In His Own Words

In September many Stories From Schools Arizona bloggers highlighted the roles support professions play in education. (See here, here, here, and here.)  My previous post recognized the work of Debbie and Charlie, two Exceptional Education Teacher Assistants.

I’m going to close out my entries to this topic by printing what Charlie, a Exceptional Education Teacher Assistant wrote in answers to some questions I sent him.  I removed personal and school identifiers.  Otherwise, the words, and they are powerful, are Charlie’s.

My exact title is Exceptional Education Teacher Assistant -sometimes a misnomer, since I spend most of my time assisting students. On the other hand, I have established a good working relationship with all the teachers with whom I have worked at my school. I have been working in this position since 2008. I have been assigned as a one-to-one aide for three male middle school students during that time. The first two students were both labeled as Autistic (within the Autism Spectrum). They were as different as night and day.

The first boy was very belligerent and, at first, refused my assistance. He was very artistic and enjoyed working with his hands. He was accepted into a program for autistic students at a local high school. The last I heard about him, he was doing very well – taking advanced welding and machine shop classes.

The second student, identified as Asperger’s was stronger academically than the first student. He was very quiet, hardly spoke above a whisper and was very interested in sports – a devout Arizona Cardinals fan and especially U of A football and basketball. Much smaller than most middle school boys, he held his own playing basketball during lunch. He also did well participating in P. E. He even “talked trash” with the other boys – something that surprised his teachers whenever they heard him. He was accepted into the same high school program that Boy #1 was. The last I heard was he has really blossomed; to the point that he may not be at all autistic.

My current student has very different needs than either the first two. He has cerebral palsy. He requires much more physical assistance due to the limited motor skills and confinement to a wheel chair. He needs hands-on assistance with all his physical needs. I worked with him last year when he was in seventh graded and will be with him throughout eighth grade this year. In spite of his physical limitations, he is bound and determined to be a typical teen-ager: flirting with girls, attending a school dance, and playing soccer!  He is extremely popular with other students and teachers. From the moment he is lowered off of the school bus each morning until it is time to go home he is greeted by name. Between classes, going down the hallway there is a litany of “Hi, ____!” He often asks me, “Mister, why am I so popular?” This is something I would like others to understand: my student is “popular”, I think, because he is so positive and cheerful (as well as pity).  Students greet him, teachers praise him. My concern is he is popular for the wrong reason – students, especially should understand just how hard it is for him to keep up academically – but it is important to him… and he tries so hard. Many of the students who think he is so cool are terrible  as students – not doing classwork, homework, giving teachers guff in class, being referred, etc.

What is invisible in my work? How much I must advocate for each of the students with whom I have served. According to my job description I am expected to maintain contact with the student’s case manager regarding the student’s progress, needs, etc. and defer to the case manager for contact with parents, guardians, etc.  The reality is case managers are so overwhelmed with their case load, in addition to teaching duties, that the most expeditious way to address a student’s needs is for me to establish and maintain communication with a student’s family.

In closing, I think I do have a certain level of autonomy – not because it has been officially bestowed upon me, but because I have assumed it… and have gotten away with it.  Policy makers too removed?  Yes, I think so.  The bottom line, to me, is doing what is best for the student – not as a cliché – because doing what is best should be the driving force in all we do (subjective, I know).


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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