Here are some things that I believe:
An effective teacher stays in the hearts and minds of their students because they provide experiences so wonderful that they turn into lifelong memories. These same great teachers keep students wanting to come to class because the students are hungry for knowledge and they’re curious to know what their teachers will help them discover each day.
But here is what I also know:
It can be scary to be in such a position. There are many eyes and ears on you, waiting to see what you’ll do, what you’ll say, what’s next, and how you handle it. It’s a spotlight that follows your every move to the right, to the left, forward and backward. That light can get hot and full of pressure.
I am a dance educator who has worked with general education students and special education students. As I worked with my students, I began to see transition as a journey instead of a destination. I would ask myself each day: “Where are we today? How can we grow today? Where can move to?” My first experience was with general education students. The next year, we decided to have an inclusive classroom, where our general education students would work side by side with special education students. I was the “designated general education” teacher, and there was a “designated special education” teacher, but we were really, quite simply, a teaching team.
In my time spent working in classrooms, talking with educators and observing educators, I have witnessed some of the best and some of the worst. I have witnessed teachers take on Goliath-proportioned problems in educations, and win. I have also seen the opposite result. There are pros and cons, and perks and quirks to every classroom, and every classroom experience. So when I talk about “creating an inclusive classroom,” I am not talking about butterflies and rainbows. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t easy. It isn’t about being politically correct or even about overspecializing an idea.
It’s really about the kind of environment you desire to create, and the willingness to keep working at it.
Author Andrew Solomon wrote, “Defective is an adjective that has long been deemed too freighted for liberal discourse, but the medical terms that have supplanted it – illness, syndrome, condition – can be almost equally pejorative in their discreet way. We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate the same way of being.” Solomon goes on to explain that physics research shows how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle-like question, and it appears to be a wave if we ask a wave-like question. It can live as both, if we know how to talk about it.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “All I know is what I have words for.” Solomon suggests that it is this “absence of intimacy” that have starved different life experiences for language.
I want to dispel the rumors, demystify the fuzzy, clarify the fears because you can’t grow if you’re too afraid to try. Educators are more and more often being asked to create inclusive classrooms, and the first emotion they feel is not excitement. It falls under descriptors like fear, anxious, nervous, overwhelmed.
This led me to ask questions: How can we help our educators redirect these feelings to more pleasant feelings? How can we support our educators while they feel tossed into unfamiliar waters? How can we help them do a good job even while they are feeling they may not be capable of doing so?
First thing is first: Let’s put the fears of creating an inclusive classroom into words.
“I’m afraid I’ll say something wrong.”
This is a valid fear that isn’t solely about approaching special education. We are always a little afraid of saying something wrong at any moment in the day. But the feeling just becomes more concentrated in a “special education situation,” as I’ve heard it called. If you feel you lack the language to discuss something, or to ask a question, it’s OK. I’ve had to Google, and research, and speak with parents on countless occasions when I felt I lacked the words, or the knowledge. It is part of education, and the “Well, you should know that” attitude doesn’t help anyone in any situation.
Create welcome packets for your parents and students. Let them tell you and show you who they are, how they communicate, how they problem solve and how they perceive their child, their child’s abilities and their child’s education. It’s important to know what the parents’ strengths and weaknesses were, as well as their child’s. I want to know what makes them happy, smile, curious and interested. The goal is to find find and provide opportunities for parents and students to find similarities and common ground. It is about becoming comfortable with differences from your personal life experience by hearing someone else’s experiences. In allowing them to show you their world, you are setting a foundation for community, open communication, and relationships.
“I’m afraid to ‘go there.’ I could do something wrong.”
True. You could. But you have to be willing to walk around in their world to better understand what is going on. The same way that they need to understand how you work, as a teacher and person, in order to understand your approaches and perceptions.
And here’s the thing:
Parents are just as worried about messing up and doing something wrong too! Many parents of special needs children are experiencing what is called children with horizontal identities. Vertical identities include traits that are shared with parents (ethnicity, language). But children with horizontal identities, which means they possess a trait completely foreign to their parents, are living lives completely foreign to their parents (Solomon, p. 2). They are learning to. They are experimenting with what works and what doesn’t work, and you are a member of that team. That is quite an honor! That is something to be excited about! Instead of repeating the question, “What if I do something wrong?” in your head, try on a new question. Something like: “How can we all figure this out together? Teacher-Parents-Student team unite!”
“What if the other kids are mean?”
Kids can be mean. They have bad days, they say cruel things, and they come to the classroom with preconceived ideas that they’ve picked up along the way from who knows where! The good news is that you are there to help them grow, and you live inspired, they will be inspired.
Know going in that you will have to deal with conversations that include racial tensions, gender bias, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) youth, cultural differences, religious differences, and varying attitudes on individual differences. Know that you’ll have single-parent families, divorced families, adopted children, foster families, child abuse and potential substance abuse. The goal in helping students and families through tough situations and topics is to foster self-awareness, develop self-advocacy and leadership skills, promote self-esteem and always, always serve as a positive role model. If we can help our students and their families understand their feelings, fears, concerns and doubts, then we can better address the situations and lead them from high tension to peaceful learning experiences.
“How can I get the students involved and focused?”
This is a hard question for all educators. Some days we do a great job at keeping their attention, and some days… we struggle. Preteaching helps gets students excited. Tell them a story about what the material is “so cool.” Get them curious. Then, get down to business. Everyone loves a good story, and everyone loves to feel productive. Have the students write “I will” cards. This establishes what they will be doing and will do after instruction has passed. For each child, the “I will” bullets may be different, and tailored to their process of learning. Do not fear this. Let them help you by showing you what they need. If a special education student needs you to describe something in numbers instead of pictures or words, their “I will” card may state: “Write down the numbers the teacher says.” If a general education student needs to write down plot points instead of the conclusion, their “I will” card may state: “Write down points to form conclusion.” They are all learning how to learn, and what they need in order to do so. They are also learning clarity of thinking, of which, we are all capable.
“What if the special needs kids hold back my general education kids?”
This is one of those “full of fear” questions. It’s the question that creeps up because you haven’t put a lot of thought into it yet. Kind of like when you go skydiving, the first fear question is: What if my parachute doesn’t open? And yet, hundreds of people skydive every day.
Stop assuming any of your students are going to do anything. Stop assuming the special education students will require all of your time and energy, and stop assuming your general education students will perform as stellar students every day. It’s just not how the day-to-day education process works. All of your students will have good days, and all of your students will have very bad days. Don’t change your expectations for anyone. Know exactly what behavior you will accept, and what behavior you will not accept. Know what you are teaching and how you will assess their learning of the material. Figure out what is “normal” for each student, and if they are not progressing, pay attention to that. The work is right there. If they are misbehaving, the consequences are the same. While your discussion or approach may be different, the consequence and the expectations remain the same.
Being a teacher is hard because it’s not just about delivering material. It’s about creating and helping little humans transition into fantastic adults, regardless of their individual differences and life experiences. You have to forget what and who society thinks will be successful. You have to believe in yourself and your teaching techniques. You have to stand firm on those bad days when students (special or general education) will step on every last nerve you have. You have to be willing to throw good lessons plans out of the window if they don’t work. You have to be willing to sit down, and say “Well hello square one. We meet again.” You have to smile when people think you’re crazy. You have to explain things in 100 different ways, and not lose patience. You have to trust, listen, record, track, and discuss over and over again. Every day.
But if you do this… if you keep an open heart and mind, you will see progress. You will see growth. You will see the good come out in everybody including yourself. You will see test scores rise, writing and reading skills advance, clarity of thinking progress and friendships you didn’t previously imagine develop. You’ll see people step up who you thought never would. You’ll see students make better decisions. You’ll see problem solving, and creative thinking. You’ll see kindness win.
If you’re scared, it’s OK. Say so. If you’re overwhelmed, it’s OK. Say so. But don’t fear the responsibility. Don’t pass up on the opportunity.
When you have the chance to create experiences which will turn into lifelong memories, that is a beautiful thing. Even if you feel like you failed, your effort and your positivity will be remembered. Try hard. Work hard. And keep going.