Zola Baker-Coleman

The Bright Side of Last Place

Pardon my language, but being in last place sucks! I am fully aware that “sucks” is a slightly inappropriate word and if any of my students said it, I would redirect them to use a more appropriate descriptor. But it is what it is. And such is life. Well, at least my life, as the sole Exceptional Student Education (special ed) Research III teacher at Miami Southridge High School for sophomores. Out of my cohort of four Research III teachers, my Biology End-of-Course (EOC) interim and assessment data is always dead last, which wouldn’t be so bad, if it was merely kept between the four teachers and the science coach. But nope, bar charts must be constructed, and data chats must occur; placing my failure on display for the entire school.

At least that is how it felt at times, even knowing my students all have IEPs (Individualized Education Plans), the majority with learning disabilities, and many reading well below grade level. I would see other teachers touting proficiency percentages for a class average as high as 52 percent, whereas my highest class average was 37 percent. These comparisons led to feelings of inadequacies and distress. I’d question my success as a teacher and my future in the field of education. I mean, according to the top guns in education and government, I’m only successful if I have a high percentage of students passing the Biology EOC.  My job depends on these scores. What could I possibly know about being a Biology teacher? My undergrad was in Sociology and my master’s in Special Education. Why, oh why, can’t you students with low IQ scores, emotional/behavioral diagnoses, medical issues, etc. do better on this test?

I learned that although my students took the same standardized test as general education students, it was not expected of any of them to be proficient. The bar was set so low that any sign of life from my “babies” was a major triumph. Many of my students had been discounted long ago, by others, but even more disheartening, by themselves. They were only going through the motions of school because expectations were so low. It is my job to help them celebrate even the smallest academic achievements. I must exude optimism when asking my students to analyze their own data. Show them to not focus on the numbers or the level of proficiency, but rather on the smaller, more feasible accomplishment of increasing percentage points on overall score or individual standards. It was through data chats that I had a special “aha!” moment, that moment of clarity in teaching. During these things I have to put my pride aside and emphasize my students’ successes because they are discouraged by the numbers and not “passing.” In doing this, I have seen growth in my abilities as a teacher, but more importantly the scientific, academic, and emotional abilities in my students.

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