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Does the Term—Special Education Teacher—Need a Rebrand?

Even though it is in vogue to love to hate the Twittersphere, it is still a place where helpful conversations can happen.

Consider my recent tweet about replacing the label "special education teachers" with "teachers who deliver specialized instruction."

Before I get into the story behind this idea, let me share some responses.

Tweet response from three twitter handles.

Dr. Victoria Graf replied, "love this!"

DrAmyMP replied, "YES! 👍 Teachers first-speciality next."

And M. O'Conner-Ratcliff replied, "What do you think of the term 'Ed Specialists" Interestingly, when I got my special education teaching credential in the early 2000s, we were called "Education Specialists." However, the official job title at my district was special education teacher.

After several positive responses from across the socials, I did get one that brought up an excellent point. So I'll share that and then tell you what was on my mind when I created the tweet.

Dr. Jennifer Spencer-Iiams, the author of Leading for All and a previous Think Inclusive podcast guest, replied, "Learning specialists?? I like your thinking, Tim, but the problem with labeling them as teachers who deliver specialized instruction is that in inclusive settings, there are many different folks who deliver specialized instruction... Often they are are coplanning."

100 percent Jennifer.

I do some teaching on the side of my work at MCIE. It is for a teacher preparation program in the Atlanta area (where I live). And during a recent class, the concept of coteaching came up. My students complained that they didn't feel like they were partners with their coteaching counterparts. And that the general education teachers often didn't plan with them or make them feel like they belonged in the classroom. It was a classic case of those being "your kids" and these are "my kids." We even discussed how the term "special education teacher" often makes it seem like they are less than a general education teacher or that what they do is so specialized that they can only teach in a separate and segregated classroom. So we wondered if reframing the role as "teachers who deliver specialized instruction" would be better.

But, as Jennifer mentions in her Twitter reply, this still is an incomplete description, especially in inclusive schools and classrooms. With authentic inclusive education, the roles and responsibilities of all educators are shared and distributed across all grade levels and learners. There is always room for specialty, but the idea of "your kids" and "my kids" evolves into "our kids." Still, the vast majority of educators work in noninclusive school systems.

This brings me to the question that titles this post, does the term special education teacher need a rebrand?

Yes. But we need to go further than that. The language that we use to describe educators and learners can separate us. But moreover, it's our practices that perpetuate the mindset. And if we don't commit to changing our practices, no name change will significantly affect implementing inclusive practices. It will most likely end in frustrated teachers and more proof to the skeptics that inclusion doesn't work.

But how do we go about changing practices? The answer can be complicated. But it starts with having conversations with people who have the power to change educational practices. For instance, an associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction, a special education director, or even a school principal. That is not to say that change can't happen from the parent or educator level, but they often have the least power to change a school district toward inclusive practices.

MCIE has a tool called Inclusion Conversation Starters that we encourage you to download and email to someone at your school or district. You can even start the process by swiping this email template. Feel free to customize it to fits your needs.

Dear [School Leader Name],

Recently, I've been learning a lot about authentic inclusive educational practices. And I found a fantastic resource from the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education (MCIE) called Inclusive Conversation Starters.

I particularly like [insert your favorite link or references from the document].

Would you consider taking a look, and then we could schedule some time to discuss it? Like me, I know you want to do what is best for our learners.

Thanks for your time, and I look forward to hearing back from you on when we can talk.


[Your Name]

Click here to download a PDF of the Inclusion Conversation Starters.

If you use the PDF or email template, let us know how it went. And as far as whether or not to rebrand the name "special education teacher," that is up to you. Sometimes we only need one thing to disrupt our thinking to be able to see things differently. And if a name change starts us down the path of inclusive practices, then maybe it's worth it.

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