The Meaning Behind “Special”
I am old enough to have been there at the beginning of special education, and fortunately, I completely missed the euphemism of “special.” I knew schools were filled with students who were disengaged, abused, overwhelmed, scared, with quirky learning difficulties that would not go away simply by avoiding the required reading and writing and math curricula. I was fooled by the person who compassionately thought to call these kids “special.” I entered the field because I was sure that we teachers were the ones who were supposed to be special—special educators.
And we were. My graduate courses were filled with energetic, passionate, and articulate teachers. This was not a group of “regular” people. We didn’t know exactly how we would take our often radical and experimental approaches into traditional schools—and there was no doubt that my peers were intent on not only helping their own students, but also on changing the rigid structures that had historically excluded far too many children from being well-served. We were excited to have a mission, both grand and rooted in a daily practice.
Limitations in the Classroom
So it saddens me greatly to see the ways that special educators have been constrained; we pushed against those rigid structures and those structures held. In what seems to be a frenzy of mainstreaming—which as far as I can tell is being driven more by economics than by the urge for social justice—resource rooms and sub-separate programs that could robustly address the particular needs of their students are being closed down. Special educators are being reduced to glorified assistant teachers, rushing around the now over-crowded regular education classes, hoping to re-explain to a handful of confused kids exactly what “the teacher” wants them to do now.
There are scant opportunities for the special educator, limited to supporting the mainstream teacher, to do anything really special; e.g. to develop a hands-on multi-day integrated unit designed especially for the idiosyncratic interests of the neediest students, so that they can not only hang in through the struggle to skill up, but find themselves in the world as central players; to give the kids a break from the relentless pacing guides and test preparation, when it is clear that the emotional overload of school work has reached a critical threshold; to modify the daily schedule for a particular student so that he gets an extra period with the physical education teacher; to have the authority to stop the lesson because brain research shows that we have to switch mental gears periodically.
The issue is one of professional authority. Educators have the authority to be special when they have their own classrooms, when they design the curriculum, and when they lead lessons. They need that authority in order to take the best care of the students who most need their unique skills of observation, task analysis, and modification. The authority to be special educators has not been transferred to the mainstream, only the students.
I fully support the notion that mainstreaming means we no longer banish kids from having a rightful seat in the classroom—that’s the social justice perspective I endorse, allowing the students to work with the non-disabled peers who can model excellence. Remembering that the struggle for special education came on the heels of the struggle for civil rights legislation, let’s also make sure that the seat in the classroom for those students is not the seat at the back of the bus, that the special educator is not ushering the special students to those peripheral seats so that they won’t bother the other kids up front.
An Uphill Battle
We are fighting an uphill battle again. Parents, regular education teachers, specialists, legislators and administrators have to speak up, demanding in their own voices, and in coalitions of voices, that as many of the following mainstreaming structures are in place so that this era of special education as civil rights reflects the wisdom gained from the last 40 years:
- Give each special educator no more than 2 mainstream teachers to have as partners; one partner all day is immeasurably better.
- Give abundant common planning time.
- Call the classroom, in speaking and in writing and on every form, by both teachers’ names.
- Divide the teacher responsibilities for calling parents, marking papers, seating charts, and everything else that goes into each teacher feeling ownership. This is not easy to do! We also have to take into account that the special educator will carry the large burden of handling special education paperwork and meetings. But if you don’t forcibly build joint ownership into mainstreaming, you will not get mainstreaming other than in name, and there’s little special about a teacher rushing around a class putting her finger in innumerable leaks.
- In high school, assign special educators to subjects that they know, or give them the time and training to build their capacity to teach that subject.
- In lesson planning forms, make explicit the different roles each teacher will handle—both teachers having the responsibility to lead the full class, to work with small groups, to pull students aside for one-to-one sessions.
- Both teachers refer to all the students as “ours.”
- Collect data on important markers beyond standardized test scores: the number of contributions students make to a class discussion; the different jobs students take on in group work; the variety of students each child sits with and works with. If we are mainstreaming to promote social inclusion and equity, demonstrate that it is actually happening.
- I am not optimistic—except that I see enough frustrated special educators who are being asked to do a fraction of what makes them special, frustrated because they know the students could be better served. Perhaps what will make us special in this coming era of education as a civil right will be our ability to speak up and organize. That’s a task worthy of some very special educators.