I have been stopped around town the past week or so by numerous people who have asked me why I resigned my job. What I felt was a pretty simple answer is actually more complicated to explain than I originally thought. The best way for me to describe it is to use a model most of us can relate to. A medical model. In medicine there are generalists and there are specialists. Both are vital to our system. Both have crucial roles in making sure we get the care we need, when we need it. A family practitioner is usually the first point of contact when we are under the weather. They know about a wide variety of illnesses and what treatments are best suited for making us better in the quickest way. They have protocols they follow, which they know extremely well. When there is something that is out of the ordinary, that doesn’t behave in a way that is usual and expected, they refer you to a specialist. It may be a cardiologist, a neurologist, an oncologist or any number of others. The generalists are experts on what normal looks like and who to go to when things don’t look normal. It is their gift.
The specialists are the next step in the progression. They do an exam, and begin the process of eliminating the biggest threats. For them it is a challenge to find the culprit causing the issue. Because they know their area of expertise so well, they can identify things that the generalist might not have seen. For example, a heart doctor might know just from listening to the heartbeat what the possible issues are. They have listened to thousands of hearts and therefore are extremely familiar with how a heartbeat should sound. It is all they know…but they know it well. When they are stumped they can order tests that show even more detail and help to determine the best treatment. They are problem solvers. It is their gift.
I am a specialist. I, like all teachers, started out as a generalist but as I pursued further education I became more interested in struggling learners, especially those who have difficulty in reading. When a homeroom teacher has a student who is falling behind, I work with the student to try to figure out the deficit that is causing the problem. I work the protocols and try to teach strategies that will get the student back on the path to success as soon as possible. Most of the time with this type of specialized instruction, students make significant progress. Many eventually catch up to the point they no longer need my help. That is my goal. There are a few who need further evaluation and those students will move on to other specialists who come after me.
The problem for me is that I have done what I do for a really long time. When I was asked to become a generalist again, I knew that it was not something that I would be successful at. At one time in my life I had the skills for it, but now I do not. Now, I know reading issues…really well. I haven’t taught all the other subjects since 1987. I am off my game. And so, rather than start over I chose to quit.
However, there is another reason for my departure, beyond just being rusty in my skills and not wanting the stress of having to relearn how to be a generalist. It is a foundational issue that I cannot turn a blind eye to. Allow me to go back to my medical model. The students I work with often ask me, “Why do I come to you?” I explain it like this. “It’s like when you cut your finger. If it is a paper cut you only need a Band-Aid. If it’s deeper you need stitches. If you cut your finger off you need the Emergency room. Everyone gets the level of care they need. I am here to help those who need more than a Band-Aid in reading. It is my job to give you what you need to be as successful as possible.” That usually helps them considerably. I don’t sugar coat it…I tell them they are with me because they need specialized care and that we do not make fun of one another because some need more help than others. It creates an emotionally safe environment for them, which, over time, becomes a place they can be honest in their weaknesses and celebrate their strengths.
My concern is that by putting all the EIP (Early Intervention Program) teachers in a generalist setting with 15-20 students, that the students who need more than a Band-aid won’t get it. They will be in the classrooms where the environment is overwhelming for those who struggle. The specialists-turned-generalist teachers will not have the time to give the kind of specialized care these students need or that they are trained to give. This will result in frustration for the students as well as the teachers. I just cannot be a part of taking something that students desperately need away from them. I have seen what happens in this kind of situation. Students fail. They cannot keep up and therefore they give up. The light of learning goes out of their eyes. I cannot watch that happen while my hands are tied to do what I am trained for. I might could pull them aside here and there, but consistent, specific, individualized strategies that take place every single day in a structured manner would not be possible…at least not for me. Not with that many kids in one room. I think it is a disservice to kids.
I know that the decision to put all EIP teachers back in classrooms is in the interest of balancing the budget. I get that. Class sizes can be reduced without having to add additional teachers to the payroll. Just use the teachers we have in a different way. And the struggling kids can get what they need in the regular classroom. It should be easy with only 15 kids in the room, right? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And how long will class sizes stay that small? Not long. Each year our system grows and we try to do more with less. It’s like squeezing blood from a turnip. In my opinion, it is the kids who suffer. It is an injustice and the gaps for my students are getting bigger and bigger. I can’t do it anymore. I cannot watch them be left behind. I cannot watch their self-esteem disappear as they sit lost in a regular classroom desperately needing more support than I can give. Putting Band-aids over gaping wounds will not work. In the long run it will become clear, but in the meantime, until the test scores show it, kids will continue to be left behind. In my view it is abusive to kids and that is the very long answer as to why I am leaving the job I love.