On March 23, readers questioned Norma Jean Taylor, a veteran English and drama teacher in Kansas City, Mo., about the effects of her disability—spinocerebellar degenerative syndrome—on her teaching, her students, and her relationships with other staff members at the small, Christian school where she teaches. Below are edited excerpts from the discussion.
Question: At what point do you feel your illness will impair your ability to teach effectively? What administrative measures are being taken to ensure that student learning is not being impeded?
A full transcript of this chat is available at www.edweek.org/chat/disabled/
Taylor: The administrative measures are standard, as for any other teacher. We are a small school, and thus tightly knit. Regular observations, feedback, parental contact, and student visits help ensure that my students’ learning is not being impeded.
I would imagine, although I haven’t asked, that our academic dean looks a bit more carefully at my weekly lesson plans to make sure I haven’t done something goofy, such as decide to teach students the same chapter of a book six different times. I have been involved in helping set the standards of assessment for units, so I would also imagine that the headmaster and academic dean check to make sure I’m using multiple assessments to reach all modalities. And it’s highly possible that while I’m teaching, the office intercom is on, so that discussion quality can monitored. I hope so—those kids are bright and deserve the recognition! …
At what point do I feel that my illness will impair my ability to teach effectively? Let’s get rid of that verb, all right? I can’t plan my future based on a point at which I will “feel” my illness impairs my teaching. In our nonspecific culture of today, that is a dangerous route. So let’s try it this way: At what point will I know it’s time to go? A big clue would be no contract, of course, and if that happens, it happens. Energy is another. This disease is enervating, and I’ve given up a lot of life so that I can teach. But common sense is the most obvious key. I think that if people suddenly start asking me to repeat everything I say, and if my hands shake so badly I look like I’m trying to emulate a hummingbird, it’s time to go.
Question: Do you really feel you are as good a teacher today as you were 10 years ago, five years ago? If you honestly love your students and want what is best for them, why have you continued to teach? Why force the administration into this uncomfortable situation of having to decide?
Taylor: I have a feeling that you’re picturing a person who wheels in, slumps in her power chair, and garbles and grunts her way through some unintelligible commands, while pointing to the whiteboard or computer and expecting the students to figure out what the poor wretch wants. While I admit that on the day the neurologist broke the big news to me, I did picture myself bereft and drooling in some corner, the reality is that I am reasonably articulate. …
Perhaps it will reassure you for my students if I explain that even last year, when I was forced to miss many days, my students’ Advanced Placement English language and composition pass average was 83.3 percent; the national average was somewhat less. My AP English literature pass average was 50 percent; again, the national average was somewhat less. Our ACT scores are high in the verbal areas on a regular basis, and our students report that they are more than prepared for college because of our writing-intensive curriculum.
Do I feel that I am as good a teacher now as I was five or 10 years ago? In English, yes; in fact, I think I am better. In drama, no. I think my illness hurts that class, because I can no longer physically demonstrate how to throw someone over one’s shoulder, but have to explain verbally and show videos. Yes, I can still teach them verbal expression and guide them to find emotional characterization; yes, I can still get them through the rudiments of dramatic interpretation. But I can no longer show them the difference between, say, a mincing walk and a sashay, and finding the words and descriptions takes a lot of time and energy.
Question: What have your students learned because of your disability that they might not have otherwise? Did your experience strengthen your teaching in any way, such as in lessons in human cooperation or problem-solving?
Taylor: Once, not too long ago, I would probably have answered you carelessly. Because this disease has been wending its insidious path through my cerebellum, my students have actually been more aware than I of the fact that I even have a disability. With care and concern, they have protected me from serious injury, even during the days when I was walking but unable to stand without support. I was so occupied with the tasks at hand that I never paid much attention the the fact that whenever I was going up stairs or standing on a stage or making quick turns, strong teenagers were always at my side.
Now that I’m in on the secret, too, I see that they’ve learned a lot about how to anticipate problems and prevent them. That spills over into their daily lives as well.
This experience has strengthened my teaching simply because I’ve had to say, over and over again, “OK, people. Here’s the goal; here’s what I want to have happen. Once upon a time, I would have done it this way, but tell me if you think there’s a better way.”
Humbling is bitter on the tongue, but oh, so sweet when the fruit ripens and the children become the adults. While we have not created Utopia, and these young people are not perfect, they are more cognizant of the needs around them—and able to meet those needs creatively and unobtrusively. Even more, they seem to enjoy doing so.
Question: I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years ago and have kept my administrator up-to-date on my condition. But I often wonder how much support and consideration my superiors are required to extend me by law. How much disability is too much?
Taylor: I’m a direct sort of person, so my first thought is this: Have you read the Americans with Disabilities Act? Basically, as I understand it, if your school accepts federal money, and if it has 30 or more employees, school officials cannot let you go because of your disability. If your disability causes you to need an assistive device, and that device is not an undue financial hardship on the employer, the employer is obligated to provide it.
The assistive devices you ask for would be based on your medical needs, and I have no clue about what types of documentation you would need. I would imagine you’d need some sort of medical referral, but I could be wrong. You can call an ADA attorney for advice if such advice would give you peace of mind.
My guess is that the future is looming in your mind, and I certainly do know how you feel. How much disability is too much? You’ll know when the time comes.
Question: While there are many devices to help students with specific challenges and disabilities, are they also available for staff members, such as teachers? And if not, should there be some type of system in place for nondiscrimination in this area?
Taylor: In my search, I have found many devices that would be of great help. All, however, cost money. The last time I looked, King Midas, sadly, was just a story.
I don’t look at it as discrimination or non-discrimination, but more as a new path. As baby boomers continue to teach, we are going to grow more decrepit, but still stay mentally acute. Bill Gates could make another fortune if he’d just notice that fact.
Question: My students are studying “The Miracle Worker” and reading books about people who have overcome a disability or opened doors for others. Do you see yourself as having an added responsibility to teach students respect for people who may be different from them?
Taylor: If Helen Keller can’t inspire us, we are all lost! Teenagers are far more open to learning about disabilities than many adults, I think, and are also far more open to finding creative solutions to problems. As we grow in understanding, they actually teach me more than I teach them about love, support, and caring.
Question: As someone who has dealt with disability for decades, I find it odd to even refer to difficulties as “disabilities.” What is the measure by which one should decide what is detrimental to one’s career?
Taylor: It’s all a matter of semantics, isn’t it? I still don’t think of myself as disabled; I still keep thinking that one of these days I’m going to get up and start walking again, even though I watched my dad wither and die from this.
So. Is a broken arm a disability? Yes, it is for a season. Is that term pejorative? For some people, it probably is. I find that difficulties, problems, situations, disabilities—roses by any names—all have thorns and all have their own incarnate beauty.
For me, the measure by which one should decide what is detrimental to one’s career goes first to character. Without character, a person can be in perfect health and be the greatest deterrent to society and to himself. Polonius was a windbag, but there was wisdom in his advice.
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A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2006 edition of Education Week as chat wrap-up: Willing and disabled