Friday, April 14, 2017

What I Learned From Being Laid off and How it Made Me a Better Teacher

At the end of the 2009-2010 school year our school district was in a financial crisis, as were many school districts across the nation.  Due to a crumbling economy, hundreds of teachers were laid off in order for our district to remain solvent.  Since I was at the end of my second year of teaching I was a casualty of this financial crisis because I had not yet attained tenure.

I had worked so hard to become a teacher, get hired, and worked diligently teaching students in a high-need area. I LOVED teaching. I LOVED my job.   At the end of the school year I had to pack up all of my things, store them in my garage and resolve myself to substitute teaching the following year, making far less than I had as a teacher.  To say I was completely devastated was really an understatement.  How could this possibly be happening to me?

The following school year I began substitute teaching in the same district that had laid me off. The laid off teachers had been placed on a priority list and were called for substitute teaching positions in order of seniority.  I ended up working at schools I never had the chance to before I became employed as a teacher.

In talking with teachers, some who were employed and some who were laid off, like me,  I learned that I could go back to school and get a special education credential.  That special education credential would allow me to be employed sooner and put me on a list of intern-eligible employees. 

I gave this idea a great deal of thought. Would I want to work in special education? Was it for me? Would I be able to handle going to school and working full-time, especially while trying to learn a brand-new job?  After much self-reflection I found the answer to these questions was, "Yes."

So I enrolled in a program, received a letter stating I was intern-eligible, and waited. I continued to substitute teach. I reflected on best teaching practices.  I continued to just do the best that I could do as a substitute each day.

In October of 2010, I accepted a long-term substitute position in 6th grade, even though I had only ever taught 1st grade.  That was a huge jump for me and while it was a little terrifying at first, this experience really helped me learn how to relate to older students, made me think outside the box with new teaching strategies, research new classroom management ideas, digest new curriculum, and learn how to use a computerized grading system.  I started this particular position about a week before report cards were due and parent teacher conferences were scheduled. I had to learn a lot about 30 students in a short period of time.

I spent my nights reviewing curriculum, teaching standards for 6th grade, and creating lessons. I spent every waking moment trying to do the best that I could. And then, it happened.
In November, I got a phone call from the district office asking if I could meet to discuss taking a special education classroom.  I was a little nervous when I learned that this would be an 8th grade special day class at a very high-need school.  I gave it some thought and decided to accept the position.

If I thought I was busy before, that was nothing compared to learning the legalities involved in the IEP process, filling out paperwork, holding meetings, learning yet another online system, accustoming myself to junior high school students (and staff), managing behaviors, and feeling very out of my element.

I wish I could say that was the worst of it but in the midst of being laid off, substituting, and deciding to go into special education, my husband had lost his job and, that January, my grandmother passed away. Suddenly our lives had been flipped upside down in less than 9 months.

It was an awful lot to handle in such a short amount of time. So much change, so much to process, and so much to be sad about.  There are not enough words to describe what the next year and a half were like, but to condense it into just a few: it was busy and overwhelming.

I am a pretty reflective and resilient person.  I chose to look at the positive side of all that had transpired during that time and I feel that I did do the best that I could to make the best out of my situation.

You see, I did a few things and learned a few things through this process:

1.  I viewed substitute teaching as an opportunity to be employed and that made me happy.

2. Every day I substitute taught I made notes about the position I substituted in, whether it was a new teaching strategy I learned from the classroom I was in, a classroom management strategy, the school climate, or conversations I had with staff members.

3. I reflected on my teaching practices every day and researched ways to improve my practice.

4. I did not allow myself to become bitter about my situation.

5. When I made the decision to go into special education, I really found a love for special education students.

And, possibly the most important of all,

6. I learned how to be a better teacher.

Teaching in a special education classroom and taking coursework in special education taught me many wonderful behavior and teaching strategies that made me a better, more understanding teacher.

The time I spent in special education taught me to be more aware of students with special needs, to approach all students in a different way- based on their needs, identify students who may be in need of academic intervention, and to be on the lookout for signs of a learning disability or students with speech needs. I learned about executive functioning, Autism, auditory processing, how to document and track behavior, and how to manage student behavior to produce expected outcomes.

Special education isn't for everyone, but I do wish that every teacher could be trained in special education because it provides such a depth of knowledge and understanding into the lives of those students who have disabilities.

So, even though being laid off was really terrible at the time, I believe it was the best thing that could have happened to me in my career. Being laid off allowed me to stretch my wings, try something new, and helped me learn a new part of the business of education. I learned so much about how to be a great teacher, not just in special education, but in general education as well.