How to Move Inclusive Education Forward

I am all for change. In fact, I completely embrace it. I marvel at the fact that it is only when change occurs that improvements may be made to make some part of our world a better place. It is the essence of change to allow us to become a better version of ourselves.

Yet, change doesn’t just happen. It must be sparked, followed through upon, and updated by human actions to make it successful. Inclusive education is a good example. Inclusion is one of those evolving changes that can both empower and frustrate us.

I am personally empowered by the potential that inclusive education can initiate. When implemented with integrity, inclusion can energize educators, students, and parents, leading to individual triumphs that also can build successful communities of learners.

That’s the potential. But I am also frustrated by the treadmill that many districts walk on when it comes to improving the inclusive practices in their schools. This treadmill approach creates a situation for inclusion to produce wonders in some classrooms, but not in others. If inclusion is going to work for all students, across all schools, more consistent follow through and updating need to be in place.

Let’s put the issue into historical perspective

For a comprehensive description of the history of inclusive education in the United States, check out this article. Take a minute now to journey through past decades. Be prepared to be amazed that this evolving and necessary change to improve the education for all students began over 35 years ago!

Laws were created to protect the rights of all children, and we find that inclusion is accepted and expected for the most part. Yet I can’t help but wonder if inclusion is as effective as it should be. I believe that meaningful change occurs when the drivers of change move with strategic baby steps forward. But when you look around and see you are in the same place you were 10 years earlier, then you have to wonder whether we’re really committed to ever reaching the place where we have the most effective inclusion classrooms possible.

In the over 20 years that I have been a special education teacher, I cannot look back and recall one workshop—one faculty meeting—or one conference day that was devoted to the topic of teacher collaboration in inclusion classrooms.  Master schedules are set each year to incorporate so many important factors in the educational life of our schools —but never have I seen attention placed on ensuring that co-teachers have common planning time in their schedules.

When I speak with colleagues near and far, I get mixed stories of successes and frustrations. But all of these stories share a common theme: Inclusion works simply for those teachers who are lucky enough to be paired with open-minded educators who want to work together successfully because they put the best interest of the students first. The attitude and mindset of these successful educators move beyond the possibility that there may not ever be enough professional development–or time–or resources. These collaborative teachers don’t let that stop them. They make it work because they work together. They make it work because they make the time to tap into one another’s expertise.

So how can we bring more teachers on-board?

So how can we do we get more teachers to make inclusion work? Here’s my off-the- top-of-my-head list of do’s and don’ts that can help us move inclusion forward.

1. To general education teachers: share your plans—do not expect your co-teacher to just come to class and see what the lesson is about at the same time the students find out! Share your plans ahead of time, so that the special education teacher can be proactive with best practices and accommodations for strategic, meaningful learning for all of your students.

2. To special education teachers: get savvy with the content—do your homework– while holding on to the fact that you must insert your expert knowledge in the process of learning.

3. To general education teachers: expect that in your inclusion classroom you will need to implement instruction differently and collaboratively—you do not have to teach each class the same way for all students.

4. To special education teachers: take the necessary baby steps to bring awareness of best practices that work well for all students—see the CAST website for surefire approaches to meeting the needs of ALL students.

5. To general education teachers: remember that the special education teacher is there to teach WITH you to benefit the students—he or she is not there to make your life easier. So it’s not about the special education teacher grading papers to take a bit of the load off for you (although that’s part of the plan). He or she is not there to teach the class so you can take a break (that’s never part of the plan). He or she is there to share, to learn, and to teach alongside you—together as one. Here’s a must read by Anne Beninghof about how co-teaching is not about taking turns—but about teaching collaboratively. Read it and then discuss your thoughts with your co-teacher.

6. To all teachers: Do not sit around waiting for the professional development come to you—create it!  Start a collaborative workshop. Begin a book study group, just speak up with the students’ needs as your guiding light.

Some book ideas: Any book by Anne Beninghofany book by Marilyn Friend. And here’s a new one that I just ordered and am so excited to read and share with colleagues: Design and Deliver: Planning and Teaching Using Universal Design for Learning, by Loui Lord Nelson.

7. To general education teachers: You must adopt a “we” mindset as you speak to the class. You are teaching with another teacher in the room. Be mindful of your language. Are you territorial? Notice whether or not you are sending welcoming messages to your co-teacher and your students about how you really feel about co-teaching.

8. To all teachers: Keep an open mind, don’t take anything the other teacher does personally, and embrace the talents that each of you bring to the classroom—it’s all for the students!

9. To all teachers: Remember that one person cannot do it alone. We need each other. If one co-teacher is striving for successful implementation, but the other teacher is stuck in a world of “all about me” then, well—you know how this story will end.

And so we see that although professional development, administrative support, and common planning time are all very important and necessary—what really matters is how the two teachers in the room are approaching the experience. It all comes down to the mindsets, attitudes, and willingness to work together—no matter what!

So what are you doing to make inclusive education work? What would you add to my list of do’s and don’ts? Tell us what you think in the comments section below!

Photo Adapted from Nomadic Lass

Elizabeth Stein

Elizabeth Stein is a 20-year teaching veteran, specializing in literacy and special education, with experience in both upper elementary and middle school. She’s currently a middle grades teacher and new-teacher mentor in Long Island NY’s Smithtown Central School District. Elizabeth is National Board Certified in Literacy and a contributor to Education Week and other publications. Her first book Comprehension Lessons for RTI (Grades 3-5), is published by Scholastic (June 2013). Follow her on Twitter @elizabethlstein.
A version of this article was originally published at MiddleWeb.