Tuesday, May 20, 2008

EMTALA...been there, done that, sort of

Things are heating up over at M.D.O.D.’s blog about EMTALA (Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act ), and it made me think about what it must feel like to be forced to provide health care to anyone regardless of citizenship, legal status, or the ability to pay. And then I remembered that I have experienced this.

When I was a teacher, a little body sitting in a desk was a student, and I never considered their legal status. I didn’t have to because we knew everyone. But over the years, the status of our little school changed. More and more students came in who spoke no English. Not a word. How on earth was I supposed to teach these kids? I complained to the principal that we teachers couldn’t possibly take time away from our students so we could cater to those who knew zip. How was that fair to my other kids? The principal looked down her long nose at me and told me to grow up. WTF? She sat in her office glad handing and smiling to the masses while we were stuck with no resources in which to teach these kids.

I hated every minute of it. I had no backup from my own school, and no answers about how to teach them. The district was thrilled to receive the government dollars by having those little bodies in their seats, so no one cared that they simply sat and colored pictures all day long, did no homework, and had no parental support.

Then came mandatory testing because, lo and behold, test scores were in the tank. There was a huge push to get everyone “up to speed.” Spanish books arrived by the boatload. Great. I don’t speak Spanish, so how was I supposed to teach them? How was I supposed to correct their homework? How was I supposed to balance this with my English speaking kids?

Yes, I realize Spanish should be my second language considering I live in California, but it became a sticking point for me. Why should I have to speak their language and they don’t have to speak English? In the beginning, everyone thought they’d learn English through immersion on the playground, but that didn’t happen. Instead, all the Mexican kids banded together and spoke Spanish. I disallowed Spanish in my classroom, but my principal told me I couldn't take their language away from them. Teach them, and shut up.

The ESL teachers pulled my little non-English speakers out of class for an hour to play catch up. How on earth Sacramento thought a kid could catch up in one hour everything I taught in a day is one of those great mysteries. It didn’t help that these kids’ parents spoke zero English either. How could I possibly talk to them during parent conference time about their failing kids? Did anyone at the highest levels actually care, or was this more PC feel good stuff to keep them in office? Eventually, we were forced to give them less work but grade them on the same level as my regular kids.

Things got really awful around February or March…it’s hard to remember that far back…but I appeared at school one day, and nearly half my class was missing. This went on for a month. What the hell was going on? We were told that all the Mexicans go back to Mexico for a month for some sort of holiday. Great. So now what do we do? Do we sally forth knowing that half my class will be a month behind when they return?

I was furious. Soon after, I became bitter. Those kids missed the multiplication lessons, all the spelling lessons, how to write in cursive, a month’s worth of history and science. In June, I had little choice but to flunk half my class. They hadn’t mastered the most basic rudiments of English, couldn’t spell, do math, history, or science, so they weren’t ready to be promoted. I was called to the principal’s office and told that I couldn’t flunk these kids. They had to be promoted. Otherwise there would be a huge outcry about so many being retained.

“And this is my fault?” I shouted. “These kids missed a slew of school and can barely write their own name. After nine months in my class, they still can’t speak English. Why in the hell are we rewarding this?”

She took her glasses off and looked at me with pity. “You have no choice.”

It was then that I made my decision. “Yeah, I do. I quit. You’ve taken the act of teaching out of my hands and forced me to teach with no regard for a child’s qualifications, like knowing our damn language. Furthermore, you’re forcing me to promote them even though doing so will set them up for further failure. You’ve bastardized the teaching profession, and I refuse to change these grades. You’ll have to do it. And when the shit hits the fan, it’ll be your name on the report cards.”

I cried as I drove home that afternoon. I’d spent so many years in college to become a teacher. I was pretty darned good at my job and had made a difference in many young lives. I was proud of that. Wherever I went, I always had a toothy kid waving at me and asking if I still had my Nerf basketball hoop hanging over the chalkboard to test kids on what they’d learned. Not anymore, kiddo, not anymore.

So, my dear doc buddies, I do understand your anger and frustration. You’re told what to do and how to do it by non-doc feel gooders whose agendas have little to do with logic or financial viability. We don’t have anything formal like EMTALA in education, but we’ve still managed to screw up the education system and overcrowd our classrooms with people who don’t belong there. It seems only natural that our medical system breakdown can’t be far behind.

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