By Jerika L.H.
It has become a daily occurrence – segments on the news about abusive daycare attendants or special needs teachers invoke the confirmation of some of our greatest fears. Children being victimized by the very same adults they’ve been entrusted with. As media outlets recollect accounts of negligent caretaking, we often tend to focus on what goes wrong in our children’s classrooms; rightfully, as we should. Yet, less hysteric reporting on the constant violence that takes place every day in behaviorally challenged special needs learning centers is often overlooked.
Lindsey M. has been a special needs teacher for 6 months, and has a track record that boasts many years as an educator. Her name and place of work have been anonymized to protect her identity and allow for her candor.
She spends Monday through Friday in a non-public school specially designed for those that pose too much of a risk for their public school peers. A place where young adults ages 15-21 come to manage education amidst learning disabilities, autism, or emotional/physical disorders. Some are there to learn cognitive skills; others are there due to a history of uncontrolled behavior. Much like a high school, the students are with Lindsey all day. She has been trained to restrain students when de-escalation tactics fall short and violent outbursts boil over. The adrenaline filled eruptions that pepper her normal work day are situated in between moments of caretaking and individual instruction. The young people in her midst will learn skills that will last them throughout their life: tying their shoes, learning to memorize safety signs, spelling their names. Her impact is perhaps one of the greatest that can be measured in the domain of the teacher student relationship. The know-how she instills in them could mean the difference between getting on the right bus or running out into oncoming traffic. As such, she takes her job very seriously.
Her passion for teaching, however, has not made her exempt from the blunt end of her student’s proclivity for destructive rampage. She has been punched, kicked, bitten, and spit on. She has faced death threats, insults, and profanity. She has been attacked while changing a student’s diaper and has faced with multiple raging students at once. There is a constant threat of harm from the young adults who range up to age 21. Every day is with its array of occurrences, but all still generally revolve around the same agenda: managing violence while teaching life skills.
“My school is a hands on school so I’m trained to absorb blows and gently, therapeutically calm students down. It is a physically demanding job and a very stressful place to work. A lot of what I’m dealing with is physically grown men, or adolescent males. It can be very difficult when they’re trying to attack me. We are trained to eliminate contact as much as possible, but by nature, these young adults are here because they are not able to behave appropriately. For some it is tied to their disability, for others it’s not. Many are victims of trauma themselves.”
Given the potential danger that is embedded into the job, a strong reliable staff is paramount in keeping everyone safe. But Lindsey’s school, like most others of its kind, is constantly understaffed. There is an irregularly high turnover rate for aides, teachers, and workers in behaviorally troubled special needs classrooms. Employees require special training on how to handle volatile situations as there is no security on standby when things get out of control. Employees must be willing recipients of physical violence. While the risk of bodily harm is high, the compensation is astoundingly low. Workers are paid just a little above minimum wage to be the collective body guards, teachers, and personal care attendants for those in their care.
“Even with fair warning, I would have never dreamed this job would be as hard as it is. We are always expected to be the adults, and we all get pushed to the limits. It’s hard to remain professional and not talk back every single second, but the burden is on us to keep ourselves safe and the other students safe. Yet, we don’t get paid near what we should. If you work here you’re signing up to be assaulted. On top of it, the parents can be very difficult. Sometimes in violent situations, multiple students are set off at once, which is extremely chaotic and very dangerous for everyone. Having sufficient, well trained staff to assist me in the classroom is the key point underlying my ability to do my job.”
When physical violence is a daily occurrence, the focus on learning takes a back seat. Meaningful learning opportunities are at times replaced by babysitting due to the barriers of insufficient staff. Lindsey divulges that although Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) are written up during the student’s assessment and given to the parents, aides are sometimes never even given explicit directions about the learning goals or how to work towards them. Often times, students are told to do random work in an attempt to better monitor collective behavior and time. Since a successful day is measured in non-emergencies, very few staff members actually follow up on the educational objectives. The lack of curriculum makes time management another burden on the teachers. The one-on-one time that is pitched to the parents is hardly ever experienced due to an overall lack of resources. Parents trust what the schools say is happening in the classroom, but this is rarely accurate. Many of the students are non-verbal, so there is little accountability on the administration who makes it impossible for teachers to deliver the education they were put there to teach.
“There can be a huge disconnect between the administration and what’s actually going on in the classroom. The administrators have a tough job – they manage all the classes in multiple districts. But often times, our concerns go unheard because administrators do not feel a strong urgency to address the issues in comparison to all the other problems they have going on. Difficulties arise in the realm of mutual understanding – that is, having a shared understanding of what’s simply part of the job and when that line is crossed and my rights and safety are being infringed upon. High turnover is really difficult. It is commonplace for me to not feel safe in my classroom. The pay is crappy and the job is very very difficult. It’s extremely hard to find good staff willing to put themselves at risk when they aren’t being paid sufficiently and the school is not willing to compensate them fairly. It’s the students who suffer from this.”
When learning time is lost, it has a greater impact on behaviorally delayed special needs students. More is at stake for them. They miss out on important skills like learning to take safety precautions, developing verbal cues, and how to call 911. By law, they only have the right to go to school until they’re 22 before they are thrust out into the world. While Lindsey notes that the barriers in crucial learning time are unacceptable, she realizes they are a reality given the logistical difficulties that come with a lack of resources. She chalks it up to several different factors, but the elephant in the room is the extremely low pay that is offered to those employed in non-public special needs schools. While special needs teachers are generally as underpaid and undervalued as their public school counterparts, most institutions require hands on intervention while public schools are hands off. Most educated and trained professionals are simply not willing to be get beaten up both physically and financially. The high turnover rate is usually due to employees growing tired of having to live under the poverty threshold, despite being dedicated enough to put their safety on the line for the sake of the students’ learning. While Lindsey frequently comes home with bruises, her bank account takes an equally debilitating punch, regardless of her drive to help those who are regarded by some as a lost cause.
Lindsey found the job off of a Craigslist ad. She was drawn to the prospect of helping disabled young adults, but had no idea what the job would entail. She admits she was scared to return back to work after the shock of the first day. In fact, many never come back after seeing a glimpse of what is expected of them. After giving it her all, Lindsey is now ready to leave the position also. “It’s not worth it for me in the context that I’m living it. I need to work at a place I feel safe. This is the most exhausting job I’ve ever had. I come home from work with bruises and bites. I can’t talk, I can’t hear or listen to people who want to converse with me, family members and such. I need a lot of time to decompress after my shifts. It’s so draining, extremely loud, and there is a lot of adrenaline dumping. Fight or flight is a daily occurrence and I’m the one that has to go home and ride out the stress of the cortisol response. I’m always on edge, dealing with multiple high risk situations. My day is work and then dealing with the aftermath of work. And plus, the money is just impossible to live off of. I had to fight for $14/hr, which is a lot more than what some others are making.”
On top of it, the violent setting makes other important issues minimized in comparison. Labor violations are ubiquitous. Staff members rarely, if ever take their breaks because they realize it would be a strain to their team if they’re not there.
“Plain and simple, we don’t get breaks. We don’t take lunch. We eat in the classroom with students. And when you have to make requests, you are treated like you’re being unreasonable to ask for further safety precautions or asking for things that are already guaranteed under the law but that we never get. I had to petition quite aggressively to be allowed to have another person in the car with me while I was driving the students – someone to make sure I wasn’t punched in the head or harmed in a way that could jeopardize the safety of the everyone in the car if their assault on me could lead to an accident. And even then, there was this attitude like I was asking for too much.”
Yet, despite it all, Lindsey notes the greatness that lies in the small victories. Slowly but surely, she goes above and beyond to make sure progress is still achievable despite the blockades working against her as an educator. Regardless of the huge deficits, she admits, “There is always a potential for them to benefit.” But teachers can’t live off of the personal perks alone. As it becomes harder and harder to find qualified staff, schools start lowering their standards and dedicated employees must take on even more. When teachers become overworked and are subjected to extreme stress, they snap. Evidence of this is all over the internet. Of course, there are always a few malicious people in the mix, but, as Lindsey mentions, many of these individuals were well intended educators that simply reached their breaking point. While she stresses the importance of better pay, a larger applicant pool, and a better structural environment, she sees the importance of giving future educators a glimpse into the realities of behaviorally troubled special needs learning.
“Bottom line, if you’re not doing it for the kids, don’t do it. If you don’t love kids with your whole heart, don’t do it. You will be put in difficult situations but you always have to be the adult. You have to be the stronger, better person mentally. I’ve seen a lot of staff members who forget that these are people’s children. They get upset that they’ve gotten hit and they say things they shouldn’t say in retaliation. Most students are nonverbal and it’s really easy to abuse a kid who can’t go home to tell their parents. Human nature is simply to protect ourselves, or to lash out in defense when we’ve been pushed too far. It’s not that its unwarranted, it’s a reflex sometimes. But no matter what they’ve done or what they’ve said to you, you must always abide by the underlying fact that it’s still someone’s child.
“There have been moments when I had to close my eyes and breath to calm myself when things could have almost gone too far. They will spit in your face – you will have urine and feces smeared all over you. You will need to ask yourselves if you are ready to just sit there and dedicate yourself to calming them instead of retaliating. You will deal with some of the most extreme disrespect you could ever imagine, and you have to endure it all while still keeping the students’ best interest in mind. You have to always treat the students with dignity even though you are being totally debased. All why struggling to meet your basically needs financially.”
Lindsey’s honesty is a testament to the tragic state of our education system, where those who matter most in the lives of children are somehow not seen as deserving of a decent salary. By the time they reach their threshold of stress, it is often too late. Her experiences offer us a window of understanding into how teacher-perpetrated abuse can occur. While of course we would never condone the act, it is paramount that we comprehend how it comes about as an outcome of structural flaws to help achieve prevention. It also lets us explore the seldom analyzed reality of student on teacher violence within institutions that are often the last place a troubled student can go to learn. As of now, there are a small few who are doing what they can for a growing number of crowded, understaffed non-public special needs schools. When we see teachers such as Lindsey bargaining for a better living wage, remember to ask yourself: what kind of hourly wage would you take as a human punching bag for those who rely on you the most?