Now that Ryan is in school for a full day, I can do some substitute teaching. Before Ryan was born, I was a second grade teacher for many years. I was starting to miss the classroom, so I signed up to be a substitute. It works well for me, because I can be home when Ryan gets home and still get him to his therapies on time after school.
Yesterday, I got a call for a substitute job for an instructional assistant. The call didn’t say what grade, which is unusual. But I assumed it was kindergarten, since it’s the only grade that I know of that has assistants. When I got to the office, the secretary gave me the badge and key to the classroom. I asked her if I would be working with kindergarten. But she didn’t answer. She just said, “You’re in room 115.”
I still didn’t know what grade I had been assigned to. When I got to the classroom, the teacher was standing at the door, and I said that I assumed I was working with kindergarten. She said, “No, this is a K-2 cross categorical special needs class.” (What a coincidence! This was the same type of special needs class my son is in, except he attends a different school.)
Immediately, I was confused about all the secrecy. But the teacher informed me that if they are open about what type of class it is, most substitutes will not take the job. In fact, many will walk out of the office as soon as they find out they signed up for a special needs class.
The mother in me instantly felt defensive. These substitutes are educated people, I thought. They should be familiar with special needs. Everyone has come in contact with a special needs person at some point in their lives. Do they think they will catch something? What is their problem?
Maybe they’re picturing a violent out of control child. But special needs does not automatically mean behavior problem. And behavior problems are epidemic in the typical classroom. I’m sure most substitutes with any amount of experience had their share of behavior problems while teaching.
But after I cooled down, I realized that many people probably don’t understand special needs kids. They’re afraid they need special training or have to acquire special knowledge in order to work with a special needs child. When in truth, all they need is love.
In many ways, special needs children are no different from typical children. They want attention. They want to learn and sometimes don’t want to learn. They love recess and don’t like doing a lot of work. What’s different, is that they need extra help in order to get through the school day. They learn differently, so they need specialized instruction.
I had a very memorable and rewarding day substituting in the special needs class. I watched the students participate in library and art. One of my students did a better job painting his project than the other typical children at the table. I taught math one on one. I monitored independent work time. I played a game with a student who earned it as a reward. I took the students to lunch. I came away with the knowledge that I probably just spent a day with the hardest working kids in the whole school.
Life isn’t easy for any of these children. Their days are filled with special challenges, difficult demands. and always striving to keep up with the other typically developing students around them. All students deserve a competent, enthusiastic substitute when their regular teacher is away. All substitutes should consider working in a special needs class at least once. I think they will find the rewards amazing.