When she’s working as a teacher at Metro High School in Cedar Rapids, Rep. Molly Donahue, D-Cedar Rapids, just goes by Molly or Ms. D.
The state lawmaker is in her 30th year of teaching, with her focus on secondary students in special education or those who have behavior disorders that can affect their learning. With the Iowa Legislature this year debating bills to improve safety in the classroom, The Gazette wanted to talk with Donahue about her teaching experiences and what is happening at the Statehouse.
Q. How much of your focus is on students with behavior challenges?
A. “I work at Metro, which is the alternative, at-risk building, so every child I work with is at risk. I wanted to be in a building where I was used to working with the students.”
Q. During the legislative session, you’re just there on Fridays. How do you interact with students?
A: “Now I’m working with kids one on one, or two and three, with whatever they need. I don’t have to cut through any of the major teacher red tape. I work with them on whatever they need at that moment. Catching up on their work, or if they just need to talk.”
Q. Have you ever been assaulted by a student?
A. “I have never been assaulted. I have worked in this for 30 years, so I have had plenty of threats. I set up my classroom so students know exactly what is going to happen. If I was to be hit, I made it very clear to the parents in the beginning that I would press charges. I didn’t go into this to be injured. I don’t know if that made a difference or if it’s the rapport I’ve established with students. When you have that rapport, no matter their behavior situation, they know they can trust you. Tomorrow is a new day, and we can start over. I’ve never had to lay a hand on a student.”
Q. Is seclusion or restraint sometimes necessary?
A. “Absolutely. I have seen it done with some more severe behavior. When you have a 6-foot-2, 250-pound severely autistic young man who can break a desk in half by hitting it who is tearing up the room ... In some cases they (seclusion and restraint) may be used, not necessarily in the manner in which they should because there was no great protocol. There are some parents adamantly against it. But then I don’t know what you do in the school when some of those situations arise.”
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Q. National Public Radio reported last week about mindfulness or meditation used for students who are distressed and acting out. Have you seen that used and do you think it could be effective?
A. “I actually use meditation in my classroom. In social skills we did five- to 10-minute meditations. I introduced that about 8 years ago. There are some who do it — not everybody. Some of them laugh it off. Some of them really enjoyed it because it gave them a few minutes to free their minds. It’s not for everybody.
“The problem with the (mindfulness) rooms that people could go to, is we don’t have staffing. If we had the money, we would have intervention rooms where people could go to chill out a little bit. Someone would work with them about ‘What was going on?’ ‘What you can do to keep that kid from getting under your skin?’ There is no safe place to go where you can talk it out with staff. There’s not enough to help them through the public system. People are trying as hard as they can.”
Q. Iowa Republican lawmakers introduced bills in the Senate and House to provide grants for schools to create therapeutic classrooms. The bill also would expand some situations when school staff could use physical force on students. The Senate bill passed last week. What changes have been made in the House bill and do you support it?
A. “Two more amendments that would clarify a little more, that teachers are getting more preparation to work with students. Another part would be more along the lines of defining the therapeutic classrooms a little more specifically. I declined to vote for it in the committee because it’s still not right.
Q. What additional training would you like to see teachers receive?
A. “It all comes down to funding. We wouldn’t have near the problems we have in our school districts — for anybody — if we had the amount of staffing necessary. I was fully trained at Boys Town and through Character Counts. I used all of those. They (districts) can’t afford to do that.”
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