Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By David Mahlow
As a special education teacher of ten years, I felt compelled to make a list of my beliefs. Not to be polarizing, nor to be judgmental of others, nor to speak in absolutes about how things should be. I felt compelled to make a list because sometimes I truly feel that I am on an island with my teaching beliefs. And I wonder, are they really that radical?
I believe that I am an advocate first and a teacher second.
I’ve left jobs and I’ve lost jobs as a result of standing up for students’ rights. I’ve had uncomfortable conversations with colleagues and administrators. Remaining quiet simply isn’t an option because my students come first.
I believe ‘fake it till you make it’ is sometimes critical to survival as a teacher.
IEP meetings are overwhelming. Classroom management is tough. Sometimes everyone is watching. But a little bit of trust in myself, even with everything around me seemed to be falling apart, got me through the tough times.
I believe I must focus on making changes at school.
Too often I hear complaints about what parents aren’t doing, and how their actions negatively impact the effectiveness of the teacher. It’s easy to air frustrations, but it’s more important to accept the challenge: I have from 8am to 3pm with each child, and I plan to make the most of that time.
I believe in never judging parents.
This is a difficult one and takes reminders. But the reality is that at 3pm, I go home to my life outside of work. And at 3pm, the parent takes over. I know that the parent has a difficult role, and I don’t place judgment because I am not in their shoes.
I love behaviors.
Whether it’s the beginning of the year or a mid-year transfer, inevitably a new student will come with a unique personality and unique behaviors. At this moment there are two options: be frustrated with the situation or view the behaviors as the baseline. I choose the latter. Baseline means this is where the student is at, and I need to make a plan for where I see them in the future. It can be draining, but it is also very rewarding to see the positive changes.
I believe in antecedent-driven management of behaviors.
Behaviors happen. But positive changes don’t typically happen from our choice of consequences for the student. Positive changes consistently happen when we plan for how to catch, and shape, the next behavior before it even happens. Okay, so the student loves throwing Legos. Great! Tomorrow I will make sure I play Legos with the student, model how to use the Legos appropriately, and praise the student immensely for playing the right way.
I believe Inclusion has no exceptions.
Every child belongs. Does the student have challenging behaviors? Let’s make an Inclusion plan that works for the student. Is the content challenging? Let’s make an Inclusion plan that works for the student. No exceptions.
I believe the Inclusion workload doesn’t always have to be even.
General education teachers are not special education teachers. And that’s okay. Teaching is hard work. The last thing I want to do is overwhelm a colleague. So we create an Inclusion plan together. But I bring ideas, strategies and objectives to the table. I’ll happily plan lessons and invite the general education teacher to jump in at any time. I’ll also reach out to them for ideas when I’m exhausted or when something just isn’t working. The important thing is that Inclusion is working for our students.
I have found that Inclusion is unpredictable but also beautiful.
I’ve seen behaviors escalate during Inclusion. I’ve seen behaviors calm during Inclusion. I don’t know how our students will respond tomorrow, but I know that the benefits of Inclusion- learning in community- greatly outweigh the difficult situations that may arise.
I believe that I can never do enough to show how much I appreciate my instructional assistants.
They are the backbone to our classroom. And I would be lost without them.
I have the most awesome students in the world. And I truly believe that.
I have zero complaints about my students. At the same time, I have to catch myself or be reminded by others when I turn negative about my job. We all go there, it just really helps to catch the negativity quickly and redeem the conversation. Because I definitely wouldn’t trade my job for anything else.
David Mahlow is a special education teacher in National City, California. David daily pursues avenues for Inclusion for his 3rd through 6th graders with disabilities. He loves creating art, listening to music, and above all, spending time with his beautiful wife.