November 20, 2004


There is a new acronym in our public schools: ME, which one teacher says should stand for Mental Excellence. What it really means is Multiple Expectations.


Entire schools are now targeted for special assistance because of ME. For one of my patients, returning to the classroom after nine years in administration, it presented too good an opportunity to pass up. In her 25 years of teaching, she had never been in a brand-new school. Yet here it was, streamlined with designations and ways to accommodate all levels of special needs -- even students not yet assessed or formally designated as "learning disabled" or "hyperactive" or "bad behavioural."


For anyone who has gone before professional panels claiming his child is learning disabled in the hopes of securing more support for her in school, this strategy seems heaven-sent.


Shortening such a laborious process makes sense: The one thing I know about teachers who have been in the game a while is that they know which kids can't sit, can't focus and can't listen. They know hyperactive boys outnumber girls by a ratio of 8 to 1 and they know the sweeping use of Ritalin or Concerta is the quick fix to manage the chaos in classrooms overrun with what seems an inordinate number of these children.


My teacher/patient stuck close to one youngster the first day of school because she knew he was either off his meds or needed them. It turned out the boy's mother, fearing he would be disadvantaged if it were known he was on medication, sent him to school without them. Her hope was that in the new venue, he would be fine. Once he was back on the drug, he melded in with the rest of his class.


I'm no advocate of classroom management through medication, but I do know that teachers bear the enormous and often thankless task of attempting to do what parents haven't been able to tackle with much success.


There are other innovative approaches for ME children as well as for ME adults. One of my young patients, who couldn't hack university and had dropped out, encountered one of his old teachers in a parking lot. When the teacher discovered that he was "just hanging," she told him to report to her school and put him to work as an educational assistant. He loved the work and confirmed her assessment of his natural talent.


The best job he ever had, he said, was as a special needs assistant for a Grade 5 student in a wheelchair. His total time spent as an SNA? Five minutes three times a day helping the student go to the toilet and get around. The boy was motivated and competent in class, so it left my patient lots of time to assist with the "behavioural" kids, do ESL or help individual students.


He also noted that these kids don't respond to authoritarian posturing, so you have to be creative to control their behaviour and get results. The time he spent in a purely behavioural class built his résumé and made him desirable as a special needs assistant.


This year, he is in a school of 900 students as one of three special ed assistants. There are also two designated educational assistants. With the school year well under way, 35 children are on the waiting list for formal testing from the yet-to-be-obtained psychologist, and the dreaded Identification, Placement and Review Committee assessment looms.


At 23, he is already at the top of his pay scale. To be the teacher he should be, could be, he will need to complete his degree and then apply to teaching college. Or is this so?


There is a tinge of regret I hear from my fiftysomething patients about that degree they didn't obtain. But I'm reminded of a story one of my patients told me. A man named Ross, now 60, was let go from his job as a chemical consultant and, to his friend's dismay, he became a house painter. While they thought this was a waste of his expertise and time, he believed he was exploring "being and doing." His mantra was: "We are human beings, not human havings or doings."


As he moved to a simpler life, he discovered a new talent for leading small discussion groups. My patient is a part of that small group sharing. What happens there is translated into her volunteer work with marginalized adults in the inner city.


We continue to press our children to pocket the degree to have the best chance at a good white-collar job. But that may mean, as it did for another of my patients, who returned to university and graduated four years later with his BA and $80,000 in debt. It is like having a mortgage without a house.


Thomas Jefferson outlined the basic tenets of education more than 200 years ago and they are essentially unchanged. Paraphrasing them, the first requires that the state ensure that its citizens have the knowledge to provide for their livelihood. To do this, they must be able to render accounts. The second belief is to have enough critical judgment to be able to assess what will benefit you and what will endanger you, and act accordingly. In other words, not be hoodwinked. The third tenet is to acknowledge and fulfill the obligations that you have as a member of a community and, by extension, the country.


Yes, the world today is a much more complex place. But we would do well to think about President Jefferson's beliefs at a time when we continue to impose unreasonable expectations on our children, at enormous cost to them and our school system. In the end, we fail them and ourselves and our future. As for seat-of-your-pants training, which in medicine we call internship, you have to love what you do, do what you have talent for, and be patient that your goals will come to fruition.

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.