Shifting the Spec Ed Narrative
The mere word ‘Special Education’ comes with a whole series of preconceived notions and ideas, often different for each person who hears it. For me, Special Education is a gift, a passion, and a commitment to ensuring every child gets what they need in order to succeed. I’ve spent my entire career building on this concept. For others, Special Education is viewed as something negative, something to hide, to be embarrassed about, or even ashamed of, and I hate that! For others, Special Education is something placed in a box over to the side, an ‘other’, a silo, something that is about them and shouldn’t have anything to do with me. But what if we shifted that narrative so that everyone – administrators, teachers, parents, and most importantly, students – felt pride, empowerment, and understanding when they heard the term Special Education. I love to imagine a world and a school where Special Education becomes so ingrained in the normal, that no one sees it as “extra work” on the part of the teacher, something to “be ashamed” of on the part of the student, or something to “be worried” about on the part of the parent.
So we all have work to do in helping to shift the narrative. When I do this work with students, teachers, and parents I like to start with the glasses analogy. I’ve gone into classrooms where I look around and I ask each student wearing glasses to take off their glasses and I explain that from that moment on I don’t want to ever see their glasses on their face again. As looks of horror and upset, not only from the glasses-wearing students but also from their classmates, appear on their faces, I explain that it would not be fair for them to keep wearing their glasses since there are other students in the class who don’t wear glasses. The objections are shouted loud and clear as students fight for their right to wear glasses and explain that they can’t see properly without them. It sets the stage perfectly for the conversation about what fair means. FAIR means everyone gets what they need in order to be successful, not that everyone gets the same thing.
Thank you to https://www.teachjunkie.com/filing-cabinet/whats-fair-free-classroom-poster/ for this poster which I always had hanging in my classroom and is now hanging in my office!
From https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Store/Teaching-With-Compassion we get this great visual!
And thanks to the wise Albert Einstein who said the following:
Students quickly understand this concept and then we can shift the conversation to different tools we have in the classroom for different types of learners. We have ball chairs and wiggle cushions, wobble stools, and standing stations. We have fidget tools and noise-canceling headphones and privacy carrels. We have assistive technology tools like voice to text and read and write software. We have audiobooks and graphic organizers and teachers breaking down tasks with more manageable due dates. We have resource teachers, small group instructions, and enrichment opportunities. We use visual schedules, organizational tools, and social stories. We use quiet rooms and we give extended time for tests and exams …. just to name a few. Just like the non-glasses wearing friends fought for justice for their glasses-wearing friends, so too do we want them to do that for all the tools that are used and provided in the classroom. We want students to feel proud, encouraged, and empowered to use whatever “glasses” (tools) they need to be able to be their best selves as learners, and we want the others in the class to be supportive and kind to the ones using them.
For teachers, I frame it to help them understand that students with special needs are actually easier to understand than students without. Students with special needs come with an “instruction manual” so to speak – their IEP (individual education plan). This plan is like a blueprint to help teachers, students and parents understand how that child learns best. It highlights all the amazing strengths as well as the areas of weakness. It helps teachers to understand how to accommodate (what tools) that student needs to be their best learner. One pushback I’ve heard from teachers is, I definitely follow the IEP because whatever it says on the IEP could be used for all students, so I just do that for everyone. Let’s look at another analogy. The school builds a ramp to the front doors. Every student could use the ramp to get through the doors and there is no harm for all students to use the ramp. But does everyone need the ramp? Wouldn’t it be better to encourage those students who can walk up the stairs to walk up the stairs? In fact, some tools would do certain students a disservice, the same way forcing all students to wear glasses would make no sense.
Who’s with me? Ready to help shift the narrative on Special Education? At the OJCS we are well on our way with this shift. We strive to personalize instruction and encourage students to own their own learning. Understanding how each student learns and using their strengths to improve weaknesses is what we aim to do. We all continue to be on our own learning journey and what I know for sure is we learn better together!
Another great visual from brookespublishing.com/ which drives home the point and is also hanging in my office: