The other day I was asked to define ‘Special Education’. It made me pause for a moment. That phrase has never really sat well with me. I remember as a child that ‘special schools’ had such a negative image. When I had my second and third daughters I had to ask, “Why aren’t they ‘special’? Will their education be less because they aren’t considered to be unique and special?”
One of the blessings and joys of working in a small school is that you get to be a jack of all trades. The last school I worked in had a Special Ed teacher, a Learning Support teacher and a Gifted and Talented teacher. I am all of those things at this school (on top of my beloved grade 8 maths, English and science classes!) yet I don’t get to spend as much time at it as I’d like. The challenge has been amazing and I’ve gotten the chance to apply all the things I’ve learnt from the people that I’ve worked with. Even so, the term ‘Special Ed’ still wasn’t leaving a palatable taste.
After a chat with my principal who understands my obsession with semantics, we’ve settled on a new job title for me for next year; one I am very excited about, given I am taking on the task of coaching the teaching staff to improve the writing skills of our students. From 2014 our school won’t have a ‘Special Needs Coordinator’, we will have a ‘Learning Enrichment Coordinator’. This title really reflects the desire to help all students achieve their best, whatever that may be. I am busting waiting for my new name badge! Learning Enrichment aptly looks at the lifelong learning skills of everyone equally. I love it!
All this was floating around in my head as this person asked me to define what I do. The very first phrase that popped into my head was social justice. As a family we have experienced so much injustice and inequality thanks to a label, a diagnosis. Chatting with a friend during the week who is also touched by the disability lens we agreed that all we want and expect is the same opportunity that everyone else has a right to. We know equality of outcome isn’t always achievable and in some cases extremely unlikely, but the right to be treated the same is paramount. She has avoided labelling for some years now and plans to continue to do so because of the harm she fears it will bring.
Last in my definition was the idea of mainstreaming or inclusion. These words shouldn’t even rate a mention really, not if we just lived by a ‘do unto others’ policy. If society really believed that our kids were on the same par as all the ‘average’ or ‘normal’ kids then why would we need to ‘include’ those with a disability? The idea of Special Education still ‘others’ a minority and pushes them to the fringe.
Let me relay a conversation I had in class the other day:
“Mrs Lovely,” he asked in his most innocent voice, “are there other kids like me?”
“Of course there are,” I answered (He calls me Mrs Lovely because he can’t remember my name. I adore him for it and, in fact, most of the kids call me Mrs Lovely now!).
“What I mean is, when you went to school, long ago, were there kids like me who didn’t do homework? Did they become successful?”
This question from a boy in my class broke my heart. It made me cry for two reasons. Firstly, this precious angel thought that just for a moment he wasn’t like ‘other’ kids. He felt different. The second reason I wanted to cry was that my boy thought that because he was ’different’ he couldn’t be successful. Now while he may not be able to do the same literacy and numeracy tasks as most other students, he frequently comes up with the most incredible insights into our lessons, whether it’s English, science or maths. I am incensed to know that another school in town turned him down because he was deemed ‘unsupportable’. I am grateful every day that I work in a school where the students do not tease or torment those who appear to struggle at their school work. In fact, I’ve seen so many of them band together to help each other that is also brings tears to my eyes.
He asked me what it was like when I went to school - if there were kids like him back then. While I told him I went to school with kids just like him, I honestly can’t remember any. If there had been, I doubt I would have been as tolerant of them as I am now of my students and my own daughter. I don’t remember a Learning Support unit at my schools or a Special Ed unit. I do remember classes being streamed, particularly for maths. My feelings are that students who struggled were most likely sent to the Special School down the road. Historically the idea of special education was largely an exercise of exclusion and until recently many students were institutionalised and denied any access to education.
I pray that the students that I work with will never know the othering that can occur through word and deed. I want their peers to grow up with tolerance and patience and compassion for all those minority groups that are marginalised. However, I can’t expect either group to learn these things unless we first show them how. I can’t expect them to all feel embraced until I start teaching for all of them, not the bell curve. To expect them to take the first step would be counterintuitive. I will do whatever is in my power to make their future happy, and for life to be as easy, and as enjoyable as it can be, simply because I care deeply and honestly for each and every one of them, unconditionally and it is what they deserve – no less. For they are all special.
PS: My principal is getting me a ‘Mrs Lovely’ name badge! I’m over the moon!
My friends who sit on my desk and help me teach!