John walks to the front of the classroom to tell his story. He is small for 13, and bony. None of his teeth touch the ones next to them. They don't even come close.
I asked the students to write about a situation that scared them. It is my first day as their teacher, though they have been in school for three weeks. Four substitutes preceded me. The kids are not sure if I am staying longer than the class period ahead of them.
John chooses to stand close to my desk, and turns to face me. He readies his hands, stretching them out and open, as if to catch a pass or wrestle. An opponent in a ring, a demon, something. The kids are not accustomed to writing, let alone writing about themselves. None wants to reveal aloud what he manages to put on paper, so I select someone at random. John is not groaning at the prospect, or slipping under his desk to hide. A docile participant. Promising enough.
He opens his mouth to speak and his feet march. He twists his lips into shape and his eyebrows dive. After several seconds, a sound emerges. The start of a word. A breath later, the rest of it. I have selected a child with a speech impediment, a severe one, to speak to the class. I feel horrible, to have put him in this spot.
John does not read his story, but tells is to me, as if I were the only person listening. He and his family were in an accident in their van. A truck crashed into the front fender, catapulting them into the curb and the front wheel, over the median. When the van stopped, John got out and sat on the grass with his brother. The story takes nearly fifteen minutes to tell. It is a remarkable story. The class is silent, riveted.
A few days later, I find a sealed envelope in my desk. "For The Teacher. Confidential," it reads. Inside are reports for five students, John among them. They are Special Education students, each one with different disabilities, different needs. I'm told that there is not a separate classroom for identified kids. Instead, they attend regular classes and Special Education teachers come to sit with them, twice a week. Classroom teachers are instructed in how to individualize lessons during the remaining three days.
There is research that claims that such "inclusion" is a positive experience for students. Of course, there are students who might be better served in a different environment. The federal Individuals With Disabilities Act requires districts to provide a multitude of placements.
Special Education teachers are an extraordinary lot. They are highly trained and compassionate. They are patient and committed. They are in short supply.
Where I teach, four people have about 60 students to look after. It would seem impossible, physically, to get to all of those classrooms twice a week, let alone keep track of 12 different curriculums. And teach teachers what to do in the interim, not to mention manage the administrative duties attached to the job. They always look tired.
I enjoyed having John in my class. He turned out to be one of my most insightful and curious students, despite his categorization. He loved to participate, I was relieved to discover. For him to have thrived, though, really benefited from the inclusive classroom experience for the full five days of the week, he needed someone at his side. Not me. Not the smart kid I sat next to him. If districts can't find salaries for additional Special Education teachers, the only experts who can effect change with these kids, they need to let the ones they've got take off their walking shoes and set up shop.
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