The Early Years of Teaching

Blog 3

 

As mentioned earlier, I started my teaching career with Saint Thomas More. It was an unconventional start to my educational career. Saint Thomas more was an international preparatory boarding school that didn’t require teachers to have a teaching license. But did require teachers to live there on campus and work many hours.

At Saint Thomas More, I taught two history classes, two English as a second language classes, and two Spanish classes. The school wasn’t a special education school, but it did have some kids who qualified for special education. Those were the students that I used as guinea pigs when I was trying to do my special education projects while earning my master’s from the University of Hartford. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but my heart was in the right place. I tried really hard, so the special education students I worked with were more than happy to spend some extra time with me, helping me get my degree.

Next, I went to work at a school where it was a lot easier for me to use my special education certification and degree. As a matter of fact, Natchaug Hospital’s Joshua Center School demanded that I have a special education certificate and the degree to work there. The State Department of Education let that one right down to the wire, finally sending me my test results and teaching certificate in the last possible week for Natchaug to accept me as a certified staff member.

Natchaug was an interesting school. The first thing I noticed was that students were pulling up in taxi cabs. No big yellow buses were dropping the students off at that small school. Heck, there were no little yellow buses either. Just vans and taxis showed up to drop kids off, and then later, they came back to pick them up.

I had students from 13 other school districts in the classes I taught. Those school districts decided they were not equipped to teach these troubled students. Those 13 different school districts paid a lot of money to out-place their students at my new school. Natchaug Hospital was a behavior school. And for the first time in my life, I was exposed to point sheets. Everything we did at Natchaug Hospital was based on points. We had a point system with different levels that afforded the kids different rewards based on how many points they earned and what level they earned during the week.

The kids in this school all had behavior problems. And the director of the school building, Jim Harrison, was considered the principal. He was a great guy I met in one of my special education classes at the University of Hartford.

On my first day of teaching at Natchaug, a few female teachers met me at the front door with some pleasantries. I thought they were very friendly. Then they asked me to please take a boy named Tim out of their classes and put him into mine.

I said, “Sure.”

I got my room assignment from the front office and headed to the classroom. I met my paraeducator/teacher assistant there and mentioned that we were taking Tim into our classroom. My paraeducator gave me a funny look. I asked her what was wrong with Tim. She blurted out that he looks like Charles Manson, and he scares the heck out of all the women teachers in the building.

I was a two-time state champ and a two-time junior Olympian wrestler. I didn’t scare easy. And I certainly wasn’t afraid of Tim. Although I must admit, Tim did look like Charles Manson. And he was always talking to me about spooky stuff like the devil and witchcraft and other crazy deranged things. But I didn’t care. And I think Tim sensed that he didn’t scare me or freak me out, so he became friendly toward me the best way he knew how. I liked Tim, and he liked me. So, he never gave me any problems.

There was another boy I was told to keep an eye on and never let him put his hands under his desk. I had strict orders to follow that he must have his hands placed on top of his desk at all times. I’m not 100% sure what this was all about, but I kept my eye on him and constantly reminded him to put his hands back on top of his desk whenever I saw them beginning to move.

And I’ll never forget about the time when I was teaching my class, and I saw a little seven-year-old girl run outside by my classroom and duck into the bushes right beside my outside classroom door. She was from the adjoining elementary Natchaug School. Her staff ran right by her and didn’t see her there in the bushes. I asked my paraeducator to take over the class, and I went outside and stuck my head into the bushes she was hiding in.

I saw the little girl and asked her if she was okay. Then, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I froze. I couldn’t move. This two-time junior Olympian wrestler froze and was helpless because I couldn’t believe what my eyes were telling me was happening. The little girl swung an empty Budweiser class beer bottle right at my head. And I was paralyzed by the shock and couldn’t get out of the way. She stopped her swing one inch from my skull. After a few moments and a few deep breaths, I smiled again and helped her get out of the bushes. Then I called the staff searching for her around the schoolyard.

I went back into my class and tried to comprehend what had happened. I learned a hard lesson that day. That seven-year-old girl could have hurt me badly because I let down my guard. I didn’t expect that she was capable of doing anything like that. After that, I was always ready for a kid to act erratic and do something dangerous. This lesson served me well later in my career when I had to take weapons off furious high school kids who had threatened to use them on me.

Eventually, I left Natchaug Hospital and the hour drive to get there behind when New Britain School District hired me. New Britain offered me a job at a middle school teaching special education classes in the self-contained behavior room. They also offered me a job coaching the high school football team and wrestling teams. New Britain was a lot closer to where I lived, and I got a nice pay raise to go there.

I had successfully handled the rough and tough special education kids with behavior problems at Natchaug Hospital. So, I should be okay with the New Britain middle school kids.

I was wrong. I almost quit that job on my very first day. As a matter of fact, some guy named Jim, the teacher who had that job before I did, came and saw me at the end of the first day. He told me not to quit. I looked at him in surprise, wondering how he knew what I was feeling. Then he said to me that he had broken down and cried at the end of his first day two years ago when he was teaching in that classroom. He, too, wanted to quit but didn’t. Things got better. He told me that things would get better for me too. But unfortunately, they didn’t get better.

I drove home every day after school that year, white-knuckling my car’s steering wheel repeatedly, saying, “I’m not going to quit. I’m not going to quit. I’m not going to quit….”

There was no point system. There was no level system. There was no reward system. And the two big guys that hung outside my classroom door at Natchaug, ready to take a problem child out of my class, did not follow me to New Britain. New Britain was nothing like Natchaug hospital. There was no support. There was no help. It seemed like I could do nothing to get the kids to behave. And I’m sure I was wearing on my principal and vice principal’s patience when repeatedly, I sent down most of my class to the office throughout each day.

At some point, I pulled Carl Gross, the district’s special education coordinator, aside. I told him that I would like to help him create a program in New Britain that was closer to what Natchaug Hospital did. I told him that New Britain’s present system was burning out a lot of good teachers and setting a lot of troubled kids up for failure. There had to be a better way. And I knew what it was. I knew because I had just come from a successful system dealing with behavior problem kids at Natchaug Hospital.

Carl Gross agreed. During the second half of the school year, Carl, me, and a team of other educators in the district met every Friday after school. We worked very hard to develop a new special education program called ACES. By the end of the year, we had created a great new special education program for our troubled New Britain students. The Board of Education liked it and approved it. They were also excited about how much money they would save because now they could keep some of their out-placements in the district. Back in those days, it cost a district $30,000 and up to place a kid in an out-of-district special education school. Our new program would save the City of New Britain millions of dollars.

Everybody seemed to be happy over the progress we had made. I applied for the teaching job but was told that they had to follow the union contract and award it to the teacher who applied that had the most seniority. Since I was only one year in, there was no way that I, the guy who designed the program, would be picked to teach in it. The teacher, Jim, who came to visit me at the end of my first day and told me not to quit, ended up as the teacher in the new ACES program. In addition, I was also told that I may not even have a job the following year because of budget cuts.

Some thanks, huh?

On the last day of the school year, I was told that I would have a job but be displaced to another teaching job somewhere else in New Britain.

Due to some of the crazy dynamics of a huge school system that I don’t fully understand, we lost a teacher that we didn’t replace. And the following year, they moved me to the next-door classroom that was the size of a half classroom. They also doubled up two self-contained behavior problem classes in my tiny room. The kids were practically sitting on top of each other. Instead of having just six students in a very large classroom like I had at Natchaug, I now have 18 special education behavioral inner-city middle school students in a classroom that was half the size of a normal classroom. It was crazy!

I had a job, but that second year was even worse for me. I wanted to quit more than ever that year. I actually had to break up one to three fistfights in my classroom every single day of the school year. It was a terrible year that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, not even my worst enemy. That was some reward, for designing a better program and saving the district a lot of money, huh?

I tried everything I could think of. I used a variation of the behavior point sheets that I had learned about at Natchaugh. I gave every reward that I could afford. And some that I couldn’t afford. I started my point week on Fridays and ended them on Thursdays. And the kids who earned enough points by Thursday got to watch a movie on Friday as a reward. Also, the kid who earned the most points became the student of the week and I took them to ballgames on Friday nights. I tried so hard to win these kids over, but always felt like I was losing the fight.

At one point, a college professor from Southern Connecticut University who was a behavior expert came into my class for a couple of days to try to help out by offering me some of his expertise. Later that week in the staff meeting, he told the whole school that there should be a statue of me out in the school’s front yard for what I was dealing with every day in room 112.

Because I was made aware somewhat early in my first year in New Britain that budget cuts often caused teachers to lose their jobs, I went back to school at night and earned a grades 4-8 regular education degree so I’d be more marketable and could find a job easier if they cut the budget again and I lost my job. Over those two years, I was exhausted and stressed working my extremely difficult day job every day, coaching sports in the afternoon, and going to college almost every night.

And wouldn’t you know it, the following year, a teacher from one of the regular education initiative (REI) classrooms retired. My vice-principal moved me out of the self-contained special education room and into the REI room. Teachers in that program had to be dually certified as a regular education and special education teacher. It was good that I went back to school and sucked it up over those two previous years.

There was a catch, though. Because the job was considered to be a regular education job instead of a special education job, there was all sorts of red tape to cut through. The school district didn’t want me to leave special education, especially self-contained, and go into a regular education room. Those self-contained jobs are hard to fill. And they’re extremely tough to fill at the middle school level in the inner city.

So, the school district made me jump through all sorts of hoops to get out of the special education track of teaching. Eventually, they even called me into a special meeting downtown where they wouldn’t allow my vice principal into the meeting. They actually made him stand in the hallway and then grilled me inside a private room. They wanted to know if my school administration was coercing me to take the new REI job. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Later, I found out that they didn’t like special education teachers leaving special education. I got out through a loophole in the system that was soon closed up so no other teacher could do what I did to get out of special education. Over my career, I would experience the constant tug-of-war of me getting out of a special education job, and then the school district found a way to shortly put me right back into another special education job.

The next four years I spent as an REI teacher and I found out immediately why I needed to be dual certified with a special education degree. The students were big behavior problems. The only difference between the REI students and my self-contained former students was that the REI students weren’t as angry and weren’t getting into fistfights in my room. However, instead of having the standard 6-12 behavior students, I now had 20 non-fighting behavior students.

It didn’t go well. I learned real quick why a previous teacher in this job only lasted a couple of months. I initially thought it was because she was weak. But, I soon found out that it wasn’t because she was weak, it was because the typical person doesn’t see sense in taking that kind of abuse day in and day out.

As an REI teacher, I didn’t use point sheets, levels, or any of the other special education behavioral strategies that I had been using in the self-contained classroom. I was told that this was supposed to be regular education, so I tried to teach like a regular education teacher. I tried to win them over with my personality, good content, good teaching, and whatever flexibility I could figure out. Again, let me repeat what I said earlier. It didn’t go that well.

Four years later, after nearly having my health totally ruined from a very stressful classroom and moldy air vents with no windows in the class to open, I got out of the REI program. A regular mainstream education 6th-grade teacher retired. I took over her class and was relieved to now have windows and fresh air. My health immediately improved. But, to this day, twenty years later, my respiratory health has not fully recovered. In this new position, I was now all the way in the regular education realm of the school and all the way out of the special education component of the school. Or, so I thought.

In a very short time, I figured out that my classroom had been stacked with regular education students who were slipping through the cracks. They should have been in special education but weren’t. The inner cities have this problem: they have too many students who need services. And when their special education numbers start to get closer to the number of students that need extra services, the politicians get worked up and the community complains about the bill. Thus, inner cities are forced to keep their special education numbers artificially low. Many kids go without the identification and services they need. So, with that in mind, for those two years, I taught 30 kids in a classroom who were still having behavior problems but weren’t labeled or receiving special education services. I guess I was there informal special education service.

During my first eight years of teaching in New Britain, I often thought of Natchaug Hospital. I missed how much support I had there and how much easier it was to teach under their special education system. I also missed the director/principal I had there Jim Harrison. Jim was an awesome school leader. He always made you feel like you had support and things were going to be okay. Sometimes I wondered if giving Jim and Natchaug up for the pay raise and the shorter drive was really worth it.

During these years I went back to college at night and got my social studies degree. I had originally wanted to be a sports coach and a social studies teacher, not a special education teacher. But, my route was a winding one. And after being a 6th-grade regular education teacher for two years, a social studies teacher at the high school retired. I finally got the chance to do what I really wanted to do, be a regular education high school social studies teacher and coach.

New Britain High School gave me the social studies inclusion classes. I was the social studies content expert with a special education teacher co-teaching with me in my history classes. Those classes consisted of 15 regular education students and 15 special education students. My special education co-teachers were often surprised when I would speak their special education language with them.

At the beginning of my first year, right after I finished giving instruction to the class, my special education co-teacher, who was the union president at the time, shook her head and blurted out, “Who are you?”

I said, “I’m Dan Blanchard,” not knowing what else to say.

“No,” she said, “I know you’re Dan Blanchard. Where did you come from? How do you know this special education stuff? None of the other regular education teachers here are like you!”

“Oh. I have a masters in special education and I have taught special education before,” I answered.

She shook her head up and down signaling that she now understood. I think those two years went well being the social studies teacher who taught the inclusion classes. I had some behavior students, some learning disabled (LD) some attention-deficit students with ADD or ADHD, some legally blind, and even an occasional autistic kid and some physical handicapped kids, too. Once, I even had a kid who was in a wheelchair and on a respirator with his own personal nurse sitting right next to him. In addition, I always had kids that were struggling to learn English.

I worked with special education teachers. I also worked with paraeducators. I didn’t always know how to best utilize them, but I tried to include them the best I could in my classroom and make it fun for them too. They all seemed happy to be in my room over those years. I also remember going to lots of planning and placement team (PPT) meetings for the special education students in my classroom. I always sat at the table as the regular education (Reg Ed) representative. It felt kind of cool to speak about my academic discipline. And understand the special education dynamics that were going on during those PPT meetings as we poured over the student’s individual educational plan (IEP).

Around this time, my wife and I were visiting her mom in Willimantic and we stopped at the carnival that was in town for the weekend. While we were walking from booth to booth, someone from across the grounds was yelling, “Dan! Dan! Dan” I figured it couldn’t be me. No one there would know who I was. My wife looked too, and she immediately spotted where the yelling was coming from. It was coming from a booth worker who looked like Charles Manson. As we were walking in that direction, in her head, my wife was saying, “Please don’t let my husband know this guy. Please don’t let my husband know this guy.”

When I finally figured out who it was, my face lit up. I embraced Tim and asked him how he was doing. We had a great conversation about his travels all over the country with the carnival. It was so cool seeing one of my old students out there in the world doing okay for himself. However, my wife was still a little spooked by his Charles Manson looks. And she wanted to get the heck out of there.

It took a lot of years of teaching, but my life as a teacher in the special education world of New Britain did get better. I thought I was becoming a pretty good teacher, the students were a lot of fun, and I too was finally having some fun. And then my world changed. I got an outside offer that sounded too good to pass up. I packed up my family. And I left public education and the state of Connecticut to start a new life down south in the business world. My new position was going to make me rich and give me and my family a much easier life.

Unfortunately, it was all too good to be true…