I recently read a wonderful post on Mom-Not Otherwise Specified’s blog where she described the wonderful strategy her son’s inclusion classroom teacher used by inviting her in to speak to the class about Bud’s autism. She had previously described this amazing classroom before, and how accepting it is. What particularly struck me, beyond the inspiring description of the classroom her son is in, were the comments made by other parents.
Whereas most of the commentors celebrated with her, a number of others were bitter. “How I wish my son had this… how my heart breaks when I see my child playing alone…. I’m fighting for the inclusion of my child and the school district refuses to help…This only happens when a teacher helps it happen”.
I myself have fought the inclusion battle. When Elizabeth was first diagnosed through First Steps and covered through the Individual Family Services Plan (IFSP), the services partially came to her- she was in a private Montessori preschool and the speech therapist and the occupational therapist went to her school- and I took her to the therapies myself. It was a balanced approach- learn new skills in therapy, apply them at her school. It was FABULOUS! When she turned three and her status changed to being covered under an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), we were offered two options: full-time self-contained room for autism, or a part-time self-contained room for autism. I didn’t want to fight the legal battle to insist on least restrictive envionment (LRE), so I took her out altogether and we (and my mother) paid for therapy privately for a while (until we went broke- but that’s a while “nother story…). When we moved, she had improved to the degree that she no longer qualified for an IEP. I didn’t want to fight the legal battle because I knew that the window of opportunity was so tight and she was making significant progress. I was focused on keeping that momentum of progress going and I wasn’t going to stop for some stupid legal fight.
Am I bitter? A little… but because I am a professor of special education, I have a little insight.
Districts are financially strapped. They have way too many kids and not enough money and serious, serious pressure to do well on tests. They provide the minimum of programming possible and can only change with legal or other significant pressure. Even if they WANTED to change programs, the pressures to keep things as stable as possible are beyond a single administrator’s control. It’s like a giant financial game of Jenga. If you change one program, the entire structure shifts and sways, and administrators have to run to fix those problems.
District-level policies and programs are set up to be adversarial. The parent wants what’s best for their child- the district has to look at too many kids, too many needs, not enough money. The only way to change things is to exert pressure- to sue, to go to the Board, to collect a petition, to organize a bunch of parents. With school districts, the sueaky wheel does indeed, get the grease, but the grease is taken from somewhere else.
I want to emphasize that there are very caring administrators. Most administrators got into education as a teacher and are now in positions where they can make choices- and they do. But they have to consider the entire structure of the education program- with the needs of children from poverty, children from abuse, safe schools, special needs students, gifted children, science/math/language arts standards that are changing, health programs, art and music, local politics, scheduling, and always, test scores, test scores, test scores. A single administrator can make some incremental changes, but large changes have to come from outside- from a focused parent who has to take an adversarial role to make real change.
That’s the situation at the district level. Things are VERY different at the school and classroom level. At the school and classroom level, individual parents and schools truly CAN work together to improve things.
At the school level, one principal can make a world of difference. A principal who understands the needs of children, who supports inclusion, who works on building a collaborative environment in which learning is the outcome, not the only measure can hire teachers with similar vision, can encourage collaboration and can support school-level policies of grouping and scheduling that can mean a world of difference to a child and a parent.
And the right teacher… oh that teacher can be such a difference to a child.
In defense of individual teachers, the ones that so many parents bash, the ones that make families cry… so many of those teachers simply don’t know HOW. They have a principal who is on their back about test scores; they have a fellow group of teachers who do not trust each other to say “Help me”; they have parents who never show up and send their child to school underfed, underdressed and exhausted. They don’t have the skill base to know how to handle situations, and they don’t know enough to even begin to ask questions. They don’t know how to do anything for children with special needs, other than a) send them to a special educator, and b) ignore them.
Most teachers truly do want children to succeed. Yes, you will find the teacher who has been teaching for 25 years and hates children, or only likes the one child who follows directions, is well-dressed and turns in immaculate work. Do you know the number one factor that determines teachers’ saying that a child is a “good child”? The attractiveness of the child. Pretty children are ones that teachers like. And so many of our children are not “pretty”, are not well-dressed and are certainly not well-behaved.
BUT, with training, with ideas, with strategies that show a teacher how the hard work of including ALL children can pay off in increased test scores, good behavior and less exhaustion, teachers can and do improve.
And then there are good intentions. In a class discussion last week, before I had gone over the content, I asked my college class of pre-service teachers if they would invite parents of children with special needs into the classroom to discuss those needs. I overwhelming got a response of “No”, since they perceived that to do so would a) make the child even more uncomfortable to be talked about openly, b) highlight differences when the teachers were trying so hard to promote acceptance and commonality and c) make things worse by having the other children look for differences.
I then tried to change their mind by talking about how differences are already noticed, that honest discussion makes things honest, that children are mean because they’re scared or they don’t understand. And today, I will share Mom-NOS’s posting to help convince them. But I’m not entirely sure that they are convinced…. to acknowledge a difference is sometimes scary to everyone involved.
Parents can help with this. If a parent volunteers to read to all students, to do the newsletter at home, to supply the class with extra pencils, teachers are more willing to learn, to hear of some ideas. “That’s the teacher’s job,” is what many parents say- and yes, yes it is the teacher’s job. But the teacher is also nurse, counselor, health monitor, journalist, public relations director, test-giver, test- maker, collector of data, manager of behavior… and can feel completely overwhelmed. Any way to relieve some of this pressure can make a teacher more able to do her job.
And if a parent wants to come and talk about her child and tell the other children how they can help, what a great gift that would be to a classroom. Most teachers want that- but don’t know to ask.