Teaching Special Needs students is a privilege

The dynamic of my Drama classes is a special one. I get students from all walks of life: academic, athletic, eclectic, quiet, loud, at risk, behavioral, funny, awkward, and musical. They all seem to be able to find a place to call home in a Drama class. The kid who feels unsuccessful at Math discovers they have a flare for improv. The kid who feels socially awkward suddenly has a family of new friends after doing a big production. But I have a special affinity for special needs students. They made me a better teacher.

Special needs students often come in with an Educational Assistant (EA) and always with a very special set of gifts. They may be nonverbal, they have mobility issues. Sometimes they come with behaviourial issues or mental health problems. Academically, they usually need modifications or adaptations. But regardless of whether they need changes of any kind, like all the kids in my Drama class, they want to fit in and be a part of something special. This is why I feel it is a privilege to have special needs students in my classroom.

When I received my first continuing contract, back in 2001, I crash landed at a high school and in an unknown field. I was asked to be a SLR (Special Learning Resources) and English teacher. I had no formal SLR background, so I was literally learning how to tread water without any swimming lessons. I learned to how to write IEP’s the hard way, by writing them incorrectly and having to start over, and I had to harness a whole set of new skills from toileting to feeding, and planning daily field trips to coordinating EA time. It was exhausting and rewarding. It also saved my bacon, career-wise.

In June of 2002, several schools in my school district closed, which meant that I, a bottom feeder on the seniority list, could not be saved. I was given my ‘pink slip’ and had to hope and pray that schools needed my services each year. Yeah right, I thought. I was formally trained English/Social Studies teacher, so that meant I was one of those dime a dozen teachers…ugh. Fortunately, teaching SLR for one year gave me just enough of a skill set in that area, that I managed to secure a few contracts over the next two years. In those contracts, I learned even more about the field, taught more students, and became, I think, pretty okay at the job. But more importantly, I learned something that reverberates in all of my teaching today: every child is on their own learning journey.

There simply is no such thing, in a SLR room, as teaching to an average. Each student has there own IEP and goals. What’s so cool about that, I learned, is that seeing kids achieve their own goals was cause for celebration. Molly might learn to feed herself with minimal assistance. Kevin can now write the alphabet. Paulina is learning to read social cues while walking the mall. Jenna is now participating more in Shop class. The list goes on and on.

Every student in on their own learning journey.

I don’t think I would be as inclusive an educator as I am today if I didn’t have the experience I had in the SLR room. Now, when an SLR student comes into my Drama room, I see a student with their own set of strengths and it is up to me to find a set of goals for them AND make them apart of my inclusive classroom. I don’t hope that the EA knows exactly what to do and how to manage them. I don’t want them following me around and watching what the other students are doing. I want to them to be in skits and learn how to do improv. I want the other students to learn tolerance and empathy and feel joy being in a dynamic classroom. It is challenging, yes, but so valuable for the all the students.

One of my favourite things to do is make learning maps for my students. Learning maps, I learned from the brilliant Shelley Moore (www.blogsomemoore.com) allow for students with needs to find an entry point with the other students in the class. They receive tangible goals. Sometimes, I create individualized learning maps for students with specific needs. I had a student in my class a couple years ago (lets call him Matthew) who not only had specific special reading and memory needs, but also had some behaviourial needs characterized by at risk youth. He couldn’t stop breaking things. He couldn’t stop moving. He couldn’t stop fidgeting. I felt like he could not be alone for any amount of time. He was like a tornado in my classroom. And he hated Drama. This made me so sad. No song and dance routine could convince him that Drama was the place to be. Since I always do a highly anticipated show with the class for a big audience, I was really concerned about whether I could find a suitable role for him. How do you get a kid to act when they hate acting? News flash Schinkel…I told myself one day…you don’t make them act! You find their strengths, their buy in. Alas, after having numerous conversations with his case manager, I decided to make him my Tech (in charge of sound effects), created a specific learning map just for him, and prayed…a lot.

What the above, simple learning map did, was give Matthew tangible, daily goals and stretches as he learned new skills. I placed the map in a visible area and he could self-assess at the end of each day. He didn’t have to act and he like being on the computer and working with switches. (What kid doesn’t love switches?!) But I’ve left out something important about Matthew’s behaviour. Matthew bolted when he was under stress of any kind. He would just take off leaving behind a cloud of dust. Zoom! After 5 weeks in the classroom, we moved into the theatre to rehearse. Every day we were in rehearsal there, my EA had to retrieve him and convince him to come to class. Eeek! What would happen at show time? Now I was stressed out that he might not come. Maybe my learning map didn’t work. Maybe he just couldn’t be convinced to buy in to the show. I was so upset. I felt that I had let Matthew down. I felt like I let myself down.

But what happened next, floored me! Not only did he show up to the daytime matinee and stay, he convinced his parents to bring him that night. That night!! His father sat in front of him while Matthew worked the switches. I had never seen a kid smile so big. He was so proud. I get a little misty eyed even now just thinking about the grin of pride on his father’s face. And….AND…(sorry, I get really excited about this stuff!) Matthew was so good at running the lights, that he hit “I can try to do” — wow! So cool! I remember going to bed that night being so proud of the entire cast and crew; but I sobbed tears of joy when I thought about tornado Matthew, my fantastic Tech.

Hey, wait a minute…you question…Aren’t all students, then, regardless of whether they are designated or not, on their own learning journey too?

Why yes, yes they are! Which brings me to my point. My experience as an SLR teacher plus my experience having SLR students in my Drama classes, has made me view every single student in a my classroom as on their own learning journey. It is about growth and improvement. It is about finding their own strengths and working on the weaknesses. I learned that from teaching Special Needs students. I learned that from them.

Every student in on their own learning journey.

So when I look at my class list each semester, I see students with needs on my class list, I get a little excited. It is challenging to have a broad spectrum of needs in my class, but ultimately, it is my privilege and I take great pride in being their teacher. I really do feel they have brought out the best in me. #mygrowthmindset

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