Mary MacCracken – Teacher Extraodinaire

When I entered college I had no thoughts of becoming a teacher.  OH no-I was determined to become an archeologist – the next Mary Leakey no less.  The summer after my junior year there was a job shortage.   I could not find a job, not even my old one in the receiving department of Sears.

One morning my best friend called.  She was working at a camp  & her co-counselor had quit after 2 hours.  Could I come right away & help out, just for a few days till they found a replacement?  Sure!

So I went and when I walked into the room of 5-7 year old children and this is what I saw:  One girl was running around flapping and hooting like an owl, another kid sitting rocking back & forth, wiggling fingers in front of his face saying ‘deeliedeeliedeelie” and the other 5 were just sitting/ playing quietly, each alone & ignoring it all.  “Weird” I thought.

“I thought you said they were artistic.  What kind of art camp it this?,”  I asked.   “They’re autistic, not artistic!,”  she said. “Autistic? What’s that?,” I wondered.

It was 1975.  I had never heard of autism.   Most people hadn’t; it was so rare back then.  But I was fascinated.   Anyway, after that first day I went to the Director and asked her if she had any material about autism that I could read.  She handed me a copy of “A Circle of Children” written by one of the schools teachers, Mary MacCracken just two years earlier.

A Circle of Children

I read it straight through that night and knew this is what I wanted to do with my life.   Ms. MacCracken was my first teacher.  She is a ‘Teacher Extraordinaire’ and I believe her books should be required reading for anyone wanting to become a teacher – of any sort of teacher but especially for children with on Autism Spectrum or with a neurological or psychiatric condition.  This post is the first in a series highlighting her philosophy, methods and opinions, many of which I came to share.

Ms. MacCracken’s involvement with autistic children also began with a chance visit tot the school.  She was a suburban mother who played tennis and did charitable works through the Junior League.  It was with some Junior League ladies that she visited the school, saw the children and decided to volunteer as a teacher’s aide.  She was assigned to her first teacher, Helga.

Helga was a German immigrant, 50-ish, with brown-gray hair, glasses, strong limbs, wearing a house dress and sneakers and who swore like a sailor. Helga didn’t want a “shitty volunteer”.  But Mary watched Helga work her magic with the children, imitated her quietly and patiently waited  until Helga finally accepted her.

Helga was also a ‘Teacher Extraordinaire’.  Helga was an intuitive teacher; no training, no degrees.  But she knew how to accept children, calm their fears and induce them to grow; she knew how to reach them to teach them.  Here’s one example from the  book. (pg 20-21 paperback) describing how Helga got a new student, a five-year old girl named Sarah, to walk.  Sarah was carried into the room and placed on a blanket on the floor by her mother where she lay “curled up on her side, her thumb in her mouth”.  Helga did not say anything but, after the mother left, she gently slipped the blanket out from under Sarah, put it away in a locked cupboard and went on with her class.

     Another teacher might have let her keep the blanket that first day while she adjusted to the school.  Not Helga.  She would set no such precedent in her room; a five-year-old child was not treated like an infant, left lying in a blanket.  Finally Sarah moved.  Painfully, slowly, she crawled across the floor, stopping every few minutes to rest, then continuing her slow, torturous journey as we watched holding our breath.  She made her way directly to the cabinet where Helga had put her blanket and scratched with her tiny hands at the door.  Helga picked her up then and carried her to the rocking chair, mixing German words with English”

“Come now- come now, little one.  It is alright.  Everything will be alright.  I know you now; you cannot fool Helga.  You are smart and you can move.  You try to fool us, ja?  Lying there, sucking on your thumb.  But you are smart, ja?  You know just where I hid that blanket, and when you want it enough and I do not bring it to you, then you go to get it.  Ja, my little one, my pretty little golden one, we will teach you to talk and to walk.”

And she did.  Ms.  MacCracken continues to relate how,  and within months  Sarah was running up the stairs to class.

Later on the Director announces that the school, first started by parents,  is going to be  approved by the State and all teachers need to become certified.  Helga  opts to go  elsewhere.  “They want me to go back to school. …An old woman like me. …  Ach, what a waste. They can take their shitty courses.”  (pg 26-7)       As Ms. MacCracken studied to get her teaching degree she wrote and expressed a sentiment with which I heartily agree. (pgs. 29-30)

    The more I read, the more certain I become of one fact:  the screening and certifying of teachers of emotionally disturbed children [old term for those on the autism spectrum] should not depend solely upon graduation and completion of required courses.  The Helgas of this world must not be lost.  The art of communication is just that-an art- and there must be a talent before the craftsmanship can be developed or you will have only technicians, not gifted teachers.  You can instill a hundred techniques in a teacher, have her memorize thousands of technical terms; but if she cannot make contact with the children they are useless.

In my 35 years, I have seen more & more technicians and fewer & fewer Helgas and Marys… and more & more need of them as ASD’s have exploded from 1:10,000 in 1975 to 1:130 today.  Heaven help us!

I will add one other thought.  To attract gifted teachers and paraprofessionals, one must show respect for the profession.  In our society, that means also offering a decent salary.

The average starting salary for Special Educations teachers is $35,000 and for a paraprofessional it’s only $20,000.   One can’t live on that.  Let alone pay off college debts!  When it costs $80-100K for a Bachelor’s degree and $95-140K for a Masters, you’re not going to get many to go into the field as it is, let alone the gifted people! And those who try, usually are forced to leave.  The turnover rate is huge.  The average is 3 years as a direct service provider.

I am fortunate in that I don’t have to support my family, just supplement what my husband makes, to support a modest lifestyle.  So I elected some time ago to stop being a classroom teacher and turned down offers of Supervisory and Departmental Director positions to work as a 1 on 1 tutor/aide.  I get much more satisfaction in such a position as I have a lot more direct impact on each student.

One year, in 2001 I was given the opportunity to go, for free, to the Galapagos Islands with an exclusive group of wealthy supporters for the Bronx Zoo.  (It’s a long story…)  Anyway, one of the wealthy New York women inquired about my work and asked innocently how much I was paid.  When she heard the paltry amount she yelled across the ship to her husband, in a heavy Long Island accent, “Harry!  Harry!  Can you believe this?  Michelle gets paid only $26,000 a year!  We pay our maid more than that! – Oh- sorry, dear!”  she added, realizing, embarrassed, that everyone else heard too!

We can’t depend on the few fortunate enough to not need a decent salary to stay in the field and become ‘Teacher Extraordinaire’s.  With autism rates having skyrocketed, we need to retain as many gifted autism teachers as possible so that some can develop into ‘Teacher Extraordinaire’s. Goodness knows, our children need as many as we can get!

What are your thoughts?

Welcome to Spectrum of Ideas

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Leslie Michelle Touw

Leslie Michelle Touw

Spectrum of Ideas is an offshoot of Spectrum Services – founded by me, L. Michelle Touw, to provide services for the Autism Spectrum Disorders Community. (See “about Michelle”  for more information.)

Here I will post philosophical musings and opinions related to autism, relate stories, and present ideas and materials for use by educators, parents who work and live with individuals with an ASD as well as by the individuals with an ASD themselves.

I also hope it will be a place where ideas may be exchanged in the spirit of respect, acceptance and enthusiasm for our diversity.