Supporting Students of All Abilities During Disability Awareness Month and Beyond
From an early age, Julie Kamath (Memphis ‘16) has advocated for those around her. As a special educator, it is her mission to create inclusive environments for students of all abilities.
Did you know that October is Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month? This month provides a fantastic opportunity to bring awareness to the vast differences in ability that exists within our communities and reflect on how we can best serve and advocate for those with disabilities.
I began developing relationships with people with disabilities in pre-K when I made friends with another little girl in my class with a speech impairment. This impairment, coupled with the fact that she was an English Language Learner, resulted in a communication barrier between her and the school staff. Seeing this challenge, I became her pseudo-sidekick, working to understand and help her communicate her needs to the teachers. This experience instilled in me the importance of relationship building and inclusion of all people, regardless of ability level.
These lessons stuck with me and motivated me to continue working with people with disabilities as a dance teacher to students with cerebral palsy and Down syndrome and as a camp counselor working with campers with varying disabilities such as autism, anxiety, and behavioral challenges. I think fondly about these experiences and the way individuals with disabilities were able to participate in an inclusive environment. This reflection prompted me to select special education as my top preference when filling out my Teach For America application.
As a special educator, I am so thankful not only for the experiences that led me to Teach For America but the continued support I have in servicing my students with disabilities in Memphis from my fellow alumni and Teach For America staff. I began my commitment with Teach For America as an instructional resource teacher serving students primarily with learning disabilities. I loved my position working with students in kindergarten through third grade, but, like most first-year teachers, I often felt as if I wasn’t a strong enough teacher.
Shortly into my first year, I received the news from my administration that I would be changing classrooms and positions. I would still be a special educator, but I would now be serving students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD). I was told my students would have intensive needs.
I instantly panicked, not because of the students or their disabilities, but because I was so afraid to fail them. I turned to my coach for advice. We met for coffee as I explained to him that I did not feel I would be strong enough for my students; that they deserved someone more experienced or more specially trained. He reassured me that I was enough for my students and connected me with people in the special education community that I could turn to for support; these individuals would later become some of my greatest mentors in the field.
Throughout my two-year commitment, Teach For America gave me the space I needed to grow into the special educator I am today. This encouragement from my coaches and my Teach For America community allowed me to flourish as a teacher in my new role, which I am still in today—three years later. I quickly learned the skills I needed to serve my new students and am confident I have found my passion for working with students with EBD.
I’m so appreciative of the support Teach For America provided me as I continue to teach in that same classroom today and support my students with the tools they need to be successful academically and social-emotionally and to help develop them into the next generation of our Memphis community.
Teachers of all content areas, grade bands, and years of experience have the opportunity to serve students with disabilities in their classrooms and act as one of their students’ first advocates, ensuring they are provided with the equitable services needed for academic, pre-vocational, and social-emotional growth. It can be overwhelming staying up-to-date with the ever-changing landscape of special education. Vanderbilt IRIS Center and Education Week have been great resources that have helped me shape my understanding of special education—check them out! It’s my hope this month, and every month, that together we can continue to build an education landscape that allows our students with disabilities to be served equitably and included in activities and experiences with their non-disabled peers.
Julie Kamath is a 2016 Teach For America Memphis alumna. She is a Day Treatment Program teacher at Brownsville Road Optional School.