Teacher Professor

December 6, 2010

Failing a Second Chance

Filed under: Autism,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 10:03 am

The County of St. Lucie in Florida, is $350,000 poorer because of one terrible teaching moment.  In 2008, Wendy Portillo, a kindergarten teacher, was annoyed at Alex Barton.  He had been uncooperative, lying on the floor, chewing up his crayons, and eating his boogers0 for months.  He did not talk nicely to other children, but yelled at them.  I do not know, but I believe that she was frustrated.  She was not receiving help, because he had no prior label.  The children were frustrated, and she did not feel that she was getting through to Alex when she kept trying to enforce consequences.  He did not seem to care about the consequences that she could give him.  Spanking was prohibited or ineffective as well, and so Ms. Portillo felt that she was out of options.  And so, she set out to teach him a lesson- a lesson in which he might learn that actions have consequences, and that what he did was not acceptable.  It was a lesson that most teachers repeat and repeat to their students.  It is a lesson that is particularly important in kindergarten where children are beginning to learn social norms, to learn how to cooperate together, how to learn together.  A child who does not learn such rules has to be taught what the “real world” demands.  It is equally frustrating to work with other children who are demanding that the adult “do something”- when a child cries that another child hurt him, hurt his feelings, and the grownups do nothing.  Everyone was tired of asking for help and getting none.  The feeling of powerlessness that comes about from not being able to stop a child’s behaviors, and not being able to protect the others can lead to incredible frustration and anger. 

And so, Ms. Wendy Portillo, in a teaching moment that is now a shining example of what NOT TO DO, chose to play a “Survivor-style” game in which the children voted someone from the class “off the island”, or in other words, out of her classroom.  And so, Alex Barton was sent to the principal’s office as a last-ditch means of teaching him to take control of his actions.

Of course, we all know that what she did was completely unacceptable.  We know that teaching 5-year olds that they can gang up on someone and exclude them is one of the worst possible lessons that one can teach.  We now know that Alex Barton had Asperger’s Syndrome and that he had no choice in this, either. 

But I also know that I have seen many, many teachers reach this point of “There’s nothing more I can do.”.  That teachers who are frustrated, and angry and do not have enough support get tired of asking for help that does not come.  That teachers who are doing the very best they know how to do don’t have enough training, experience or understanding to handle children with diverse needs.  Let us not forget that Alex had not yet been identified, and so Ms. Portillo did not have the support of a trained special education teacher.  She did not have the excuse of a label.  And so, she tried a teaching game- one in which Alex was supposed to learn that actions have consequences.  She didn’t know what else to do. 

And so, Ms. Portillo was suspended for a year.  Alex’s parents got a $350,000 settlement last week.  And Ms. Portillo did not lose her job.

There have been many, many, many people who called for her firing.  Who demanded to know “What kind of teacher would do that?”  Who were horrified that she would be allowed to continue to teach after teaching such a lesson.

But it in the very nature of education to turn a mistake into a learning moment.  Wendy Portillo was allowed to keep her job for two reasons:

  1. She had been a good teacher before- Over 13 fellow teachers and former students at a school board meeting attested to her caring, her teaching, and what they learned with her.  They painted a picture of a strong teacher who was fed up, frustrated, and at the end of her rope without resources.  She, of all people, could learn from this experience and learn how to never let it happen again.  She would be able to be more understanding, more sympathetic. 
  2. If Wendy Portillo were fired, there was no way of ensuring that the teacher hired to take her place would do any better.  If Wendy Portillo, an experienced teacher, had made such a terrible teaching choice, how much more damage could a rookie teacher make? 

Firing was not seen as the solution- rehabilitation and training were.  In other words, she should have the opportunity to make a mistake.  It’s the only way to learn.  And so, Ms. Portillo was hired as a sixth grade science teacher.  I can’t help but believe that the transition from teaching kindergarten to teaching sixth grade was at the same time very different and very similar. 

Clearly, there are problems in St. Lucie County.  Clearly, there is not enough training for teachers, not enough support for teachers with children with special needs.  And clearly, there has not been enough sensitization of general education teachers to the challenges that children with disabilities face.  Normally, I have tremendous respect for teachers- and defend them because so much of the poor education that children face in schools is a result of lack of teacher training, lack of time, lack of resources, and lack of support.

However, Ms. Portillo didn’t fully learn the lessons of how one works with children with special needs.  She got in trouble again this past fall when she asked if she could opt out of wearing a microphone system for a child with hearing problems, and asked the child if she could just speak louder.  She also wore her microphone incorrectly, where it was ineffective for the student.  In other words, she was asking the child if she could “opt out” of the requirements established by the IEP team- as if the requirements were arbitrarily determined.  There are very few sixth graders who have the conviction to deny a teacher’s request, and to own up to a problem- and so the student said “ok”.  Once again, Ms. Portillo was letting her own challenges dictate how she interacted with children with disabilities, rather than trying to understand, to learn, to change. 

I have to wonder.  If someone like Wendy Portillo- who has received a second chance, who has received additional training- hasn’t learn that children with special needs are children first and that they can’t describe, can’t understand and can’t advocate for themselves yet, then she should not be a teacher. And yet… she is still teaching.

Once is a mistake.  Twice is a trend… The first time, shame on St. Lucie and their lack of training and support.  The second time?  Shame on St. Lucie and their lack of backbone.


  1. Full of understanding, or reason, and in the end very well put — Mrs. Portillo needs to learn some real world consequences.

    Comment by Elizabeth — December 6, 2010 @ 1:57 pm | Reply

  2. I’m now curious to know if Mrs. Portillo doesn’t have the courage to change careers/vocations. I would. Some of us don’t have the patience to attempt to be everything to every student. I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, because I couldn’t deal with kids like the one I was as a young student. (I was the proverbial brat). It’s awfully hard to give up the perks and guarantees of the Teachers Union. But Mrs. Portillo can’t have it both ways. It’s hard decision time.

    Comment by Claire Goldrick Hughes — December 12, 2010 @ 8:14 pm | Reply

  3. thanks claire, you rock. thanks for your sublime and nuanced understandings of very, very difficult circumstances.

    thanks for helping all the families, moms out there who feel “odd man out” because no one seems to understand what is really going on with their kids, especially the teachers.

    hopefully your work will help get more and better teacher training and requirements… at all levels.

    there’s no perfect answer, but greater understanding is probably the only thing that won’t go out of style next week….
    hugz from texas.

    Comment by zola — February 16, 2011 @ 12:55 am | Reply

  4. I am a student at a 4-year university in California and we are using your letter/blog as a case study to show how we can improve our teaching methods for all students, especially students with disabilities. After reading your article a third time over the course of the day, just to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting to what I was reading, I decided to write. The “second” appalling thing that this teacher did was to “ask” if she could just talk louder. Your comments on her “asking” was quite an over-reaction. Okay, she should have consulted the administration, parent(s), etc. But to come down SO hard on her for this seems a little out of line. I think race might have something to do with this (no, I am not black; white, actually).
    And, in her first terrorist act, I believe she had the student’s overall best-interest at heart. Actually, she clearly did. In my adult world, if someone is disrespectful, we typically do not want to associate with that person. Does every child that has this condition act-out in this manner? No, they don’t. I’m not condoning what she did, but a lawsuit? $350,000.00? Wow. How about a formal reprimand by the school? This is one challenge that teachers have had to face over the last several decades: if you have a student in your class who is kicking other kids, throwing paper airplanes, spitting on people…..well……we need to accommodate for them. It seems like they get extra privileges for being “bad”. In other on-line articles I read, pictures of the mother and child were posted. The pictures of the child made him look like an angel. I wonder if there are any pictures of him when he was acting out in class. In the end, I will remember this article, more about IEP’s, and will be the best possible teacher I can be. It definitely gets my mind thinking, racing, and maybe even my blood boiling. Perhaps there is still a lot I need to learn (actually, there is!). I will try to adjust my attitude and perception and talk this over with my professor and class.

    Comment by Steve — May 5, 2011 @ 11:14 pm | Reply

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