Tech Be Nimble
I began my teaching career with an extreme prejudice against being a capital-S.E.T. Special Education Teacher. Students with disabilities were fine in general, abstract terms. From my teacher-preparation classes, I had a vague sense that inclusion was “the right thing to do” – that students with learning differences should be educated alongside their peers. It was not something I was personally passionate about because I had no personal stake in special education. At that time, I had not ever worked one-on-one with a student who had an Individual Education Plan (IEP). It did not matter to me because I was not going to be a Special Education Teacher. I was not going to get tricked into taking on a classroom full of behavior problems and the special education classes I had observed during student teaching were dumping grounds for kids who did not fit anywhere else.
As a college senior, I felt a strong need for social justice, but only so far as it extended to racial and socioeconomic inequities. This desire to right societal wrongs led me to apply for Teach for America (TFA), even though I was already on track to be a certified teacher and did not need to use TFA as a pathway to the classroom. When I completed my TFA application, I felt a twinge of guilt for not checking the “Please consider me for Special Education positions” box. But I just could not picture myself with those kids. What would I say to them? For me, my lack of personal experience with special education students made me wary; there was a stigma attached to them because they were different from what I knew.
I was rejected from TFA. With my current perspective as a veteran educator, it seems laughable that I ever even wanted to apply. But at the time, I was bitterly disappointed. How would I be a change agent without TFA to train me? How would anyone know how dedicated I was to educational equality if my resume did not list TFA? I spent my first two years teaching in an inner-city school outside of Atlanta (ironically, alongside two TFA hires). The building was new, but the students were steeped in generations of poverty. None of my students read on grade level. But I still managed to avoid having a single interaction with a special education student – at least not a student who was diagnosed with a learning disability or qualified for an IEP. The “real” special education students were closed off in their own wing of the building, with their own Special Education Teachers. I had exactly what I wanted: the “normal” kids. Yet, somehow, my classroom was filled with behavior problems. And I had no idea what to say to my students – they were so different from what I knew.
I was angry. I hated going to work. I wanted to be a teacher! Not a paper-pusher; not a fight-disrupter; not a cry-at-the-end-of-every-day because it’s-not-magical, it’s-really-hard babysitter. In short, teaching was not what I had expected. I was not who I had expected to be. My vision of swooping in with my progressive thinking, providing a quality education to students who were hungry for knowledge, was shattered. A lot of my students were just plain hungry; they had bigger things to worry about than my homework assignments. But I was clueless about how to help. There was almost no support for first year teachers. I felt like I was barely surviving. The change I had imagined just was not going to happen. At least not in the timespan I had imagined (which was “shortly after I arrive”). Ultimately, I could not rise above what the other teachers and most of my students saw in me: a young, naive, white face surrounded by a sea of brown faces who did not trust me. They were right not to trust me – as soon as I could, I found another job.
I left my first job disillusioned with many of the ideals that had brought me to teaching in the first place; I no longer believed that I could fix the entire system of American public education all by myself. I recognized in myself a need for more growth and training. Thankfully, my second job turned out to be one of the greatest opportunities of my life and one that I appreciate more and more as the years go by. I went from the inner city to the white suburbs; from Title I poverty to a private school with endowed scholarships; from classes of 32 to classes of 8. And I became what I had feared most of all: a Special Education Teacher. Every single one of my students had an IEP. Many of them had multiple learning disabilities. Over the next three years, though, I fell head over heels in love with being a teacher for students with special learning needs – I was proud to call myself a special educator. The stigma was gone.
I learned to respond to my students with warmth and enthusiasm instead of rigidity and sarcasm, even when their attitudes did not endear them to me. I learned to be patient, patient, patient with slooooooow readers and painful, repeated mistakes. I learned to celebrate small victories (like the time Diego kept up with his planner for the WHOLE DAY!). For the first time, I saw that the students I had been so unsure about were, in fact, completely normal – whatever that meant. And at the same time, they were special in ways I had never imagined. They saw the world differently. They were kind and generous. When they were angry, they usually had a pretty good reason. All too often, that reason was an adult who just had not known better. An adult who did not give them the time they needed or the concrete, logical explanation they needed, or the benefit of the doubt they needed. I learned to bloom where I had been planted. Yes, I learned to be an amazing teacher, but more importantly, I learned to be a better human being. And when I reflected back to my first two years, teaching another group of students who were so different from me, I realized they were probably just as special and kind and generous and angry-for-all-the-right-reasons. But I had been the adult who did not know better; now, I was learning to be different.
The most exciting thing that came out of my three years as a special educator was my discovery of assistive technology (AT). I watched with wonder as a true non-reader, an eighth grader who had tried every reading program money could buy, pumped his fists in the air the first time his text-to-speech software helped him read a newspaper article about his favorite band. His world was changed. I saw how one of my non-verbal students with crippling dysgraphia beamed with pride the first time she submitted a paragraph that the word-prediction software had helped her write. And the parents were almost as awe-inspiring as their students: they were so proud and enthusiastic. They wanted to learn, too. I quickly grew into the role of AT coordinator, a position that had previously been sporadically filled by a few tech-savvy teachers and “the IT guy,” none of whom had a real passion for developing a school-wide approach to AT. I had found my niche.
I was fanatical about AT and the ways it could level the playing field for students with learning differences. They could learn alongside their neuro-typical peers. They could get the accommodations they needed without going to a special classroom down the hall. They could “read” popular novels and discuss them at lunch instead of waiting for the movie to come out. They could get all the thoughts that were stuck in their heads out onto the paper and then share them with others. All I had to do was train them.
Training taught me patience. Each set of skills had to be broken down into minute steps with concrete, logical explanations. There was no room for assumptions – each student, each assignment, each scenario required a fresh approach and creativity that was an exhilarating challenge for me. The software did not always work the way it was supposed to. Sometimes a student needed more help than we had time for in one class period. Many times it was not the students, but their teachers who needed training before a new technology could be implemented. I came into my own as a teacher and a technology educator. And my earlier passion for righting educational wrongs was rekindled. Now, I wanted to level the playing field for all learners, making knowledge accessible to my students, no matter their race, socioeconomic status, or learning differences.
Needs change. Technology changes. The best educational technology stays nimble.