By Charlie Fultz
This past year marked my first year as a Math 8 teacher. After spending the better part of 20 years in the golf industry (mostly as a golf course superintendent) I had my “mid-life crisis” and decided I was ready to switch careers. Thinking I was only going to substitute for the year and figure it out as I went, I backed into a full-time position teaching math to 57 8th graders. I didn’t have plans to become a full-time teacher, but it happened and I haven’t looked back.
For your information, I do have a degree in Education but I never used it after graduating. Teaching jobs were few and far between in 1992, and luckily I had a background in golf and met someone who was willing to teach me and help me become a golf course greenskeeper. It isn’t that I didn’t want to teach; teaching didn’t have a spot for me.
Fast forward to 2013. After just a few days teaching, I had a meeting with our special education coordinator and she asked if I would be comfortable adding a child with an autism spectrum disorder to my classroom. I said that I didn’t have an issue with it at all, because I had 9 years’ experience with autism at my fingertips.
My youngest son is a child with autism, having been diagnosed at age 4. My wife and I knew early on that something was a bit off, and he missed several key developmental milestones. Most notably was his ability to talk and converse, he struggled interacting with other kids and people, and he was prone to repetitive motions and actions with toys (like spinning the wheels on toy cars for hours). After having him evaluated and settling into the “new” normal, we’ve had nothing but success through our involvement with the county school system and through a local childhood development center that focuses on children with autism and their growth.
I’m introduced to “Tony” and I meet his mother, who is a lovely and caring woman and wants nothing but the best for her son. This is Tony’s first year in school, as he had only gone to school part-time up to this point. He is anxious when we meet, but I’m not surprised as I know my own son’s feelings when meeting new people. He tells me that he likes math and his mom tells me he is pretty good in math. Meeting over and we head into the classroom the next day.
One of the things I see immediately with Tony is that he tends to blurt out without raising his hand. Initially it is something we just had to work through, and with this help of his aide, we get this into a manageable situation. Prior to my school, Tony was really never in a situation where he had to wait to be called on or asked to answer something, so this was something new and we learned to work through it together.
Another issue we faced was getting Tony on task. When the class had been assigned work, it sometimes took Tony 15-20 minutes to get started. That became an issue when it was time to take tests as well. While we do have 100 minute classes, using that much time to focus and then get started was causing Tony to not finish the tests. Because of this we began using time in his resource class with the special education coordinator to get him to start tests there or to finish them the next day. I didn’t want Tony stressing about not finishing, which he was apt to do. We found great successes by using those resource times to get him to not only finish his tests, but to finish them stress-free.
Having Tony in my class has helped me with my own son and his academics. I noticed very early on that Tony had struggles looking at a worksheet with 15-20 questions on it. I found out from his mom that he worked best when he only had 1-2 questions per page. There is something developmentally that causes all of the work to jumble together and makes it difficult for him. So we began making worksheets and tests with 1-2 questions per page or we let him use a small white board to do the problems individually. Both methods were effective. But what I learned from Tony was helpful to my own son, who was also struggling with worksheets, especially in Math. I asked for a meeting with my son’s teacher and talked about having her create worksheets with just a couple of questions on them. To our amazement my son’s work also began to improve. His teacher commented on how much better he was grasping the material and how he seems less anxious about doing the in class work. My son made the elementary school A/B honor roll for the first time, and we now had learned how to help him cope with his workload better.
Another thing Tony taught me was how simple classroom chatter was difficult for him to work in. It’s almost impossible to have a classroom full of 8th graders and not have desks shifting, people whispering, feet bouncing around, and the like. To many children with autism, this is like doing work in the middle of a construction zone. Imagine doing math problems with a jackhammer pounding concrete, a dump truck roaring past, and 24 workers pounding hammers on wood.
With his aide, Tony completes most of his graded work into a private classroom. His grades continued to improve and he became a solid student in math. While it isn’t always possible to get Tony into a spare room when doing in class work, it is something we can do when he takes graded tests and quizzes. From Tony’s struggles, I also learned another lesson that became useful for my son. If a classroom of 8th graders was tough to work in, imagine a classroom of 20-25 3rd graders. I again spoke with my son’s teachers and they too began to let him work on his graded assignments outside of the classroom do the necessary work in a quieter environment. My son began showing great improvement, and he was able to stay better stay on task. His grades and performance overall rose, similarly to Tony’s.
With the classroom arrangement, we also wanted Tony to learn to cope in the classroom setting. By using the 1-2 questions per page arrangement or using a whiteboard he soon was able to begin to filter out some of the noise to complete in class assignments. Tony’s use of a whiteboard was to help him focus on just seeing one question at a time, writing on his whiteboard and answering it, erasing it, and then moving onto the next question. It was a way to focus primarily on one task. I’m not saying it is always easy for him, but to his credit, he works hard. My son has learned to use some of the same coping mechanisms as well. His teachers have commented on his ability to be in class more, having to avoid asking his teacher if he can go work privately in a one on one classroom with a specialist. Being able to cope in a regular classroom setting will certainly help now and in the future.
My first year will certainly be one that I’ll always remember. I’ve learned so much from all of the kids and my colleagues. But I think some of the most important lessons learned will be the ones that I learned from Tony; how he grew and how he helped my son grow as well. He’s never met my son, but maybe one day they will meet. My son and I are very grateful for the lessons he taught him through me.
Charlie Fultz is a second year 8th grade math teacher at North Fork Middle School in Quicksburg, Virginia. Prior to teaching, he was a golf course superintendent for 13 years and in the golf industry for 20 years. Mr. Fultz is a published writer in many golf trade magazines, most notably Golfdom, the Virginia Turfgrass Journal, and GCSAA’s Golf Course Management. In 2006 Mr. Fultz was awarded the Leo Feser Award, an award given to the most outstanding article written by a golf course superintendent, for his article titled, “How to Keep Those Above and Around You Educated and Informed.”