So this is my first post. Much ado about something, I hope. I have thought about many different ways of going at this first post – picking a hot topic within education, perhaps an editorial post about something that someone has written recently, or maybe writing about something that has happened lately in a student’s life that touched my heart…but there will be time for all of that to come. This post, I want to be an introduction of sorts – something that describes and explains my passion for my work…a framework for posts to follow that lets you in on my thinking.
Let me start at the beginning. I was a pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin. I wanted to be a pediatrician for so long at that point; I couldn’t remember when it was that I wanted to be anything else. The summer of my sophomore year I took a job, doing something I had absolutely no background in. I worked for United Cerebral Palsy, as a paraprofessional (a classroom aide) to four-year old twin brothers with Autism, who were fully included in a pre-school classroom.
Let me back up even a little further. Not only did I not have any experience as an aide, nor did I in pre-school teaching, but I didn’t have any people in my family or within my friends’ families that had disabilities. I didn’t have any experience with people with disabilities whatsoever…at least not people with recognizable ones.
So, when I started this position, it was with a bit of hesitation. These two little guys were depending on me to make their day as seamless as possible. I was the one that supported them within the classroom and helped them be successful, despite the fact that they were non-verbal, and quite honestly – they had some challenging behaviors that were downright difficult in a classroom setting! When frustrated, I was bitten and kicked by them too many times to count. It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out when they needed me to do something so that we could avoid those interruptions to their day. They had different ways of being, right before they would bite or kick – there was a rhythm to it, a reason for it, and ways to predict when it would happen…if I could only pay attention to those signs, and offer supports to them that made sense, I could help them through it.
It wasn’t long before their mother, a single woman with two jobs at the time, approached me to ask if I would do respite care for them, as she felt that I had a relationship with them at that point that was different from most people in their lives. I didn’t fully appreciate what she meant by that at the time. I started doing respite care, which is basically a fancy word used for babysitting kids with disabilities. I went to their home the first time and was amazed at how different home life was from school life for these two little boys. Their mother understood and loved these two unconditionally, as all mothers hopefully do for their kids. But in this case, it showed in ways that you might not expect. One example of this is how she understood that the two of them had a lot of extra energy to expend at any given moment. She had given them the master bedroom in their home, put up a full-fledged jungle gym in the room, and it was fabulous. What a way to think about what those boys needed from day to day! Little did I know that those two little boys, and my experiences and learning from them and their mother would change my life.
The next semester of school, I kept my job at the pre-school, kept doing respite for them, and continued on with my pre-med track. I also chose one class as an elective – Introduction to Disabilities, taught by Dr. Lou Brown, hoping I could get better at working with the two boys I had grown to adore. Dr. Lou Brown, if you haven’t heard of him, is a force in inclusive education for people with disabilities. Many consider him to be the “father of inclusion”, as he has played such a vital role in the lives of people with disabilities world-wide.
Instead of the typical homework or tests that would usually go along with a large, introductory class such as this, he had a practicum set up for each of the nearly 200 students. Each person taking this class spent time in schools, with real teachers and real students – and that comprised our homework and tests for the semester.
About half way through the semester, Lou asked me to stay after class. He asked me to come to his office later that week so that we could discuss my practicum. When I went to his office, nervous about what the content of our meeting would be, he sat with my transcript, and explained to me how I needed to change my major. Just like that….he told me I should quit pre-med. I was completely astounded by this notion, and explained to him that no, I was only taking this class to get a bit more information for my work at the pre-school. He insisted, based on conversations with teachers about my practicum experiences – my calling was within special education. Can you imagine?? That is not the typical professor role in an undergraduate university!!
He explained that he had heard things about the way I was with the kids, the way I worked within the setting and the teachers, and the ability to see through things that were present that didn’t really matter – and find those things to highlight that did matter for the kids and the teachers. He explained that sort of understanding, especially with no previous background in it whatsoever, was not found every day. After thinking about it, long and hard, I changed my major that following semester. I cannot tell you how happy I am, looking back on it, that he called me into his office.
Throughout the remainder of my time at Madison, I was fortunate enough to have Lou Brown as my advisor. I graduated from his program with an arsenal of skills that not many can boast. The key to his thinking and teaching was that inclusion of kids in their neighborhood schools and communities is a social justice issue. It is based on individual rights of people with disabilities. When focusing on these things FIRST, then all of the thinking around what to do in any given situation or school becomes clearer.
The expectation of us as undergraduates, learning our trade, was that we would change things for kids. Not just in day to day, smaller ways – but in big, life changing ways that made sense. In his estimation, we were the ones that needed to make a difference in the world for people with disabilities, in the way that we could – through teaching. We could change the systems that were broken in schools. We were expected to push boundaries that existed within classrooms and communities. We needed to do it for the bigger issue of social justice, and there was no room for error – his expectations were extremely high in this regard.
I find it hard explain what this was like, and how totally different it was from any other special education program that I have heard people describe since. Even as a student teacher, we were pushed to discover different ways for kids to be successful in schools. After graduation, the expectations only increased. Still, to this day, those expectations are there. I haven’t talked to Lou in a number of years now, but each time I do talk to him, the questions are always the same. They are judgment-laden, with the assumption that we are still continuing to be that change agent and influence for people with disabilities, and that we still work towards the bigger goal of social justice and inclusion.
I am continually in contact with a network of people that went through his program, either as an undergraduate or graduate student. We all still have the common piece of kids at the center of all of our thinking, each of us going at the issue of inclusion in our own, unique ways. I consider myself privileged to have gone through that training, and be a member of his learning community. Not just for the tools that it has given to me as a professional, but more than that – for the empowerment it has given me to do this work well.
It always has been a social justice issue to me. I see no difference between this topic and why people are fighting towards equal rights for any other potentially marginalized group in society. It is crystal clear for me, and it is with that clarity around it that I venture into new settings, with new teachers and families, with the confidence that I have, to make a difference – even if small in scope at times.
I trust that we can find ways together to make a difference for all kids. I assume that the teachers and families are all there for the same reasons – all have a stake in the students’ success – and that sometimes issues arise that cloud the conversations and actions of people, but that we can work it out together.
Hopefully, through this blog and my work in schools that will come from it, I can be in position to create spaces for the conversations that empower teachers to “play” in their profession again, learn from and share with other adults around them, and think of creative solutions to meet the increasing needs of their students.
It is also my hope that families and individuals with disabilities will find empowerment through this blog. It may be through finding their voices, sharing their expertise and experiences, or understanding schools in a new or different way – allowing them to become advocates in their schools, communities and lives….I hope it happens here.
That is why I am here….why are YOU here?