"Flowcabulary" and other lessons from one Oakland special ed. teacher
Special education is no stranger to California news. This past winter, a special education teacher in Oakland was accused of beating one of her students. The story got a lot of local media attention. But what about the majority of special education teachers not caught up in litigation, working every day to serve the 10 percent of all California students in these programs? What’s a day like like for them?
Stevie Evans has been a special education teacher for four years.
“I feel like when I first started this job, I was just thrown into the lions den,” she says. “I mean, I came into teaching through teach for America – and they really prepare you well for teaching.”
Special education was a challenge at first.
“I don't know if anyone could prepare you for that,” says Evans. “I mean, that is just a different ballgame. I just remember going in there and feeling like I had to survive. It was like, a matter of me surviving! Like, how do I survive? And get the kids to be able to learn?”
I visited Evans at Elmhurst Community Prep, a small middle school in East Oakland.
“Your homework? Is it in your backpack?” Evans asks one student.
“Ms. Evans, please, please, please don't write this on my progress report,” she replies.
“You wear a different hat all the time,” Evans explains later. “One day you're a teacher, you're a psychologist. You're a police officer. You're a mom. You're a nurse. You're a social worker. That's just part of the job.”
Kids come to special education for diverse reasons. Their challenges can range from autism to severe emotional disturbances. Just within Evans’ class, she has kids with ADHD, auditory and processing deficits, and intellectual disability.
“We're like this you know little dysfunctional family. And sometimes we get along great,” explains Evans. “I've got kids who don't have phonemic awareness, which is something you develop in kindergarten, and then I have kids who can read fluently with ease at like a fifth grade or sixth grade text. So, they’re on radically different reading levels. So I am not going to teach them the same thing, period.”
What these kids do have in common is that general education does not quite work for them. And Evans sees her purpose as leveling the playing field not just for these kids during school, but for their lives in general.
“When I think about how do we change things. How do we empower people? How do we get rid of poverty, I see education as number one. So everyday, I see the work I do as part of a larger scheme. And although I'm not at the top down, I'm at the bottom, I love it. That's where you've got to roll up your sleeves and get it done. So I see it as part of a larger equation. I'm just one of the important pieces,” says Evans.
Getting this done on the day-to-day can be hard. Special day classes have kids of all ages. Evans’ range from 11 to 15 years old. And on top of this, she’s also teaching content from all subjects, content usually taught by five or more separate middle school teachers. This changes the nature of Evans’ teaching entirely.
“A huge part of my job is all social, emotional, behavioral, I can't just focus on the academics. It's not what the job entails. It's all encompassing,” says Evans.
It can produce a chaotic classroom. Evans isn’t alone in all this. Special needs teachers often have assistants throughout the day. Here, it’s Sherry Jackson. Jackson grew up in the neighborhood around Elmhurst.
“I graduated from this school,” Jackson explained. “My whole family graduated from this school. My kids, everybody. The neighborhood is a pretty rough neighborhood.”
It’s not that there isn’t a lot of community here, she says. But there is violence.
“You know the shooting, it's a lot of that that goes around here,” says Jackson.
Last year, Oakland’s homicide rate was the highest its been since 2006, reaching over 130 deaths. Eighteen of those occurred within a mile of Elmhurst Community Prep. Two occurred within a block of this school of 352 kids. Evans’ class reflects other issues that exist outside of Elmurst’s walls.
“My school now, it's about 70 percent Latino, 30 percent African-American. But in my class it's well over 90 percent African-American boys, so there's an overrepresentation of black boys in special education. Who are the people putting them in special ed? The majority of teachers are white women. Just like myself.,” says Evans.
The make-up of Evans’ class is a stark example of a national reality. Black children are more than twice as likely to be identified as having a disability as white students – and they’re more than three times more likely than all other students to be classified as having mental retardation. This pattern has been observed for decades.
“There's something wrong with that,” Evans says. “It's not that black boys are just prone to have learning disabilities or are dumber than other races. It’s like, that's ludicrous. We've already proven that that's not what it is. So what is it then? It's something that institutionalized and so systematized that we people don't even see it.”
This problem has been discussed by groups ranging from the US Department of Education to the NAACP. In fact, newer versions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act include a provision allowing the federal government to monitor and manage this over-identification of minority students in special ed. Evans thinks its not enough.
“It's like you know there are injustices in our society but then you get in some place that highlights all of it and you're just like, whoa,” she says.
You might think all these big picture challenges stemming from outside the classroom would encourage these kids to be nice to each other inside the classroom. That’s not the case.
These kids are made fun of a lot outside of school, perhaps for a stutter or how his eyes look because of fetal alcohol syndrome. As Evans explains to me, and I see during her class, when these kids are bullied so much, they often become bullies to one another.
“That is probably the most difficult part of my job,” Evans says. “Kids are bullying each other, they're making fun of every difference that every kid has and my kids have more differences than other kids, so, it's just sort of enhanced for them. That's just a big part of my job that I didn't really see coming.”
To deal with all of this, Evans employs two things: a lot of humor, and a lot of structure. So at first she jokes about her Flowcabulary’s vocab exercise’s rules: “When you hear the word in the video, what are you going to do? Who wants to get a dollar for it? Okay I'm just joking. That's not gonna happen!”
Then, she starts hyper-organizing every piece of the kids’ day: “This is reading centers,” she explained to me in class. “This group is working on like, decoding and fluency. Those other two groups are working on comprehension.”
The day is a constant stream of seating assignments, teams, exercises, and rotating centers. There is absolutely no down time, just high expectations. Even the act of saying “good job” is turned into something she refers to as a “positive reinforcement structure.” When the class does something good, like sitting in their seats quietly during a transition, she starts placing individual marbles into a jar.
As marbles fall slowly into a jar, Evans keeps track for the class: “Six, give, four -–this is for a field trip!”
She explains to me, “You have to have a very well-structured environment in order to meet all their needs. And for kids who have a lot of anxiety for whatever reason, it makes things go a lot smoother.”
Back in class, Evans leads her kids in a brain warm up, giving them a moment to relax.
“Go ahead and close your eyes. This is your time to relax your mind and get ready for they day,” she says.
Even though Stevie got into this work to fight social justice, she plans to continue teaching for the rest of her life because of a newer passion, her love for her kids.
“I mean, that's what makes it worth it. It's the kids! They're the most, amazing, resilient humans I have ever met in my entire life. They're incredible.”