Saturday, February 22, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: Quirky People Make Great Stories!

If you do anything for long enough, you will meet lots of different kinds of people and have many great stories to tell. And that's what this blog is all about. Last week at the end of the blog I said that ed specialists really ARE that smart. So here is the story behind that statement.

We had a psychologist named Dave that worked his way up and into a job that really suited him. Technology and computers were making things easier for teachers and changing the way that they wrote their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and collected data. Dave was a quirky kind of guy, shy in social situations, and somewhat lacking in other social skills. But he was a computer whiz and knew software programs well. When I started as an ed specialist, Dave had designed a Word template that helped teachers merge information about their students into an IEP form. This template was sacred, and God help you if you forgot to save each IEP with the student's name so as not to mess up the template! There was also a bank of goals that could merge into these forms, and so at that time, it was pretty impressive.

I took a look at these forms and talked to Dave about designing a data sheet that could also merge with the template information. He looked at me like I had three heads. He said, "Ed specialists are not that smart. You would never be able to figure this out." And with that, I was dismissed. Well, that is exactly the wrong thing to say to me, and so I set out to prove him wrong! I worked with Word and learned all about merging, form fields, etc. I designed data sheets, wrote more goals that could be used by preschool teachers, and set out to give it all a try.

I asked the other ed specialists if I could show them what I'd done. They gathered in one of the conference rooms with me, and I showed them what I had designed. They were very impressed! One of the ladies, Susan R., said, "Have you shown this to Dave yet?" I said no. She started laughing and went and got him. He was reluctant to come, but Susan told him he wouldn't believe what he'd see. He came into the conference room and I demonstrated what I'd come up with. He was at a loss for words. He finally said, "How'd YOU figure this out? Ed specialists aren't smart enough to do this!" We all laughed and said, "I guess we are!" I gained a lot of respect from Dave that day, but it didn't stop him from ignoring me when I came to ask him something in his office. After a while I would say, "Dave. Dave. DAVE! Turn around and make eye contact!" He would be slightly embarrassed, but would turn around with a smile.

And then there was Joanie. Joanie was an intervention specialist in charge of supporting the self contained special ed programs in the district. She was tall, very tall and muscular. She could be somewhat imposing at times. We also had other intervention specialists who dealt mostly with behavior issues. One of them, Bonnie, was amazing. (I will have more to say about her later). Well we were dealing with one young boy with major tantrums, especially related to riding the bus. His mother was agoraphobic and didn't like leaving the house herself. To make matters worse, she told him that the loose straps on the wheelchair buses might turn into snakes!  Unbelievable! Indeed I had written a great Social Story to try and help him overcome his fear of riding the bus, but it wasn't helpful enough.

One day we get this call from the boy's mother. She is at her wit's end. She cannot get him on the bus and we can hear him screaming at the top of his lungs in the background. She is asking for someone to come and help her get him on the bus. Bonnie, ever the behavior specialist, says she will go. However, at this time, Bonnie was very weak and battling terminal cancer. Susan B., one of the coordinators said she would send Joanie instead. Susan calls Joanie into her office and tells her she wants her to go and help get this boy on the bus. Joanie wasn't happy about the request but when Susan told her that Bonnie was wanting to do it, Joanie said okay.

Joanie got in her car and drove to the house. She got out and told us later that she could hear the screaming all the way down the sidewalk. She walked up to the door and knocked. The door opened and there was the kicking screaming little boy refusing to leave the house. Joanie looked at him, pointed to the bus and in her deep booming voice said, "Get on the bus NOW!" The boy stopped, looked up at this towering woman, stopped crying and said, "Okay," and walked to the bus!

Truly, if Joanie asked me to get on that bus, I would! After that I thought we should make a life size cardboard cutout of Joanie that we could use to get students to do what we wanted. All we would have to do was stand behind it and in our deepest voice say, "Get on the bus!"

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: Transition, ACES, and "Rainbow Bunkers"

August of 1999 was a month of waiting and wondering. What would it be like to be an itinerant employee? How would I like not being "tied" to one school? Would the teachers I'd be working with like me? I'd been doing preschool straight for the past 13 years. How would I help resource teachers? Lots of anxiety!

When school started, the area coordinators, education specialists, and the special ed director all met to discuss school assignments and other sped business. These would be regular meetings and were referred to as ACES meetings (Area Coordinators, Ed Specialists).
That was a clever name and the meetings were great. Everyone brought problems to the table and discussed them. If new professional development opportunities were available, we discussed how to deliver the training information or who should attend.

At that first meeting I found out which schools I would have and provide support to. They included six schools that Susan B., one of our coordinators, referred to as the "Rainbow Bunkers", rainbow because they all had rainbows painted on one side, and bunkers because of their low concrete designs. During the 1980's and early 1990's, many of the older elementary schools in Spokane were torn down and replaced with these schools. All of these schools were identical in shape and size and only varied with different colored roofs and could be mirror images of each other on the inside. Indeed, I'd already spent three years in one of these schools when I'd taught at Woodridge. These schools are about as ugly as you can get and have all sorts of ventilation problems that cause people to get very ill. Over the years the heating and ventilation systems in all of these schools have had to be replaced. Nasty.

Having six out of my seven schools be the Rainbow Bunker style school wasn't that bad except that five of these were all on the upper northeast side of the district. When I drove to one of these buildings, got out and started to go inside, I'd have to pause and think, "Where am I?" Frequently, until I got to know my way around, I would turn around, go back outside, and look at the name on the building to make sure I was where I really needed to be!

Now the real work began. I started by going to each of my schools and introducing myself to the principals and special education teachers I would be supporting. Everyone was friendly and welcoming and two of my schools, Logan and Lincoln Heights actually had preschool programs in them. The teacher at Lincoln Heights would let me come and hang out for awhile when I was really missing preschool! Things started slowly partly because I wasn't really sure what to do, and partly because in a few of my buildings, I was replacing an education specialist, Susan R., who had been doing the job a long time and really knew her stuff! I have to say, I felt pretty inadequate to begin with!

And then the dreams started. To this day, fifteen years later, I continue to have these dreams. They go something like this: It is nighttime and I am looking at this big brick school building from the outside. Inside is all lit up and this school looks like an elementary school I attended in fifth grade. But in my dream it is Reid and I am going inside and then walking down the hall. All the rooms are brightly lit and parents are walking with their children. It seems like this must be conferences or a carnival or something fun. I walk down to the preschool room and walk inside. Kay is there but she looks confused. I say, "Is it time for Circle? What is our theme? Did I forget to do lesson plans?" Kay looks at me and says, "You don't work here anymore. We have a new teacher. You work in Spokane." I am devastated and as I turn to leave, the Reid teachers all close their doors. I am standing alone in the hall.
Next week: Yes, ed specialists ARE that smart!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Years 23 to 34: Education Specialist for Spokane Public Schools: The Interview

In the summer of 1999, after ten years with the Cheney School District as a preschool teacher, I was told that there was an opening for an education specialist in Spokane. I looked at the posting for the position and decided I probably had the right credentials for the job, and so gathered all my transcripts, updated my resume, and applied for the job.

When I moved to eastern Washington in the summer of 1986, the first job I interviewed for was a resource room job at Salnave Elementary in Cheney. The interview lasted about 15 minutes. I knew that wasn't good, but every time I started to answer a question, the principal of the school would say, "Great, yes," and I would stop talking. Needless to say, I did not get that job. After that experience, I decided I always needed to have a lot to say. Those of you that know me well are thinking, really Kathy? When are you EVER at a loss for words!

So when I went to the interview in Spokane, I decided to take some things with me to share. During my masters program in early childhood, I worked on putting together a portfolio assessment for preschool. Over the years I had been exposed to several great curricula including the ERIN, High Scope, Creative Curriculum, and others. I took parts of each of these and then added information from my specialists and came up with a pretty complete assessment. In this assessment I included samples of children's work, photos of things they built, audio samples of things they said, etc. I had only just started to test this out with my students, but had high hopes for the information I could gather with it. This seemed like the perfect thing to bring with me.

Early in August, I got the call to come in for an interview. I was very nervous. This would be a very different job for me. No classroom. No attachment to one school. But I went in and thought, I just need to try my best. In the room were six women, these were the special education coordinators for the district. Each one represented a different part of the district and one of the women represented the middle and high school programs. They took turns asking me questions and I answered them all. At the end they asked me if I had anything I wanted to ask or share, and I brought out my portfolio assessment and talked to them about its' creation and how I used it. They asked if they could keep a copy and I said yes. The interview ended and I got up to leave. As I left the room and started down the hall, I could hear a lot of laughter coming from these ladies. All I could think of was I must have really bombed! Why else would they be laughing? My heart sunk.
My preschool portfolio assessment

But a day later, I got a call from the special education department offering me the job. I was surprised! (Years later I was relating my impressions of the interview and asked one of the coordinators why they had laughed when I left. She said, "We were so surprised by all of the things you shared, we couldn't believe it!")

A few days later I met the rest of the ed specialists at a luncheon at The Elk. These were (and still are) a great bunch of women, many of whom I would be spending the next twelve years with! I felt out of my depth, but knew I would be learning a lot from them, so I should pay attention!