July is to the teacher what January is to everybody else.  In the bleak winter-scape, the masses are suckered into grand schemes of getting back on the treadmill or incorporating more vegetables into their cooking.  A teacher dreams and schemes in the heat of July, sweating out ideas for improvement in the coming school year.  If you truly Think Inclusive, that means inclusion is something you want to see in your school, your classroom, and the greater community.  So let’s do it—let’s think about inclusion and do some work to lay the foundation for next year.  You’ll be able to turn around and admire your classroom and your teaching from all sides and say, “I like what I see here.”  As a self-contained classroom teacher, it was up to me to make inclusion a reality in my building.

Look at your influence

When you consider your classroom, think about the setup and the placement of the kids on your caseload.  If you are a resource teacher, do you have an even distribution of students working on academic, social/emotional, and prevocational goals? If you are a self-contained classroom teacher, do your students have authentic and meaningful general classroom access? Do you have the same placements and service times for all of your students?  Think about all the kids that are part of your groups as well as the kids you work with who aren’t on your caseload.  Now look beyond your room and your students to the kids all over the building—how many quickly come to mind?  How many of their names easily roll off your tongue?

Think of the other teachers.  Do you have a go-to set of teachers in various grade levels you know you can rely on to give your students a welcoming , understanding and diversified experience? Perhaps you only have a small number of teachers who don’t make you feel like an interloper when you or a paraprofessional are working on collaborative teaching time in the classroom.  Or do you fall among the lucky few who have multiple teachers per grade level with varying strengths but willingness to work with any student you bring them?

Using your answers from this exercise, think of two groups: one is made of those students and the teachers you work with directly, while the other group has the students and teachers you work with more indirectly.

Expand Your Realm

When I started in my current position, there had been no self-contained classroom teacher in my building of over 500 students.  I realized that I was self-contained to the point that I had no realm. More to the point, I did not want my self-contained class to be an isolated  island of misfit toys.  Using the honest look you just took at your reach in the building, consider your influence and how much of the school building and population is part of your realm. This tells you how much work you have ahead of you.  If all of your students are doing the same thing and you have a very small number of kids in your “group one,” made up of kids you work with regularly, we have some work to do if you want to broaden your presence in the school.  The same is true if the same handful of teachers serve your students—you’ll need to push your borders within the school.

As a special education teacher, you can be an influence beyond your classroom and caseload to make sure you’re involved in the daily life of the school and its students.  Think of your role, and challenge the notion of the “type” of student you teach.  Diversify the flavor profile of students you engage.  Begin to seek out kids who might not be on your caseload but whose names come up in team meetings, and begin to develop a positive relationship with them.  You can start by saying “hi.” Spend a week smiling and waving, and it will do wonders.  After you get over the hurdle of those kids thinking of you as a parent, you can begin to ask about their day. Teachers will soon notice you have these relationships and come to you for advice or share concerns about this or that student—a positive step.

As the teacher in a self-contained classroom, I had a challenge to make sure my influence wasn’t contained anywhere but reached all over the school.  One way I made connections was by discussing students with the resource teacher.  We serve in differing capacities, but we don’t want a thick, dark line drawn between our caseloads and classrooms.  That’s an attitude and a strategy to consider in your building as well.  When you look at the reach of your influence, you’ll see how far you still need to stretch.  It’s easy enough to introduce ourselves to other kids in the building; we just say, “I’m a special education teacher.”

Except for about 1% of the student population, have the other teachers in the building guessing who the case manager may be for a student, self-contained or resource. This will help remove the stigma of a hierarchy structure where minor learning problems are handled by resource teacher but, uh-oh here comes the self-contained teacher, that kid must need serious help. This will make it easier for self-contained teachers to begin moving in and out of classrooms as co-teachers or group leaders.  When you expand your realm, you are no longer a one-trick pony.  When you expand your realm and other teachers cannot easily pigeon hole the type of student you work with, perhaps they will also expand the limits some unconsciously place on student achievement expectations.

Professional Contact Matters

When working with regular classroom teachers, please remember that they are the most valuable resource for the student.  Your district is thinking of the classroom teacher when allocating resources and planning professional development.  Your own access to these classrooms in invaluable for students.  Manage your professional relationships with fellow staff members with positivity, enthusiasm, and courage.  Begin the discussion with these teachers with a focus on the competence of your student. Give the teacher honest flattery, and acknowledge the fun adventures and positive experiences the class will get from working with a differently-abled peer, a benefit that no other lessons would be able to replicate.  It’s important and considerate to set aside the time to discuss the student being placed in that classroom prior to the start of the new school year.  I give teachers a letter at the beginning of the year that states how important this placement is to the student.  I let the teacher know how their specific skills as an educator and the attributes of the student come together to make this a great fit. Plan to sit down with the teacher in person to talk about how this service plan will work.  It takes more time than you think, but give it that time—the classroom teachers will appreciate it. Let the teacher know that there will be difficulties, but keep a positive outlook and long-term view toward student success.  Remind them explicitly, this is not a placement or decision that is contingent on meeting some daily expectation.  We should pledge to give and receive feedback often but will not allow a single day to derail a whole program.  Be cautious with a teacher who tells you, “ We’ll take it a day at a time and see.” You will need to support this teacher and make sure they are not just going to tough it out until their frustration reaches a point where they say I don’t think this will work. Just like you would do with students, put more supports and give more contact time than needed initially and taper down.

When working with other teachers, please give them references for professional development opportunities that will serve them well in inclusive classrooms, providing specific conferences with specific dates.  Make note of them for yourself as well—targeted professional development is a great way to grow your program influence.

Be brave in your adventure and hold onto that long view of improvement!  We have it for our students, and we should have it for ourselves.  Keep growing and trying to be better.  I don’t care where it is on some rubric—I think you’re awesome for trying to make change so that students can learn better.  Be ready to sweat out some more ideas this July, and set little goals for the next school year.  I can see your reflection in that class teacher mirror… You look marvelous!

Photo Credit: hobvias sudoneighm/Flickr

Justin Croft is a special education teacher who has been an ABA therapist, a para-professional, and a self-contained classroom teacher in elementary and middle school.  Justin is currently teaching and breaking boundaries of what self-contained classrooms mean in Oak Ridge Schools, Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  He believes the foundation of all excellence is positive expectation. Follow him on Twitter: @MrCroftsClass