Saturday, July 29, 2017

Finding Inclusion in a Separate Day School

This has been a hard post to write. But, as an inclusion-minded special educator, I wanted to tell the story of why I have decided to take a teaching position at a separate day school for students with disabilities. It’s not what I expected when I started looking, but I believe I have made the right decision for myself and for my students.

During my job search, I visited some schools that, though amazing educational institutions, would not be accessible to me given my own disabilities. These were places where I know I would not have been successful teaching because my access needs would have gotten in the way: classrooms that were too large, socially set up, or in an environment that I found far too distracting to focus. I also visited places that met my access needs but where I could not envision providing instruction that adequately met the needs of the enrolled students due to the space, the ratios, the technology access, or a combination of factors. I found both of these challenges to be present across settings: public, collaborative, and private. 

Going beyond physical access, I knew I needed an environment that backs up its statements about building independence and self-advocacy with real action. I needed stay away from environments that prioritize the ideal of “safe and happy” over meaningful instruction. I found each of these types of environments across settings as well, but I found the ones that most shared my teaching values in the separate day school setting.

Separate day schools don’t provide the access to rigorous grade-level instructional environment that can be found in a public school setting (if you have a teacher with the knowledge and mindset to provide access to that instruction.) However, just being in a public school doesn’t imply access, and all of the classrooms I visited operated on an “integration” not an “inclusion” model. 

Over the past two years, I have developed an instructional model that incorporates global learning opportunities to give students access to connection and collaboration with students beyond their local school community. Using this model, I am able to provide access to the grade-level classroom without sacrificing the intensive instructional supports of the self-contained environment. You can’t get that combination in a traditional public school’s grade-level classroom.

I worried about the social nature of these small close-nit institutions. Places with a strong focus on social norms can be inaccessible or even dangerous for me. But I learned this past year to value the sense of community that can be found in these environments when they are staffed by professionals who share the same commitment I do to high quality instructional access and building independence and self advocacy.

The school and classroom where I accepted a position are both small. Smaller than I found almost anywhere else. (One of many reasons why I will never name the school I work at on my blog or social media.) The reason that they had an opening at all was because they found that the students in this class were not being successful in a larger class, so they broke it up to give the students who needed it a more intensive instructional environment. We spoke about the idea of teaching vs. helping (a frequent problem in severe/multiple disabilities.) Instead of the “and how do you address that” question, I was told the story of how the school had made that mindset shift and hired staff who believe in teaching. The school values of building independence and self-advocacy really came through in both word and action.

I went into this job search looking for a placement in a public middle school. But I also went into it with a very clear understanding of what my teaching values are and where I was and was not willing to compromise. I know how to recognize an environment where it will be accessible for me to be the best teacher I can be for my students. I found those values and that environment in a separate day school. I didn’t find it at any of the other schools I visited. So, despite (or maybe because of) my belief in an inclusive environment for all learners, I have taken a position in a separate day school. Inclusion, after all, is a mindset not a placement.

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