As I see it: a view through the special educator’s lens

There are some things that happen in public education that I will never understand.

I realize I come from a background very different than most public school teachers. I was fortunate to start my teaching career in small, private schools, where imagination and creativity by the teacher was encouraged. Ironically, I started out teaching in a rigorous program in the 1980s. I was an all-day Kindergarten teacher in a private school that pushed academics in Kindergarten long before the trend became the norm in public schools. I didn’t have children of my own until I’d been teaching a few years.

I became a very different teacher after I had my own children. I perceived children differently. I empathized more with their developmental level and realized how truly young a 5-year-old is. I mourned for their loss of playtime and moments of being a free, imaginative kid.  I changed my teaching methods to include many more hands-on projects and more interactive learning-play, and a lot less worksheets. (Frankly, I despise worksheets.)

As my family grew I became a mother of kids with disabilities – autism, ADHD, dyslexia, mental illness, and others. I got a crash course in the importance of differentiation. My scope as an educator improved and special education and differentiating became a passion. So much so, I gained another bachelor’s degree in special education. It meant that much to me to work with children and help them succeed. I was convinced that all students, regardless of their academic level and ability, could learn the same content if it was presented to them in an accessible way. And my students’ positive growth and response to my hands-on, interactive, student-centered lessons proved me right.

Before my special education degree, I ran my own cottage school after homeschooling my own children for several years. When I pulled my twins with autism out of public school (long story, but it’s in my book, A Pair of MiraclesI knew they needed much more than the public school was able to provide. I was fortunate to have that luxury. I invited other children with special learning needs, from giftedness to severe emotional disabilities to join us. For seven years I ran a one-room school with 15 students grades K-12. It was an amazing experience.

Click book pic to order

Every student in that school had an individualized plan for learning. I found out how much fun it was to differentiate content in a way that all the students could get it. They all learned the same things at their own level of ability. In history and science we all learned the same topic in a way each student could get the same content but in their own way on their own level.

I guess because differentiating is so second-nature to me, I struggle to understand why in public schools teachers insist giving tests that students couldn’t possibly pass no matter how hard they try. The academic language is way over their heads. It’s a waste of my time and the student’s time to wade through a test they don’t understand.

It’s like telling an English-Speaking person to take a test in French. It’s just noise and marks on a paper to that student. It’s discouraging.

It is, in a word, demoralizing.

“de·mor·al·ize:  (verb) to cause (someone) to lose confidence or hope; dispirt.”
Synonyms: dishearten, dispirit, deject, cast down, depress, dismay, daunt, discourage, unman, unnerve, crush, shake, cow, subdue.
(Source: Dictionary.com)
My heart breaks every time I have to help another student read a test like that. I watch as they choose answers at random (on multiple choice) and write sentences that make no sense (because they can’t read or write).

I hope someday soon I’ll be able to build relationships with the general education teachers in a way that they will be willing to get input from me about appropriate forms of assessment. There’s so much more to learning and teaching than simply regurgitating information. There are many more ways to assess students other than using worksheet tests or online exams.

If my heart breaks when these kids go through the pain of testing, I can’t imagine how they must feel. A lot of my students just give up. They quit trying. Because, what’s the point? It’s obvious to them no one wants them to understand the content. They just want them to jump through the same hoops as everyone else. And I get that we only have so much time in a day. It’s not all the general education teachers’ fault. They have X amount of material to cover so kids pass the state exams. They don’t have time to slow down the content or take advantage of teachable moments. State assessments make teachers teach curriculum instead of students.

You wouldn’t ask a student to run a race without legs. You wouldn’t ask a blind person to read a test without braille. It’s the same with hidden disabilities. It’s wrong to expect students with learning disabilities, who read at a low grade level, to understand the same academic language as typical, grade-level students.

In my quest to be a highly effective special education teacher, I need to learn how to advocate for my students in a way that gets results. I’m not there yet. And it frustrates me. I want to earn the general education teacher’s trust. I want them to see through the eyes of their special needs’ students and understand how brave they are just to come to school each day.

I admire my students’ courage and learn from them every single day. I only hope I can have the same influence on them. Until the general education teachers I work with see clearly through the eyes of my special needs students, I’ve not fully succeeded. So my prayer, every day, is to be that for them. A successful advocate. A lens through which educators can see in vivid focus what my students need: access to the same academic information their peers without disabilities have access to, in a way that they can understand.