Updated: Aug 6
The year was 2011. Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” was trending at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and I had just accepted my first full time teaching position as a second and third grade special educator in a large city in Virginia. I was thrilled that I would finally have a classroom to call my own, which had been my goal from the earliest years of my life. Armed with a sock bun and my mission to change the world, I began the year with high hopes and a prayer.
I learned that I would be supporting 16 students with disabilities who had various profiles. They would come to my special education room for both language arts and math, as well as shorter periods of time throughout the day for loosely defined interventions. I immediately got to work doing all of the most urgent things - decorating bulletin boards, labeling materials, and color coding everything the naked eye could see. Surely my students would appreciate an aesthetically pleasing space to learn!
Prior to accepting this position, I hadn’t given much thought to the inequities that exist in special education. Most of my pre-service training had taught me that students with disabilities, especially those with complex needs, required something “different” than what was offered within the general education classroom. I had heard about inclusive education here and there in some of my coursework, but most of my field experiences took place in the most restrictive settings - approved private schools where academic instruction was labeled as “functional”. My perspective had been molded to accept this as the status quo; there was general education and there was special education and rarely did these paths intersect.
Fresh out of college and thrown into the deep end, I was faced with examining and attempting to solve many of these inequities first hand. When I started to look at the time each student would spend in my room versus the time they would spend with their respective grade level, I began to panic. Where are my curricular resources? Do I have a team to plan with? They do know I’ve never done this before, right??? Even more worrisome, I would be tasked with teaching 2nd and 3rd grades at the same time.
As I began the year, I quickly realized many barriers in the way of becoming the teacher I had always envisioned myself to be. But more importantly, I recognized the systems, structures and mindsets that prevented my learners from becoming the students that they could be. My students spent significant portions of their days transitioning from their homerooms to special education classrooms, and then back again to their homerooms with no concept of what was happening in the lessons they were returning to. Imagine walking into a movie that started 40 minutes before you arrived with the expectation that you will plop down, follow along and be able to summarize all of what happened at the end. Their confusion had nothing to do with skill deficit or ability level and everything to do with a schedule that created a school day mirroring Swiss cheese.
If I had kept a journal throughout this first year, the pages likely would have been filled with sentiments such as; If I'm teaching the same content as what’s being taught in their grade level classroom, why can’t I go to them instead of them coming to me? When they come to my room for a 30 minute binder check, what opportunities are they missing in their classroom? Poor Johnny started crying AGAIN today when I showed up to pull him for reading support and he had to skip out on the electricity experiment. The list could go on and on.
Since my time in Virginia, I have served as a general educator, special educator, inclusion facilitator, and instructional coach. Each experience has helped me to understand that it is not only my business to educate, but also my duty to advocate. Many individual schools, districts and states have made great strides in their diversity and equity efforts, however, disability is often left out of the conversation. How, as educators, can we pride ourselves on being “the great equalizer” if we don’t believe in that standard for all?
Teachers are some of the most influential figures in a child’s life and our roles come with great responsibility. As you prepare for the start of the 2023 - 2024 school year, I challenge you to find little moments to clap back, question the narrative, and offer up suggestions for how things could be, and should be done differently.
Commit to embracing special education as access to the general education classroom and curriculum versus some magical service meant to be delivered down the hall. Celebrate the smiles, the high fives, and the new friendships amongst your students. You are actively facilitating memories that will last a lifetime.
As I embark on my new adventure of working to influence the system from the outside in, these are the convictions I will keep at the forefront:
Seek Solutions. There is no problem that cannot be solved with teamwork and creativity. Do not view barriers as a means to an end, rather, a springboard for trying something outside the box.
Assume the Best. When you come across a mindset that feels narrow, outdated or stuck, recognize that experiences shape what we believe. Validate their why, then push them to be better.
Don’t Play it Safe. It’s easy to sit back and agree with the majority, but there is often a very big difference between what is easy and what is right.
Value Disagreement. When faced with a person(s) who disagrees with your vision, listen in order to understand their justifications; legal, financial, etc., then use that insight to better argue your stance.
Never Lose Touch. The classroom is always where students are most directly impacted. People who step away often give up the lens of a teacher very quickly. Spend time in classrooms, and never forget the joy in watching kids learn.
May we all greet the new school year with an open-mind, an open-heart and a true belief that anything is possible when we’re willing to rock the boat.