One School Teacher’s Story of a Global Pandemic’s Silver Lining, by “teachlovemom” (Kristi McAllister)
Have you ever believed in something or someone so passionately that when you talk about it you are so full of emotion and excitement, that you feel like your head could literally explode? Have you ever believed something so deeply that you craved more knowledge and became almost obsessed with the topic or subject matter? I’m not talking about an addiction to Pinterest searching for fall DIY projects or stalking your ex on social media. I’m talking about a gut feeling where you know you are so right about something that it eats at you and keeps you up at night because so few people are picking up what you’re laying down. No? Well let me tell you, it doesn’t make friends. I’ve experienced lots of eye rolling, yawns and looks of wth are you talking about, topped with facial expressions that really let you know you’ve lost it… (Please make sure my straight jacket has glitter when they take me away). Some people agree but they just want you to stop rambling. Not me. I don’t accept that so I just keep pushing forward with my theories until I find someone who sees what I see. Those are my people. That’s what passionate people do. We don’t give up.
It was my first year teaching this population of students. They are adults with significant impairments which was a big change from the prek-2 classrooms of littles with mild to moderate cognitive impairments who I had taught for the past 6 years. I began to suspect that one of my students in particular had way more cognition than he was able to communicate. Well, to be honest, I’ve always believed my students understood more than most of my colleagues. Again, some of my colleagues thought I was crazy. I didn’t care. I’ve learned to trust my gut and I believe in each and every one of them. The one thing that still rings in my head daily from one of my professors is that there’s no damage in assuming students understand. It’s called presumed competence. However, if you assume that your student doesn’t understand, that can be very damaging. For confidentiality purposes, we will call this particular student Conrad (the name Conrad means brave and able to fight through tough circumstances).
Conrad began the year coming into my classroom and sleeping most of the day. He had limited movement of his body, was wheelchair bound and could not speak. He was typically developing until the age of 7 when he developed a virus that crossed the membrane into his brain causing it to seize uncontrollably until he had surgery to remove the part of his brain that was causing the seizures. From that point on he was in a state of immobility with only few movements to indicate his wants and needs. He had small seizures regularly when he was awake and we would tally them on a clipboard. Conrad has the most supportive family. His mother is an absolute saint. She loves, cares and advocates for him like no parent I’ve never seen before. I learned through reading Conrad’s records that he communicated with his eyebrows and head movements. Yes was eyebrows up or putting his head down as if to nod yes, looking away meant no. He had something called an eye-gazer that he had used for communication with an outside therapy facility a few years prior. With an eye-gazer a person looks at a word that is on the screen and if they hold it there long enough, the computer will say it. I begged (or rather persistently reminded) his mom to send it in even though typically eye-gazers were difficult to maneuver because they have to be set up just so. If you move them even a little, they are known to not stay calibrated and really I was told they were just too difficult to deal with.
Not sure if you skipped ahead to this part but that kind of business doesn’t scare me. My determination is a combination of liking a good challenge and needing to see for myself if the outcome is really what I’ve been told. It may come as no surprise that I’ve pretty much been this way most of my life. I also created smaller versions of myself that do the same thing (karma). After months of “begging”, Conrad’s mom finally brought the machine in. I remember seeing it and turning it on for the first time. It was like when Indiana Jones found the lost Ark. I was expecting light to shine from it and magical things to happen. Mmmm…not so much. It was a heavy clunky computer looking thing (definitely the first model of its kind) with a screen that had two inch white squares with words and phrases on it in black times new roman font and I had no idea what to do next. Conrad would wake up occasionally for small snippets of time after he had been taken to the bathroom or if I played some music (which happens often because music not only engages my students but because I like a good 80’s classic AND there must be regular music when your classroom has a disco ball hanging in the middle of it. Sidebar, our class theme song is none other than Journey’s ‘Don’t stop believing’… duh). I didn’t really know what to say or do but then I remembered that he could answer yes and no questions accurately (that was one of those things that ate away at me and kept me up at night wondering what else he could he be thinking and wanting so say).
Then I heard my professor’s words. Presumed competence. So I crouched down beside Conrad and I woke him up. He looked at me with those big green eyes (kind of like “what the heck do you want now”) and I said to him “Conrad, I know you’re in there. I believe in you. I know you have a lot to say and if you trust me I will help you. I will help you talk so we can hear what you have to say”. His eyes welted up with tears and he raised his eyebrows as big as I had ever seen him do before. His response gave me chills down my spine. I was immediately overcome with emotion and at that moment I knew he was in there. He was in there and I was going to get him out (or I would at the very least lose my sweet mind trying!). The process was slow. Things just take longer with this population but you can’t give up (and that concept is not an alternative). I mean, it can take weeks for them to learn a skill. Most people don’t have patience to wait in a long grocery line. Not this girl. I set him up near my desk within earshot. I plopped him down in front of that eye-gazer every day for a month. It takes consistency (or persistency, one of my strongest skills) practicing over and over. And then it happened. After weeks of continuing to tell Conrad you can do it. I believe in you. I’m not giving up on you. It happened. The first word was “yes”. We cheered and jumped around and we were so excited to hear it. Skeptics questioned if it was by accident. I knew better. I didn’t let that kind of negative energy enter my classroom. I continued to believe in him until the single words turned into double words and then phrases. It was very purposeful.
Conrad’s mom started to see something she hadn’t seen in a very long time. It was emotion. He was happy. He was smiling and more alert. He was woke. Conrad wasn’t the only student that began to communicate. Each of my precious silent students began to find their voices. I believed in them and told them the same way I did with Conrad. This revelation revealed that each one of my students were and are capable of communication, purposeful, full of intent, communication. By this time is was February 2020 the beginning of a new calendar year and it was going to be the best year ever (wait for it… cue global pandemic)
March of 2020 hit everyone like a punch to the gut. I know, I know everyone felt this in some capacity. Some way more than others, so I don’t say this assuming teachers were the only ones affected or even had it worse than anyone else. It was tough all the way around and one person’s struggle doesn’t minimize the other. As a special education teacher of post-secondary students with severe multiple disabilities and complex learning needs, it seemed like an impossible task to teach. My sweet students have limited motor skills and even more limited means of communication. My students who need one on one physical assistance a majority of the time to complete daily living skills. They struggle to do some of the simplest tasks independently let alone login to zoom on a computer. I felt defeated. I felt scared. I was worried about my students and their progress because with this population of kiddos, they don’t usually go more than 10 days without in-person school to avoid academic regression. But I also worried about their health. They are all fragile. Most of them have seizure disorders and Covid-19 would be a game of roulette they should never play. In addition, I like the rest of the parents in the world, I was trying to juggle my own 3 children doing remote learning. Anyone reading this have children that enjoy doing homework willingly. I didn’t think so (If you do, good for you but I don’t want to hear about it, Karen). That third circle of hell took a turn of catastrophic proportions when inserting a global pandemic in the mix causing the all the schools to close.
Actually, everything closed. There was no toilet paper and I wasn’t sure if I should drink the alcohol I had or Pinterest a recipe on how to make it into hand sanitizer. Never in a million years could I (and I’m sure most of you and the rest of the world) have imagined what would unfold over the next 12 months. I won’t make you relive the sheer hell we all experienced on some level or another. I’ll get right to the silver lining.
At first it felt insensitive to say something good had come from a pandemic. I still feel guilty when I think about it and really consider how much so many people lost. How many PEOPLE were lost! But then I realized, like in any tragedy you have to find the light. You have to focus on the silver lining and continue moving forward. We pick up the pieces one at a time and try to find the good. Like Mr. Rogers (you young-ins may need to google him. He’s an icon) said “in times of disaster, look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping”. It’s what we do as humans to make it through some of the toughest times so why would we stop now? So, I pushed forward. There were some days I could barely get out of bed but I showed up for my students. There was no giving up (as you know, I just don’t do that). What I realized is that the families of my students were rock stars and continue to be to this day. I’m not talking cover band singers in a seedy local bar. I’m talking Michael Jackson level rock stardom on a parent level. They showed up and they learned how to teach their children. Their children made progress. I believe they made more progress than if Covid-19 hadn’t showed its evil face.
What this complete nightmare of a global shit show manifested into was an opportunity for me to show my student’s parents that their children were in there. They were people. They had opinions and personalities, likes and dislikes, wants and needs and not only did they want to communicate it, they deserved that right. I was able to have conversations with these parents that peeled back the layers of these misunderstood beings to reveal personalities that families had no idea existed. The emotions that poured out was not like anything I have ever experienced. This black cloud of a pandemic revealed a silver lining that changed the relationships between my students and their families and has continued to open the flood gates of communication between my students and the world around them. I have dozens of stories of this miraculous journey.
I’m sure you’re wondering, what’s Conrad doing? Unfortunately Conrad’s doctors do not think it’s safe for him to return to school and that’s ok (there’s no judgy mcjudgersons here). He still has not been back to school in person since March 2020. I continue to do homebound teaching with him and he continues to make progress using his eye-gazer. We are waiting for a new and improved eye-gazer. One that will be mounted onto his wheelchair so he can speak all the wonderful things he thinks. He has quite the personality. He tell jokes and his favorite way to end our zooms is by telling me “see you soon, you big baboon!” and every time I click my computer off, I can’t wait until the next time I get to see his face and hear that voice tell me he missed me and he’s happy to see me today. I can’t wait to hear HIS voice that I always believed was in there.