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Special Education Is Not A Place  

By Elizabeth Terry

March 15, 2015

Let’s clear up a few points of confusion: Special education is not a place, not a subject, not an identity.

Mario, one of my students, loves to arrange furniture. He loves to build things and destroy things. He’s a hard worker when he wants to be. He’s cagey and doesn’t get close to people at first. He doesn’t like to be touched. He escalates quickly if triggered but is truthful and honest if he’s done something wrong. He’s funny and smart. He gets concepts quickly but gives up if the book or word problem is too long. He’s an entrepreneur and loves Legos.

Spending the last six months with Mario has taught me these things. These are his motivators, and using them (“we can rearrange my office when you finish all your math work!”) helps him learn. Yes, we use academic time to interior decorate, but guess what? He finishes the math work in record time. His classmates are still working, and he has mastered the concept. But, remember, he’s a puzzle. Some days this doesn’t work. Sometimes he won’t even talk to me. Sometimes he’s on the floor.

Special education isn’t like chemistry. There aren’t standards or benchmarks. There is no curriculum or scope and sequence. Growing up with difference— my grandmother had worked with students with disabilities, my father had a disability, and I had a close friend whose disability had affected his education greatly—had been the most empowering and beneficial part of my life. I didn’t go to conventional school, I personally had a genetic disorder, and I grew up very confused about where I belonged. At 21, I realized that the feeling of not fitting in was actually telling me that I was gay. All of these differences made me strong and empathetic. Qualities that, little did I know when I accepted my Teach for America offer to teach Special Education in DC, were going to make this job everything I’d dreamed of.

Teaching special education is hard. It’s a job within a job (sometimes within another job). We teach; we case manage; we file paperwork; we counsel students and families. Rarely do we change lives, but our lives always are changed by each and every student we come across.

Let’s clear up a few confusions: special education is not a place, not a subject, not an identity. Students are not special education students, not SPED kids, not “those kids.” Students are always students first. A student may need special education services for a period of time. A student may need to be in a self-contained classroom with students who also need special education services. Even though it’s easier for us to say, “he’s a SPED kid,” in the hallway, it’s not what he IS. This is called “person-first language.” I am a stickler and a crusader for this type of sentence structure because the language we use, especially as educators and role models, is critical to the self-worth and self-respect of our students and colleagues.

All too often I have conversations with general education teachers who will say things along the lines of, “he’s SPED so you’ll take care of him,” or “you will do his report card since he’s not really in my class, right?” Students who spend even a portion of their day in general education classrooms are students who can do general education work with the proper support. If you are a teacher with a student with an IEP in your class, that student is in your class like every other student. It is your responsibility (in collaboration with their case manager) to provide the adequate support and differentiation for that student to be successful.

Every single person learns in a different way. Since every person is different, is a different type of learner, every single person needs a different structure, content, and delivery method. We spend a great deal of time focusing on being culturally responsive educators at Teach for America, but what we really need to be is individually responsive. Know your students head to toe: what makes them tick, what are their learning styles, what motivates them, what triggers them, and how do you help or hurt their development as learners and leaders.

Teach For America’s recent initiative name change from the Special Education Initiative to the Diverse Learners Initiative reflects this mindset. Because we don’t just need to strengthen special education services; we must prepare all teachers to understand and meet the needs of every student who learns differently.

Teaching is all about the microwins. The single moment of realization in a student’s eyes, the math problem that suddenly made sense, the book whose words combine into sentences. The simplest change in the way we speak to our students and about our students can have profound humanizing power. See the people in front of you every day. Truly see them. And once you do that, you will be amazed at what they are innately capable of.