Saturday, February 17, 2018

(Neuro)Divergent: The Classroom

It’s funny, I used to be called “the mean teacher” because I would insist on students doing everything they could independently, no matter how long it took, and not letting others “save” them. Because I insisted on teaching grade-level content to all my students, no matter their academic skill access level.

Now, I’ve changed schools. To the school that was closest aligned to my values that I could find in the state. And all of the sudden, I’ve developed a reputation as that teacher that is too permissive. You know the one, the one that lets her kids get away with everything and doesn’t actually teach? Yeah, that’s how I’m being perceived.

So what happened?

I could point to any number of things. I do have a really hard class this year. Certainly harder than I’ve had in a while. Groups don’t look very group-ish most of the time. And certainly, I’ve had more lessons fail than I had gotten used to. That’s only a problem when I’m okay with it and don’t learn from it. (And it’s the cause of my discomfort, not the school community perception.)

No, this reputation came about because I have found the hard edge of their tolerance for neurodiverisity. I knew it had to be there: schools are staffed by neurotypicals and even the respectful ones are limited by their perceptions of the world if they’re not listening to the voices of the neurodivergent community. And I noticed that from day one when I started at this school. It was far more respectful and understanding of the neurodivergent community than any place I had been before. But it was still an “us” and a “them” and the voices of the neurodivergent community were conspicuously missing from the conversation. (I left feedback saying as much on my evaluation. I doubt it made a difference.)

That’s what the perceived “permissiveness” is: I’m being too neurodiversity friendly. And, as often happens, it’s being perceived through neurotypical eyes as letting them get away with too much: because it makes them uncomfortable, because if they were me they would not let him do it. And so the “he needs to learn he can’t do that out in a job setting” argument gets invoked.

I literally got told that I’m really good at keeping kids calm and preventing them from getting upset so they can learn. And that that is a bad thing. Because they need to learn to handle being more uncomfortable. (Them being comfortable is making the staff around them uncomfortable.) We need to sacrifice their learning so they can accept more “appropriate boundaries.”

And to some degree, of course, they’re right. Because outside my neurodivergent-friendly classroom, the cold neurotypical world won’t accept them for who they are. And they will be forced to accept arbitrary social rules in the name of “appropriate boundaries” in order to be successful. And we all want them to be successful.

So, where do we go from here?

  • We use a more typical token or points system on are goal-directed-learning project. (Honestly, that was probably the next step in understanding how to reach our goal anyway. We needed to make it more concrete.)*

  • We set up clearer physical boundaries in the classroom. (I’ve already bought painters tape. Wish I could remember the name of the teacher I met on Twitter who gave me the idea a couple years ago! Thank you, Awesome Autism Teacher Who’s Name I Forget!)

  • I have some social skills curriculum to write. And some social stories. They need to come from me because they need to come from a neurodivergent perspective. (Unless someone else out there has already written one? I don’t need to reinvent the wheel!)

I’ve got my work cut out for me changing the perception of myself at my students at my new school. But I think it’s worth it. Because this school really does have the right idea and the right values. It’s why I chose to work there. 

Even when we have neurodiversity acceptance in our society I don’t think we’ll ever have neurodivergent-friendly classrooms the way we have neurotypical-friendly classrooms now. And that is what I was trying to create. And honestly, if I believe in inclusion, which I say I do, that shouldn’t be what I want. Our goal should be a neurodiveristy-friendly room. One that works for all of us, neurotypical and neurodivergent. They are right, I went too far to one side. It’s time to re-build the classroom that works for all of us, because that’s the classroom that is really going to prepare students for “the working world” after graduation.

*I know the research on reinforcers. I’ve read Punished by Rewards. I’ve read Mindset. But I work in a PBIS school that wants to increase its use of PBIS. That means using rewards. I have some ideas about how to make this work following the TTOG principles. I’d been trying it before everything fell apart in the last month or two and having some really awesome successes, even in the DTT context, that I hope to get to write up at some point.

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