An Apology to Frank
The story of Eleanor (see blog posting “Through the Eyes of One of the 'Other' Kids") hits a tender place in my own teaching history. It reminds me of a major error I made twenty-odd years ago in my first job as a teacher. I was hired to be the “Primary Self-Contained Special Needs Teacher.” Five children with long labels and thick files were assigned to my self-contained classroom. One was Frank. Frank had a smile that could light up a cloudy day, and a sense of humor like mine, a way of being kind, an amazing family, a willingness to try, and an interest in learning. But somehow, what I saw most in Frank was the fact that he was blind and that he had a label of autism. In my undergraduate teacher preparation program (mid-80’s) I had learned how to teach “students with disabilities,” but I had not learned how to teach Frank. It was a hard year. More than once on my way to school, I made a silent wish that Frank might be absent. I wanted a break from spending every day doing something I did not know how to do: teach Frank. I was unsure how to teach the goals on his IEP because those same goals were on his IEP every year, and no one seemed to have been successful. I remember feeling like I was not qualified. I felt like a “fake” special educator who had nothing in her bag of tricks. I had teaching certification, but I didn’t have any knowledge or skills to educate Frank. So I consulted with our special education director who suggested that it would make sense for him to be educated somewhere else—a school that had a program “for kids like him.” She suggested that I talk with the family, and so I did. Frank and his family moved to a new town, went to a new school, and I never saw him again.
But I have never forgotten this mistake. In fact, I have dedicated my career to making amends. My limited way of seeing (pun not intended, but appreciated) children, learning, families, diversity, and life created in me some false sense that there is a line: one that divides the children who can learn, from the children who cannot learn. A line that helps us sort kids: “You can learn. You cannot learn. You can learn. You can learn. You can learn. You cannot learn.” Are these really the silent thoughts of educators? I hope not, but I fear sometimes they are. And in me, that year, this thinking—most unfortunately—served as a “rationale” for my sending a child away. I escorted a student out of my special education class to a more specialized special education class! It's hard to write this in a blog read by people across the country, but it feels important to do so.
Is there a line? Are there really some kids that can learn, and some kids that cannot? Of course not! We know all children can learn. We know all means ALL. But some of our educational practices are designed as if there is a line, and—even more bold—that something like an IQ test (!?!??!) can help us determine which child is on either side of it.
Maybe the fact that the starting point in the story of Eleanor was the general education classroom of a public school is a sign that we have made some progress. Maybe the fact that Frank started in a segregated special education class, and Eleanor started in a general education class, means that we have learned something as educators. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter where we start if our professional gesture still sends children away in order for adults to be more comfortable. Maybe the starting point is almost irrelevant if we put the burden of our own incompetency on the backs of kids. To both Eleanor and Frank, we said, “You have to go now, because I do not know how to teach you.” How many children hear us say this in our subtle and sometimes silent gestures?
Wiggins and McTighe (2005) write about curriculum design that leaves learners with “big ideas” or “enduring understandings.” The education of both Eleanor and Frank was threaded into every day of their classmates’ lives. So what did the other kids learn? What was the “big idea” of those lessons? I think it was this: “You can be different, but if you are tooooo different, you will have to go away.” (Maybe to a camp.)
The photograph above is of the building where I taught my first class. It was in the parking lot next to the elementary school. Before school started that year, the principal told me my students were not to eat in the school cafeteria until they developed “proper eating skills.” By June, I had learned two things: 1) you cannot learn proper eating skills if no one around you uses them, and 2) “proper eating skills” are not required in a school cafeteria! (In fact, they are a liability in terms of social relationships…another blog, for another day.) To Frank, who was educated in this building, I dedicate this writing. I owe him an inclusive education apology for a lifetime, because I sent him away: I am sorry, Frank. I was very, very wrong.
Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd Ed. USA). Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
- Susan Shapiro