because I realized that it was the last class picture, I would ever have with him on my lap. And why is he on my lap, you ask? Well, it’s because he tries to run away from the class, every time we try to take a class picture. We’ll always be a work in progress.
We’re not perfect. I was dead to him last week over some sausage. Once a week, the PreK and Kindergarten students get a different breakfast. The PreK get sausage sandwiches, and the Kindergarten students get a breakfast bar. Aiden loves sausage. I don’t know what he loves more, sausage or fried chicken. Anyhow, he saw the PreK students getting their sausage sandwiches and he wanted one. I kept trying to explain to him that since he was no longer a PreK student, he couldn’t have the sausage sandwich, but he doesn’t understand. He sees the sausage sandwich, and he wants the sausage sandwich.
That’s where special needs kiddos and general ed kiddos are different. You can rationalize with a gen ed kiddo. You can explain to a gen ed kindergarten student that they can’t have sausage for breakfast anymore because they’re in kindergarten, and only the PreK students get sausage, and they’ll understand. But my kids don’t really see the world that way. Aiden sees sausage, and he wants the sausage, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be able to have that sausage when it’s right there. So, throughout the entire morning, he gave me the death glare, I was dead to him. He refused to hold my hand when we transitioned from place to place, and he refused to participate in anything that day because he was mad over sausage.
My students aren’t good with schedule changes for the same reasons. Our schedule has been different lately because of all the state-testing. I can tell them that we have music THREE times this week [and they hate music] because the older kids are taking the TELPAS test, but those words mean nothing to them. They just know that normally on Thursdays, they go to computers, and for the past three Thursdays, we haven’t been able to go to computer because of testing. But they don’t rationalize the testing part. They just know their schedule is different, and they don’t like it. My students hate changes, especially the autistic students.
I’m pretty sure my vice principal hates me because I send her a trillion emails every week about how I don’t approve of her schedule changes because it greatly upsets my students. I’ll fight for them. Two weeks ago, we were supposed to have the trail riders for the Rodeo ride by our school and then have a mini cookout. My VP sent an email with a lunch change for the day. I have ancillary [what we call specials like art, music, etc.] from 9:45 to 10:30 and she was sending me to lunch at 10:30 when my lunch is normally 11:10. The thing was, fifth grade was going to lunch from 11:25 to 11:55. The special ed students sit at a table to the side of the cafeteria as opposed to a regular cafeteria, which pisses me off to no end, but I won’t get to that here. But the point is, we don’t sit at a regular lunch table. The last lunch started later than my lunch normally does. I wrote to her asking her if she could just let me have my regular lunch. We don’t sit with anyone else, so we wouldn’t be taking over a table they need. Her schedule change was too drastic for students to cope with. After ancillary, we have read-aloud and then either workstations or library before lunch on a typical day, and that’s what my students are used to. Also, we weren’t going to the trail riders because I have runners, and putting students, who run, on the sidewalk of a main and very busy street through downtown Houston seemed like a horrible idea. She wrote back to me telling me that she made the schedule the way she made it because of the cookout, and I responded being telling her that fifth grade has lunch after my lunch would normally be anyways and my students cannot cope with changes to their schedule, and she relented. She was probably tired of my emails.
Lunch is another interesting ordeal in a PALS classroom. Most of my students are nonverbal. Some grunt, some make sounds, some say words, and some say simple sentences, but they cannot verbally express their thoughts. A gen ed class can just drop their students off at the cafeteria, and be off to Sonic, Canes, Starbucks, or Subway like that. I have to wait with my students in a line. They need constant redirection to stay in line and need help placing food on their trays and carrying it to the table. On top of that, they’re very picky eaters, and they cannot verbally express their dining preferences themselves, so we need to tell the cafeteria workers everything. We need to tell them that Aiden likes his nachos with cheese and meat, Jared won’t eat cheese on his burgers, and Nathanial doesn’t like his tacos with meat. Also, since the gen ed teachers are probably drinking their venti lattes as I’m waiting with my students in the lunch-line. I’m also usually the one, who must discipline their students on the line because if I don’t, nobody will. By the time, my students are through the line, and their milk cartons or ketchup packets are open, about ten to fifteen minutes have passed, and I’m lucky if I get a good 10-20-minute lunch for myself.
Rainy and cold days are another issue. After lunch, we have recess. For recess, we go to the playground. My students have gotten better at understanding the concept of rain, and realizing that if it’s raining, we can’t play on the playground, but we haven’t yet grasped the concept of cold. Texans aren’t very good in cold weather, as soon as the temperature hits about sixty degrees, they come out in parkas. To them, a temperature of anything below about 65 degrees is extremely cold [at least in Houston, where the climate is generally hot, hotter, or hot as hell]. When we get a cold front, and it does get a bit chilly, it’s too cold for my students. They’ll shiver and cry, so we tend to have an inside recess, but they’re not always okay with it. You can tell a gen ed class that it’s too cold to play outside, and they understand. I can tell my students that, they won’t understand it and they’ll be upset, or I could try to let them play for a few minutes, but they tend to get upset because they’re so cold, so either way, it’s a losing situation.
Fire drills are another issue. They’re ALWAYS during my naptime. No matter how much I beg the administration to hold fire drills, in the morning, they refuse. The gen ed students must come first, especially the fifth graders. According to admin, the morning is “prime time” for fifth-grade academics, and they don’t want to interrupt that because the fifth grader’s scores on state tests are very important, more important than my special needs students’ needs. They can’t have them after ten am because it interrupts the lunch schedule, which starts at around ten am and lasts until almost 1 pm. My nap time starts at 12:15, and my students need those naps. They may be chronologically 3-6, but mentally, they’re much younger. So like clockwork, during the last week of every month, there’s a fire drill during naptime. My children are DEEP sleepers with varied sensory needs, imagine how traumatic it is for them to be woken up from REM sleep to a very loud siren and not having any idea what’s going on, then being rushed outside, in a crowd of 500 something other students. They’re not okay with that, and to be honest, I don’t really blame them. I can tell them about the fire drill, I can use a visual schedule to show them a fire drill, or I can read them a social story about a fire drill, but none of that adequately prepares them for an actual fire drill, and that’s just the nature of their disabilities.
One of the best things about my students is their honesty. They don’t know how to be dishonest or how to lie. There have been years when I have had verbal students, who I could have a conversation with. One year, I was reading a book about naming a cat as our read-aloud for a week, and I was telling them I had five cats. One of my girls looks at me and told me that “You have too many cats, you need to make real friends.” Another time, I read the book Leaf Men by Lois Ehlert and we were making our own “leaf men” during art time, and one of my boys said, “I don’t want a leaf man, I want a girlfriend.” If my hair or makeup looks bad, I can always count on one of my students to tell me so. One time we were rhyming words in the “at” family and one of the words was “fat” and one of my students told me I was fat. I ran for an extra-long amount time on the treadmill that week. Their compliments are also the most meaningful. If a student tells me that I look good that day or they like my outfit, they probably mean it since just the last week, they told me that my “hair looked like crap.”
Special needs students also don’t really have a lot of drama compared to gen ed students. My one girl, the one who told me I needed friends, decided that she was going to marry two male students in my class when she got older. I told her that she could probably only choose one of them and asked her which one it would be, and she just shrugged and told me that she would work it out. It’s not like when I taught first grade, and Sofia had a different boyfriend every week, resulting in some messy breakups, and fighting on the playground.
Teaching PALS, I seem to spend 50% of my time in the bathroom. Since I get children, at such young ages, we’re usually the ones, who are responsible for potty-training them when we deem their ready, or when parents demand it in an ARD meeting. A gen ed teacher can just send a child to the bathroom and that’s that. If I’m potty-training a child, I’m with them in the bathroom, sitting them [or standing by the toilet or urinal, if appropriate] on the toilet, with a stopwatch, trying to sing happy songs about going to the bathroom, and encouraging them. The song I coined during my first-year teaching PALS goes “Pee Pee in the Potty, Pee Pee in the Pot,” which makes no sense, to be honest, but my students seem to love it. If my students have accidents, I can’t just send them to the nurse with a change of clothes like a gen ed student, I must change them myself. Just the other day, I was potty-training, Gabe, one of my newer kindergarten students, and well, he just doesn’t understand potty-training or anything, but mom is insistent. He sits on the toilet, and says, “I did it” and that’s pretty much as far as we’ve gotten. He has absolutely no concept of needing to go to the bathroom, nor does being wet or soiled bother him. During dismissal, after holding it all day, sitting and trying before dismissal, he just peed in the hallway and was sitting in a puddle of his own piss. He didn’t seem to notice or care. I had to tell the janitorial staff, for at least the third time that week, that they needed to clean up more pee in the hallway, and the dirty looks they gave me were epic.
I also change a lot of diapers. When I first started teaching PALS, I think it took me a good 10 minutes or so, to change and clean a child, I’ve gotten it down to less than 3 minutes. But even when you’re changing a diaper, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is doing his or her business or will keep their hands still when you’re wiping their butts. I learned early on, in my teaching career, to keep complete changes of clothes, always. One time, we went on a field trip to the zoo, and a mom didn’t bother to tell me that their child was having diarrhea issues because she didn’t want her daughter to miss the trip. Almost on the hour, I had to rush her into the zoo bathroom, put on gloves, and change her diaper and clothes.
And that is the glamorous life of a PALS teacher, and I still wouldn’t change it for the world. Nothing makes me happier than when a parent tells me how much I’ve done for their child. Nothing makes me happier than to see all the growth I see while my students are in my class. To have a student go from crying for almost the entire 8-hour school day to coming in with a huge smile, and excited to start his or her day. Nothing can beat the excitement when a student says their first word, after being nonverbal for an extended period of time, no matter what that word might be. Nothing makes me happier than making a difference in a special needs child’s life.
So maybe I only have seven kids, but I do everything and more than a gen ed teacher does, forwards, and backward, but without the heels, because most likely because I’m running after a student down the hallway, and I’d trip in heels.