I was three weeks into my first classes to become a certified teacher when I decided I had had enough. Not of my professors—both Karen, my Foundations of Education instructor, and Diane, who teaches Introduction to Special Education, are first-rate professors. They know the material, and are passionate about teaching. Both have good senses of humor. The fact that they are both attractive doesn’t hurt either. And I certainly wasn’t tired of the other students. They are bright and compassionate.
Nope, the thing that made me want to go crazy was the intractable, idiotic, contorted and bizarre jargon that we were being asked to learn. We were training to become leaders who could clarify concepts for students. Part of that process, apparently, was negotiating the gooey linguistic jungle gym that is required of a teacher. Simple ideas are made complex and given a politically correct sheen. Things that a fifth grader would find obvious are explained using multiple definitions, postmodern obscurity and plain old fecklessness.
Question: What is collaboration? It’s when you get together with someone to work towards a common goal, right?
Not really. According to my textbook “Exceptional Students: Preparing Teachers for the 21st Century,” collaboration is “a style for direct interaction between at least two coequal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision making as they work toward a common goal.” That’s the definition of experts Friend and Cook (they are cited without a footnote). According to Welch, however (who is also cited without a footnote), collaboration is “a dynamic framework for efforts that endorse interdependence and parity during interactive exchange of resources between at least two partners who work together in a decision-making process that is influenced by cultural and systemic factors to achieve common goals.” The author of the Exception Students textbook, Ronald Taylor, Lydia Smiley, Stephen Richards, think we can conclude certain things about collaboration from these definitions. Collaboration entails:
Two or more parties working together
Parties collaborate as equal partners
Participation is voluntary
Responsibility is shared among the parties
Parties work toward a common goal
Process is influenced by factors (such as school climate and culture) other than the parties themselves
Can be either a planned, formal process or a spontaneous, informal process
Resources are shared among parties
Leads to community building
What made all this baby talk necessary was the inclusion, over the last several decades, of special needs kids in the classroom. In 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act—PL 94-142. It mandated that public schools would provide a free, appropriate education (FAPE) for all handicapped students.
This was followed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was passed in 1990 and updated in 2004. There was other, similar legislation, but the result was that suddenly schools found themselves in the business of identifying and educating kids with special needs. At last count there were 12 categories of special education disabilities:
Other Health Impairment
Specific Learning Disability
Traumatic Brain Injury
They forgot post-nasal drip. When it became law that kids suffering from any of these problems had a right to a free education, and one that took place in the least restrictive environment (LRE), that is to say with the most integration with normal kids, teachers found themselves having to deal with a lot of disabled kids. And as with the case of most ideas that were hatched in the 1960s, what started out as something worthwhile became bloated, bureaucratic and oppressive. In class we watched a video of an elementary school instructor who had to successfully cope with the new reality of near-ubiquitous disability. Like a Bizarro World quarterback scanning the field, he had to quickly identify and adapt to the blind, autistic, emotional disturbed, developmentally delayed in front of him. Little Tommy here has ADHD, so gets an extra recess. Cindy has anxiety, so needs time to relax. One kid was so shut down that he simply played on a computer off to the side of the classroom; every once in a while the teacher would interrupt him and ask him to spell a word. In the video, the word was—I kid you not—“nonsense.” The teacher then goes on to explain that he’s glad he took classes in special education, because when confronted with an angry or confused parents he “can talk about IEPs or the IDEA or the kids with CLD” (culturally and linguistically diverse background, in case you were wondering). He has protected himself in the armor of pseudo-technical language. What’s the old joke about the specialist? Someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.
It’s all to be more humane, I guess. Perhaps for too long teachers, when faced with a kid with learning disabilities, passed them along and hoped they can play football. Now we prefer to deal with the problem. And dealing with the problem involves proper language, and proper procedures, and a proper diagnosis. And, of course, it involves collaboration. And I’m all for that. But does it have to be so complicated, so twee, so Stuart Smalley? In addition to the definition of collaboration, we are given lists of “key concepts of collaboration” and “barriers to collaboration.” The barriers include “conceptual,” “pragmatic” and “attitudinal” barriers. I probably face one of those myself; for me collaboration is not co-equal. Certain people are sharper or more expert and will have better ideas and should be given deference. But I digress.
After several weeks of trying to disentangle this stuff, I raised my hand in class with an ultimatum: I could no longer deal with the jargon. I was going to put the stuff in the English language. After twenty years as a journalist with several books published, I was not going to reprogram myself so that no one would ever understand what I was talking about.
To her credit, Diane, our professor, laughed and agreed. From now on, she said, you can say it the way you want to.
I had only been a substitute teacher a few times, but it seemed pretty simple. If a kid is falling behind in your class, retest him. If it happens again, consult the principal and his parents. If a learning disability is suspected, send him to a doctor for a diagnosis. If a diagnosis is made, be aware of it and make the proper adjustment in the classroom. During this collaborative process, don’t act like an asshole.
If someone had just written that down for me, I could have saved $200 on textbooks.
Augustine Brehon is a name assumed to protect the author, who is currently receiving his education certification near Washington, D.C.