I will admit I am fairly privileged to have spent the bulk of my career with inclusive education, under arguably five of the better inclusion teachers I could have ever learned from. The rest of inclusion, I have learned from listening on the sidelines. But my role in my career is slowly evolving, eventually, I will be a teacher, or at least I will if I stop getting distracted by other projects, with an additional degree and a credential. But until the credentialing program I am enrolled in had me line up to take a class for second year candidates with general education candidates, I had no idea how big the gulf between special education and general education was.
Where Does It Start?
The State of California, five years ago, put out recommendations to change the university structure for teaching teachers how to be teachers. I happened to know because I was in one of the sessions when folks were looking at the proposals for people to come to a consensus about the education of future educators. One of which was specifically addressing at what point do special education teachers and general education teachers split off from each other? In the programs, as it is now, these are two different tracks even though housed in the same University, the same school of education. Not all universities or programs offer both special education and general education. In fact, some general educators can be done with a year in the classroom of the university while student teaching. This makes general education very attractive from a physical cost perspective. After balancing six classes in undergraduate, one of which was a six-unit class–six classes, all three units sounds like a dream. This is where once again, people in the education industry politely remind me that not everyone did their undergraduate degrees in professional-driven majors. I already have a professional degree. For most people, education is their first professional level degree.
In special education, however, it is two years of university classroom with two years student teaching with a third year for Master’s Degree paperwork—at least in California. I know of programs across the country that collapse this into the same time frame as the general education teachers.
In that same time frame it takes to get one special education teacher, two general education teachers were created. All right, that’s good, but then we look at what the general education teachers experience. First are classes that are shared by the department. Usually these are classes directed at special populations one being English Language Learners and the other being Special Education. The gulf starts here. Some students embrace the language being taught in these early classes. Other students really want the check mark to get through the class. And then the roads diverge, the general education teachers are never seen again truly unless we are all in the same building. Until the class I am in—one of a few that revisit students who are about to graduate the program general education and special educators looking at and devising plans to make sure all students in a class can truly participate. By this point—special education candidates are already in love with what they are doing. They understand the program, they understand the types of students they will support. General educators know their field well, but may not all have had the range of experiences with students with disabilities.
I have often heard from my co-workers on campus, especially the newer teachers, “I wish I had a class like that.” When I describe the class about legal issues with students with disabilities or even this class, working with special educators. However, in practice, getting together with many of these candidates, none of whom I had ever met in person, I encountered various walls.
The idea that a special educator would know and respect what a general educator would bring to the table as a lesson seemed illogical to the general educator when I explained it to my small group of five other classmates. So perhaps they did not know what would be the role of a special educator. There have been readings and methods about ways to connect with different students of different abilities, but what piece is going to change their minds? Is there going to be an interaction that makes that general educator realize it is a collaboration, between themselves and a special educator, to provide supports for students with disabilities, and more importantly, students with significant disabilities?
One of the major walls I’ve had to climb is just that my general education peers did not retain the vocabulary related to special education. For some of the candidates, they have such a limited connection because of their credential pathways, they did not see or know of students with disabilities in their classes or their campuses so they just did not have that exposure on a regular basis to maintain the language specific to working with a student with disabilities. Some may have had time working with a student with a disability, but the first segment of student teaching is just walking through with a lot of checkmarks to create with students and engaging students it is not always reaching a functional understanding. Finally, there are benchmarks that student teachers need to film and prepare for and require passing to the path to having a credential. This all takes a backseat to professional exchanges and connections and sometimes even relationship building between student-teacher and students. Some programs even switch out student teachers halfway through the student teaching term and any relationship built with those students have abruptly changed and so no one gets that idea that relationships matter.
What About Special Education Candidates?
While that was the set of walls I saw with the general education teachers, I will gladly acknowledge my own walls. Though we all introduced ourselves on the discussion board, it was challenging to know where the candidates themselves were in the program. I lacked the initial understanding that not all my classmates in this specific class would know the challenges faced by students with a disability and that they would only learn about this from me. I will say that the professor of the class has been very helpful in the big topics like orienting to an IEP, and what UDL and MTSS were and how they were related. There is a lot of connection to attitudes around preparing students with disabilities and expectations of students with disabilities. That will build a different place to have a starting frame from.
On the other side, all too often, while there are many well versed special education candidates in literacy, ask those same candidates about their relationship with math, especially trigonometric functions or the Krebs Cycle. You will find walls there too. But special educators should have a knack for knowing how to navigate those barriers—research, asking questions, using the textbook, developing a professional interaction with other students who are able to explain the missing information very quickly. Truly: these are easily navigated walls in the eyes of most special educators.
So why does the distance seem insurmountable initially?
Is it fear?
Is it not wanting to ask questions?
Is it not wanting to develop a relationship in the classroom?
Is it ‘one more thing’ especially for a brand new teacher?
We are not ever quite sure, truly. I know I believe the best in individuals until they show me otherwise. And sometimes there have been quite a series of proof. I know to start with the idea that my space is open to visitors. I know to start with that everyone is welcome to learn from me and I am looking forward to working with them. I know to get out and meet folks at staff meetings. I know to meet my coworkers where they are on their inclusive journey as well as my own. And I know to remind each of my coworkers that they are not alone. But it makes me wonder if the general education candidates have heard this as well. I am certain they have but they have not heard it in the larger context of their campus. And if they have, then they were lucky. But now it is time to apply it to all learners on any given campus. We can make those bridges. And it is best if we make them together.