Thursday, April 06, 2006

On teaching, learning and how we confuse the two

Me: Hi, I’m Square Girl and I’m an ABA consultant.

Everyone: Hi Square Girl

Whew. Now that we got that out of the way, I feel a lot better. Well, actually I’d feel much better if I talked about it a little more. To me, “autism” is not just a word, a field, a job or a career. To me, “autism” is more like a teacher, a guide, and a journey. When it comes to knowledge of the field, I am quite aware of all the controversy surrounding, well, just about EVERYTHING. Semantics are controversial, as are “Causes”, “Cures”, “Treatments”, “Acceptance”, “Epidemic” etc. but I will not go on with this ever expanding list of items…and it is. Ever expanding. Which is why I woke up in the middle of the night last year and had a Jerry Maguire moment of seemingly temporary insanity and wrote this essay on why there is so much anger, animosity and distrust in this field, which is ultimately one reason: Fear. And of course the only antidote to fear is Love. So while I will save all of that for another post, when another wave of “clarity” or “temporary insanity” (feel free to chose your own semantic in this case, and trust that I will not be offended) overcomes me, I will share a little about my experience and exposure to teaching (ABA or not…why does everything have to be about semantics).

When ABA became a heated issue…oh wait, it always has been. When I realized ABA was a heated issue, I began to question if it was the right approach and received training in all other types of therapies including in Pivotal Response Training, Natural Language Paradigm and RDI (RDI from Dr. Greenspan ala Big Brother Style). For those of you who don’t know, Greenspan doesn’t travel, so you either have to go to Washington to get trained or receive training via a big gigantic screen where he demonstrates that he can see everyone in the room by describing what various people in the room are wearing and doing. It was actually kinda creepy if you ask me. It was after this, that I realized that what it all boils down to is teaching and the fact that the children I worked with ran to the door to greet me and seemed to love learning and all the other fun stuff we did (singing, piggy back rides, chasing, engaging, etc.) what I was doing…my adapted version of ABA wasn’t as tortuous as some would have people believe. And in contemplating teachers, styles, methodologies, etc. I thought about my own childhood teachers and my feelings about each of them.

I went to a very small private school. It was not a special ed. school, and being a private school there was no such thing as “Special ed.”, but in retrospect, I am certain that several of the children there would be in “Special Ed.” if they had attended a public school. Our classes were small and the school truly operated on a no child left behind spirit and methodology. My brother-in-law began going to school there in sixth grade leaving a public school still not being able to read, yet after a year of his teacher staying after school with him to teach him, he learned. That is the kind of school I attended. My Kindergarten teacher was and continues to be one of the most wonderful teachers I have ever met, and every child I have ever spoken to who has been a student of hers says the same. Every parent of every child who was a student of hers agrees as well. She is and was, loud, a little bit nutty and most importantly creative…she used to read Amelia Bedilia and Mrs. Pigglesworth to us and I thought they were both like her. No child has ever left her classroom not reading, she told me once, and I am certain that she is not exaggerating. It is hard to pinpoint what made her so amazing, but her enthusiasm for teaching and flair for drama played a role, I’m certain. I remember that every day we would all recite this poem about Astro’s (Astro the Astronaut) bag and what was inside…something like “Astro left a BIG surprise, let’s look in his bag to see what’s inside”…it was always very exciting and what he left inside was always…Homework!!! Yes, she had us very all excited about our homework…afterall it was a “surprise” from Astro the Astronaut! (Apparently she understood the importance of semantics). My first grade teacher was pretty good. I liked her. But following the most-amazing-fun-creative-disciplined-silly-wonderful teacher in the world is hard to do. And the fact that she did follow quite well speaks volumes. Now my second grade teacher was just, well, mean. She was. When I became and adult, I second-guessed my assessment of her as “mean” because I thought I was just comparing her to my previous teachers. But then she called me a couple years ago to ask me to help her out with a student she had who was possibly on the spectrum, named Davis. I went and observed and realized that what she wanted was not “help”, but rather a confirmation that her suspicion was correct. I observed their music lesson and when the instruments were handed in, I was horrified when she loudly announced. “Children…EVERYBODY stop what you are doing! Davis has lost one of his cymbols again! We must all stop what we are doing to look for Davis’s cymbol’s!” and I thought “Yup. My assessment was right. She was (and is) mean.” My memories of teacher’s after that are minimal and intermittent, showing me that our values and experiences (well at least mine) are strongly shaped when we are young. It also made it that much more important that I wasn’t causing detriment to the children I taught, as the one thing I can always guarantee that I brought to the table (literally and figuratively) is LOVE.

Having been a teacher (I prefer this title to ABA therapist/supervisor/consultant, etc.) for more than twelve years, I am looking forward to hearing more and more feedback from my former students (or teachers as I have come to know them as). Last year, I visited my very first client, Jamie, whom you can learn more about here and here (I have changed the settings and names in my stories, but nothing more) and when I came inside his house, he threw his arms up into the air and shouted gleefully “Square Girl! Your back!” and we had conversations about school, his upcoming talent show, his dogs, my family (who he had met several times) and I realized that perhaps ABA (or my own watered down version of it) isn’t so detrimental at all…assuming it is administered with creativity and love. Oh, and Jamie called me several weeks ago…his mom said he requested to do so. He called my parents house (an interesting phone call and perhaps another post) to get my new info. Our conversation went something like this:

Jamie: Square Girl, I called you, but you weren’t there.
SG: I know Jamie. That’s because I moved.
Jamie: Oh. Did you have a sign that said “for sale” and “sold” on it.
SG: No, but that’s because I live in an apartment.
Jamie: Ohhhhhh, an apartment! Do you have Goldie?
SG: Well Jamie, no. Goldie is er, gone…I don’t have her anymore.
Jamie: Oh. I have a new dog. Here’s my mom.
So in my assessment of how I measure up as a teacher I have feedback from one of my little friends thus far, and I can pretty safely say that he was not traumatized by me. One down, a hundred or more so to go.

I’ll let you know what they have to say. And I’ll do so honestly. Yet let me share my suspicions…it is not the “type” of therapy or ideology or brand. It is not the ideology that are ultimately the most important. It is (and I know I say this at the risk of sounding crazy) the compassion, creativity and LOVE that you bring to your students (who by the way are not actually students, but your teachers if you haven’t yet figured it out).


Blogger Mamaroo said...

I completely agree Squaregirl. Love, compassion, creativity and our intuition allows us to learn from our best little teachers. And when we learn, they learn. Your kindergarten teacher was my 2nd grade teacher (well, my second 2nd grade teacher...the first one was a very mean Nun. I guess neither of us learned much from each other that year since I had to repeat 2nd grade). My experience with that second 2nd grade teacher was when I first knew I wanted to become a teacher myself.

4:20 AM  
Blogger gretchen said...

I tried to write recently about "what is working" with my Henry. I feel like I know a lot less than the rest of you about all the philosphies and techniques of teaching "our" kids. What I realized it really comes down to is this: Henry (and he's only 6 years old) has had bad teachers and good. The bad teachers (and I will sound like a biased mom, but I don't care) couldn't pigeonhole him, so they were afraid of him.

The good teachers take each kid for the little package that he is. They don't try to make him fit a mold. And, yes, they love him. He loves them back, and that's why he wants to work hard for them.

5:50 AM  
Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Yeah for your last lines!!!!

3:10 PM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

Yeah for the whole post (including the last lines)!!!!

7:09 PM  
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8:12 PM  
Blogger Kristina Chew said...

It's one thing to write about "ABA" and "teaching kids with autism" and another thing to do it.

I think we know what your experience is!

10:49 PM  
Blogger SquareGirl said...

Kristina, your perspective is always appreciated...I am so grateful that whis community has teacher's like you and Charlie...I'm still looking froward to sitting in on one of your classes!

You are the qintessential teach us all everyday and I am an eager student of yours!

11:25 PM  

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