I’ve always known I wanted to become a teacher, but I never would have guessed that special education would be the foundation of my teacher education and the root of my passion for the field. I student taught at a Chicago Public School that is exclusively for high school students with special needs. The first time I entered the school, I saw things that shocked me but that sparked my curiosity at the same time. The students there were all so… different. Some couldn’t walk; some couldn’t make eye contact; some couldn’t talk; some never seemed to stop talking. The one thing they all had in common, though, was that they all represented a group of people I wasn’t used to seeing. And I am ashamed to admit that being around some of those students made me very, very nervous and uncomfortable.
I asked myself so many questions: How do I act in front of the students who are in wheelchairs? How do I communicate with the students who can’t talk? What do I do when this 20-year-old student who is about three times my size starts yelling? What about the one who throws tantrums and storms out of the classroom when he gets upset? And the one who hits? Then there are students who are verbal and act appropriately but who are 20-years-old and hardly know the alphabet. Some of them can’t even write their names. Some don’t know their home address. What do I do with them? How can these students learn? How am I supposed to teach them? Where do I even start?
My year of student teaching was the biggest learning curve I’ve ever experienced. It took me a long time to get past all the things my students “couldn’t” do, and start focusing on what they could do. Slowly, the things that made me nervous, uncomfortable, and even a little scared at first started making more sense. I observed how the staff at the school worked with its student population–every student had his or her own needs, and each need was met with patience, persistence, and perseverance. These teachers did not give up. They set goals for the students and found ways to meet them. That didn’t always happen in the most traditional way, and a big part of my learning curve was understanding that that was okay.
The important thing was that the students accomplished what they wanted to, regardless of how they did it. And because the entire staff already fostered this understanding, there were countless opportunities their students had at this school that they would never have had somewhere else. On the day of my students’ graduation, I cried. I cried because my time with them was over; I cried because I was proud of them; I cried because the whole process of student teaching was bittersweet — but mostly I cried because I knew that the things I noticed that day were things I wouldn’t have seen or appreciated had I not had this experience. Most people aren’t aware of the little things they can do to make someone else’s life easier and functional. Here is what graduation day looked like:
- The girl and boy whose speech can seem unclear to the untrained ear got to deliver graduation speeches because even though they don’t speak as clearly as I do, they still had something important to say. And they were proud and excited to say it. That opportunity to speak meant the world to them.
- The girl who is non-verbal got to introduce the next speaker using her communication device. The microphone was set up not only to her height, but to the exact spot where she carries her device.
- The boy who usually requires the help of his one-on-one aide to walk was able to walk down the aisles and to his seat independently, with only subtle prompts and cues from the staff sitting within the audience to guide him along the way. He was able to do that because the staff had spent months practicing with him.
- The girl who uses a wheelchair was brought to the stage from behind the curtains as opposed to the stairs – beaming, ready to get her diploma exactly when her name was called.
- The boy who has spent the past 6 months practicing to walk with a walker instead of his wheelchair got to come to the stage using a shorter route that met his physical needs. Watching him use every ounce of his strength to get to that stage left no dry eye in the room.
- The boy who wasn’t able to walk the stage when everyone else got their diploma because the sound and crowd was too overwhelming for him, got to walk the stage after the gym cleared out – the principal and staff came back to make sure he got his special moment, too, in an environment that was more comfortable for him.
- The few graduates who needed assistance sitting or standing when cued were prompted not by staff, but by their classmates sitting next to them, who know exactly how to address each of their friends’ unique needs.
- At the end of the ceremony, the students were reminded of the hard work they put into their play, Hercules (yeah, they put on a play and it was AMAZING). And as in Hercules’s words, “A true hero isn’t measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.”
Truly, the hearts of these students and their teachers are hearts of gold. The accommodations made to make their graduation day successful weren’t all necessarily huge. But, they all came from a place of understanding and acceptance that fair is not necessarily equal. Each of those students needed something a little different to be able to enjoy their graduation that day. Maybe it was a chance to speak, maybe months of practice, maybe a little wait time or maybe just a simple microphone adjustment. We all need different things, and if you go into a situation like I did with that mindset rather than one of fear and nervousness, you’ll see the potential that each individual has, regardless of their challenges.
I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to see that, but I’m glad the realization came eventually. Because looking back, I know now that I learned more from my students at that school than I ever did from anyone else. It was those students – the ones who had tantrums, who couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, couldn’t write their names, but who could overcome their challenges in different ways when given a chance–who taught me how to teach. Good teaching is not giving everyone the same thing. Good teaching is giving each student what they need to succeed. And most of the time, that means giving different students different tools to access their education.
Lose the fear and embrace the differences and the challenge, and you will find you might learn more from your students than your students will learn from you. I may have taught my students how to write, how to add or how to manage their emotions, but my students with special needs taught me how to accept their differences and to explore new ways to teach and learn that will work for each of them. That, to me, is the heart of teaching. Because of those students, I am a better teacher today than I was before.