I was a casual teacher for some time – a replacement teacher called in to hold the fort when sickness (physical or emotional) debilitated the usual placement. Mostly, I never met the wounded but heard a lot about their unorthodox techniques – “he always lets us use our mobile phones”, “we always work on other assignments”, “she doesn’t mind if we do no work”, “were allowed to sit and talk”… etc.
Truthfully, I had no personal objections to most of these ideas, anyway I was primarily responsible for keeping students safe, as quiet as possible and contained in the classroom for the duration – a little easier than stretching out a one-liner lesson plan (dictated on the phone by a slurring bed-ridden teacher at 6am) to fill an hour on a subject I know close to nothing about (Science, Maths, French, Cooking – I was an Art teacher for Christ’s sake!).
Anyway, I put my hand up for as many roles as possible (so I’m partly to blame) – it was the only way to get through the dry-spells, namely summer or just after extended school holidays when teachers generally feel more refreshed and hopeful. Hopeful teachers just don’t get sick as much – and I would get less work.
I quickly signed up for everything and soon was ‘teaching’ every high school subject I knew or didn’t know (more to the point) – I was also a Primary School teacher, a Special Education teacher, a school Principal, a Minister of Education (well not the last 2, but I would have if I had no other work on).
I’d like to give a brief account of one of these days – the first time I was called in to be a Special Education teacher:
I arrived just a little before the morning bell and began to browse through some picture cards left on one of the desks. “No hitting” it read beneath an image that pictured a kid slapping another kid. Great, the expectation of being hit suddenly entered my mind.
The walls were covered in color: posters, student art – swirls, cellophane, paint dabs, stick figures with big round heads. A corner with bean bags, color blocks, books and squishy toys lay in stark contrast to the other corner – a singular hard chair in the middle of bare space – clearly the naughty seat or “time out” space – a phrase without ‘value’ that ends up meaning ‘naughty’ to the kids anyway, a little like the term ‘special’.
The bell rang… an abrupt loud sporadic rant, I noticed in the background noise earlier suddenly got louder, closer then closer – it was coming here! I swallowed, picked up the nearest “no hitting” card like a shield and took a deep breath. The door swung open – a shouting beefy 7 yr old almost as big as me stared me up and down with disgust. “Hello, I’m your teacher for today” I explained, he screamed back at me with words I couldn’t understand but the meaning I was clear about: “You’re not my teacher! – GET the F@#* OUT!”
The stand off was intervened by the Teacher’s Aide (really I was just stunned) and soon after I learned that this was Angus. Angus wasn’t fond of change, in truth he was probably as fond of change as anyone else – but unlike most, he lacked the pretence needed to refrain from expressing it.
Unfortunately, I’ve painted Angus in a bad light but not intentionally – I really just wanted to point out the comical side of our introduction. In reality he was a healthy kid, slightly distrusting of strangers, seemed to gain a sense of security from what’s familiar, was wary of what isn’t, liked to test his boundaries, was very cheeky and an accomplished manipulator – the only difference between him and other kids the same age was he had a high functioning form of Autism.
Autism is a hard thing to describe, as there is huge range of behaviors that fit under its spectrum and the spectrum ranges from high functioning to low functioning, where functioning means an ability to interact with the outside social world. One common feature is literalness. A good example of this in the movie “Rain Man” was when Dustin Hoffman’s character stopped walking in the middle of the road because the crossing symbol went red. Red means stop! There is no orange walking man that lets you know there’s not a lot of time left – so it kind of makes sense in a literal way.
Similarly, Angus liked his Lego blocks – they were his reward and because he “earned” them, no other kids should play with them. A reward is an accomplishment owned by a person, there’s no sense in giving someone else a reward for what you’ve done- it loses it’s meaning, it’s no longer a reward. This makes literal sense too. People without Autism might be more able to compromise or are flexible with the direct meaning of things (mostly).
Angus also needed a lot of personal attention – so enjoyed working one on one. He still had outbursts when he was frustrated, but overall appeared happier and more able to do things. It was not because of his Autism that he sought attention, but like most kids (and the same can be applied to adults) attention is an indication of their value. The preference is always positive attention with praise and support, but the next best thing (for a child – that can’t get the former) is any attention at all, even negative. Negative attention indicates at least (for the child) that there is some interest taken in them and for kids coming from dis-functional backgrounds, this is the only attention they might know and so often act-out to seek it.
The intent is to gain some form approval (even acknowledgment) to compensate for any feeling of inadequacy. Its not really uncommon – most of us require this in some form throughout our life (Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad – OK you’re exempt from this one).
The interesting thing for me when I worked with kids, especially those outside the mainstream is that it exposes our social dynamics in a more transparent way. The older we get, the better we get at masking our core emotional needs. Its not helpful to expose our desire for approval and it’s just not “cool” – so we entrench approval seeking in complicated social rituals of acceptable things to say and do – and this is how we become “cool”?
Well, maybe not.