Happy National Teacher Appreciation Week!
If you’re reading this, I want you to pause and thank a teacher! Whether it’s through a text message, a phone call, a facebook post, an email, a long snail mail letter, a carrier pigeon, or a tin can telephone, take a bit of time to thank a teacher who you know is getting WILDLY rich changing the lives of young people every day.
I used to be a public school classroom teacher, and in a lot of ways, I think I was a pretty good one. I worked hard to make lessons interesting, and my students not only learned a lot of cool stuff, but they learned a lot of important skills along the way. No, I wasn’t the best teacher in the world, but I’m proud of the work that I did.
Most of the time.
As I reflect back over my work as a teacher, there is one area of my practice of which I’m not very proud.
I taught in a school that practiced almost total “inclusion” when it came to special education. That means that with the exception of a few students who were diagnosed “Educably Mentally Handicapped” (a term used to describe students with severe mental disabilities), any students with disabilities participated exclusively in “regular education” classes (meaning that they were learning in classrooms with students who didn’t have disabilities). Because our school was under-resourced and because I taught Social Studies (in which few students have special education instruction spelled out in their legal Individualized Educational Plan), I didn’t often have a special education-certified teacher in the room to help. Instead, we had the philosophy that “all teachers are special education teachers.”
Before I started teaching, I was really excited about teaching in an “inclusion” classroom. The idea seemed fantastic, as all students could learn together in my classroom, and there would not be a need for “those kids” to be isolated and made fun of like they were when I went to high school! What I found in practice, though, is something I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit.
I served my students with disabilities terribly. I did particular disservice to my students with behavioral disabilities, meaning that their disability often affected their ability to control their behavior in the classroom.
Now, I want to be clear that I wasn’t very well trained to properly instruct a classroom with a wide range of ability levels. My Masters program had required ONE course on serving students with special needs, and my mentor teacher didn’t exactly share a lot of “best practices” with me with regard to this type of instruction.
That being said, if there’s any area in which I failed in my job as a teacher, it was in serving my students with disabilities. I can give you every excuse, but that’s the reality. I mean, I taught in an over-crowded classroom with a disproportionate number of students with disabilities that required great attention. I taught in a school that couldn’t afford to give me support of a trained special education teacher except for an hour or two a week. I can rattle off excuses until I’m blue in the face, but in the end, it’s on me.
I’m ashamed to say that too often, I got frustrated. Too often, I lost my temper. Too often, I took out my frustrations (and the ridiculousness caused by the politics of education) on my students, and more often than not, the student I took it out on had an IEP. And then you’d likely hear me later complaining about what a “shit” that student was being. To this day, I carry these memories with great shame.
It is with this in mind that I dedicate this week’s post to the incredible educators who work every day to make sure they don’t fail where I did. I dedicate this post to the special education teachers and the “regular ed” teachers who work hard to make sure that every student, regardless of their cognitive or physical ability, gets the absolute best education possible.
I dedicate this post to them because lately, teachers seem to be public enemy number one. They are dragged through the mud, and they are blamed for just about every problem (inside and outside of education) we can think of.
What’s more, when you are a teacher with a gift for serving students with special needs, you don’t really get much respect, even in the world of teachers. Often special education teachers are talk about as if they are not “real” teachers, and when your students can’t even advocate for themselves (because of a physical or cognitive disability), they’re not likely to be nominating you for any teaching awards.
So I want to take this time to say thank you. Thank you to each and every teacher out there who has had the talent, skill, patience, care, and love to educate and change the lives of a student who struggles every day with a disability.
You are some of the greatest sheroes and heroes I have ever known.