When I was 9 years old, I rode a bus to school for the first time. For grades 1-3, my Pavlovian response to the daily afternoon announcement “All walkers are dismissed” was my comfort zone. I knew what time I needed to leave the house in the morning, which type of walking footwear I should wear for the weather, and who my walking buddies were. My family moved to another town just before I began fourth grade. Everything about the bus (time frames, seat etiquette, and girl dramas especially) was new and uncomfortable for me. I didn’t know where to go, what to think, or what to do when I arrived. Those first bus trips were a veritable hell.
Another novelty for me that year was my first experience with kids who had visible physical disabilities. Now that I am a teacher, I know that this experience coincided with passage of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1976, the landmark legislation that promoted the radical notion that all children are entitled to a free and appropriate public education regardless of their individual differences. This law was the federal government’s opening salvo in the fight to stop schools from segregating children with disabilities as they has been by using separate buses, teaching in separate classrooms, eating separate meals, playing separate games, to ultimately have those students leading separate lives in society. That law took very immediate effect in my world.
About midway through that school year, a set of twin girls began riding my bus. I now understand—again with teacher-hindsight—that one of the sisters likely had multiple physical disabilities as a result of cerebral palsy, and the other had a mild speech impairment (perhaps a consequence of a milder form of CP or perhaps not). I wasn’t sure what to do with them. Should I move to another seat so that they can sit together every day? Should I say hello to the one who can say hello back to me or to both or what? Should I help the sister who has trouble navigating the bus steps or just ignore her so that she doesn’t feel embarrassed?
These thoughts ran through my head every day. They were nice girls, and their mom dressed them in super cute twin outfits (the coolest part of twinship, to my young mind), but I never really befriended them. I was just too uncomfortable, too unsure of what to do. I smiled at them, and I left them alone.
Over the past three years, I have been involved in a process to become certified to teach and to train teachers in a writing strategies model from the University of Kansas. That model developed out of their special education program back in the late 1970s (during those very moments I was on my bus, no doubt), but time and an inordinate amount of research have shown that those strategies also have a great deal of relevance for all students. How could that be true? It’s true because the strategies encourage teachers to differentiate instruction for individual student needs, and (here’s the important part) all student needs are individual needs. There is no one way to teach “special ed kids” or “honors kids” or “regular ed kids.” These intellectual boxes that we love to plop kids in just don’t exist. No two children ever have the same needs during the school day.
As I type this, I know that I am making a great deal of sense on a logical level: All kids are different. All students have individual needs. Teachers should tailor instruction as much as possible to meet those needs. Duh. The strange part is that so many educators (content teachers, administrators, even special educators) resist this notion of inclusive education and still want to go back to the way things were in 1975, even if they were not born yet in 1975. Why is that?
I have a theory, and it’s all about the comfort zone. I’ve been immersed in teacher culture long enough know to know some of our shared characteristics. Teachers typically loved school as children and excelled in it (not all, of course, but the madding crowd for sure). We tend to teach in the content area or age range that was our favorite and our strongest as students.
Teachers are, by and large, middle-class rule followers who (like many high achievers) value organization, decorum, and consistency. Most teachers (including me) did not struggle academically. Most teachers (including me) have difficulty with anything that upsets the regularity and predictability of the school day. Like me on that fourth-grade bus, whenever anything upsets the apple cart, we don’t know what to do, what to think, where to go. These same qualities that make us strong in providing safe and consistent environments for kids also undermine our ability to support students on an individual level.
When teachers first start our careers in education, without even realizing it, we think that we are going to teach students who are the way we were when we were students. New public school teachers, in particular, do not realize that most of the students we teach are not like ourselves academically, socioeconomically, or behaviorally. When a student with an academic disability is in the room, teachers for whom that subject always came easily now have to figure out how to teach it to someone for whom it comes very arduously. When a student from a very different family background is in the room, teachers may not realize that the student actually cannot type that paper before turning it in because the family does not have those resources. When a student misbehaves in the room, the rule-following teacher doesn’t know what to do with this “bad” kid, the kind of student that the teacher always avoided in school as a child. The teacher world is not what we think it is going to be.
We don’t know what to do.
Thus, we push back against the notion that these issues are our problem. Why should I have to differentiate instruction for the kids in the room? (What am I, a magician?) Why should I have to deal with behavior problems? (What am I, a cop?) Why should I have to help distribute free breakfast to these students? (What am I, their mother?) We are teachers. Teachers take students where they are and move them forward, academically, socially, and behaviorally. That’s what we do. This is our most important ethical charge, and it is what separates us from people who just impart information.
We teach students. Not content, not values, not discipline, not whatever the latest thing is that talk show hosts say we should teach in schools. We teach students.
No job is more difficult than our job. American history shows us that real change in society only happens if it happens first in public schools. Brown v. Board of Education, Title IX, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act…the list goes on. In education, our job is not to prepare students to manage a hard, cruel world. Our job is to make that world less hard and less cruel by treating children less harshly and less cruelly. When we do that, history shows, we actually do change the world.
All children matter. All children belong with all other children. Exclusion hurts; inclusion heals. This has always been true. None of us will ever get to the point where we feel like we have met every need every day. That’s not the point. The point is the awareness that those needs are, in fact, our job, and that we must design instruction around them as much as humanly possible. This, as the federal government has so rightly pointed out, is a civil rights issue. I cannot smile and leave alone those students I don’t understand the way I did with those twin girls. I was a child then. Now I’m the teacher. I chose to teach. That means I chose to teach every child in front of me, and I need to figure out how.
For the record, I have no idea how to meet every student need. I have no ever lovin’ idea! What I do know is that my job is to go into that classroom every day and try to figure it out. This is the hardest part of teaching, and it’s ugly, and it makes me uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that it makes me cry. But I am a teacher. Inclusion is not just the law, and it’s not just the right thing to do. It’s my job.