My first job out of college was working as a general ed high school biology teacher. On day one, during second period, a woman I had never met before walked into my room, alongside the kids. She introduced herself as a special education teacher in the building and informed me she was assigned to work with me during that hour. At first I thought she meant for the day, but she meant for the entire school year. I had no idea why.
Turns out, I had a high percentage of special ed students in my class that hour, and the model utilized at this school to help address those individualized needs was co-teaching. I didn’t have any special education training, I didn’t know the best practices of teaching with another teacher in my room. No one, it seemed, had bothered to inform me ahead of time that this is what my job as a high school science teacher would entail.
I suppose they didn’t need to: it might not have been emphasized during teacher training, but a large part of general ed teaching is teaching special ed students.
It worked out well, for the most part. I just taught the kids who were in my room, and did the best I could to help them succeed, and she did the same, complementing my actions and responses with her own. Each year I taught, I ended up adding a section of co-taught classes. Eventually I taught a biology class that was made up entirely of special education students, a course that had previously been taught by a special ed teacher with no biology background. I’m not sure if other biology teachers had tried teaching this class in the past, and it didn’t work out, or if the special ed department had never even considered asking any of the other teachers to teach it. Eventually I got my masters in special ed, and then I was the co-teacher, in someone else’s science room, and now I work mostly with students on the autism spectrum in a resource room setting.
For me, teaching a diverse set of learners was never easy. But it made sense. I had kids in my classroom. Some got it. Some sort of got it. Some struggled.
This was true for both academics and social/emotional regulation. It was easiest to teach the kids who got it. It doesn’t take a lot of skill to “teach” students who are readily teachable, who can basically teach themselves, who have maturity and coping mechanisms solidly in place. It takes a lot more patience, more time, more creativity, more ability, to help the kids who struggle. It took me awhile to figure out where I needed to be firm and rigid, and where I could bend, molding myself into the teacher that each particular student needed me to be.
It was difficult, and sometimes impossible, to find the time to plan lessons for the “easy” kids and also creatively change the plan for the ones who didn’t get it, or the ones who seemed unruly. I could not meet all of their needs.
But I tried.
I went to conferences, and I collaborated with peers, and I spent a lot of time working, well after that sixth hour bell rang. I asked my co-teachers for help and I took them up on every opportunity offered to present a concept to the class in a different way, or to adapt a worksheet to make it more accessible. I kept learning the content, and more importantly, I kept learning about the kids, because I knew there was really no point in me learning additional facts, if I was unable to help pass this along, in any sort of relevant fashion, to the people placed into my classroom.
It never surprised me when I learned that seated in the front row was a student with Prader-Willi Syndrome, or a student with ADHD, or a student with a significant attitude problem. It surprises me that this surprises other teachers. Doesn’t everyone know about the bell curve? That there are always points outside of the average range (and a lot of them!), and it’s impossible for everyone to be A students, for everyone to complete each task in the same way, or in the same amount of time, or for everyone to be at the exact same point of social/emotional awareness and ability? Doesn’t everyone get that we are still responsible for teaching the kid who is that data point, waaaaaaaaaaaay out there, far to the left?
I have certainly had days when my students drove me crazy, or puzzled me and put me in positions where I didn’t know what I was going to do to help them become successful adults. I have often felt frustrated and worn out and exasperated. But, I’ve never looked at a student name on my roster and literally thought to myself, “I shouldn’t have to teach that kid”, or “That kid isn’t good enough to belong in my room”. That is a very dangerous mentality. Especially considering the fact that the problem isn’t the kid. The problem is that I just don’t know how to reach him or her. That’s my shortcoming, not theirs.
In the public school setting, we don’t get to pick and choose who we get to teach, but we do get to decide, in many ways, how we will support them, how we will help them improve their knowledge of the subject matter, their confidence levels, and their strategies for dealing with stress. Even when I know I can’t meet every need, I know I can still do something.
I am constantly asking myself, “What can I do to help support these kids?”.and “What do these kids need?” And I mean all of them. Not just the ones that make my job easy.