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How an Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

By Katherine Lewis

All means all.

The way educators define inclusion and include all children has certainly changed over time. Many general education teachers consider “inclusion” to mean that children with disabilities are educated in regular education classrooms and that most services and support are provided outside that classroom.

The School Wide Integrated Framework for Transformation Center (SWIFT) is a national center based at the University of Kansas and built on an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs. At the 2013 PBIS Leadership Forum on Equity in Education, SWIFT described its mission:

Assisting districts and their schools to engage in a transformational process in concert with their families and communities to achieve equity and excellence for all students:

  • Excellence as determined by measurable student social and academic gains

  • Equity as defined by the measurable capacity of each school to deliver the intensity and range of supports to meet the needs of each student and extending to their family and community

  • “All” as defined as the measurable integrated active engagement of all students and their families in the learning process. (SWIFT Center PBIS Leadership Forum 2013)

SWIFT defines inclusive education as meeting the needs of every child—struggling readers, gifted, talented, living in poverty, students with disabilities, culturally and ethnically diverse students, and those with the most extensive needs. Simply put, “All means all.”

I recently had the opportunity to teach at a knowledge development site, a school selected by the national SWIFT Center as a model of inclusive education, and it was a life-changing experience, both professionally and personally. Because this is such a unique setting (there are currently only six knowledge development sites in the nation), a snapshot of this particular school may be in helpful in understanding my experiences.

West Elementary (a pseudonym I will use to protect the privacy of the school) offered fully inclusive schooling for students from transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. In serving students with disabilities, West mirrored the representation evident in our nation, with about 15 to 20 percent of students with disabilities in each classroom. (In 2010, about 1 in 5 Americans were classified as persons with disabilities.) West Elementary valued collaboration, differentiated instruction, family partnerships, and instruction based on constructivist theory. The school aimed to provide evidence-based teaching strategies that were tailored to meet individual development. West also served as a theory-to-practice site for students at a nearby university’s nationally recognized school of education. Needless to say, the school was frequented by many visitors, including researchers, professors, student teachers, practicing teachers, administrators, school district representatives, paraprofessionals, parents, and members of the community. The doors were nearly always open and West Elementary thrived on the frequent collaboration and volunteerism among members of the community.

So why was this experience so life-changing? The year I applied to teach at West, I was a relatively seasoned educator eager for challenges and new experiences. My past teaching experiences had honestly seemed more integrative (and even exclusionary) than inclusive in nature. I must admit that, although willing to try it, I had serious doubts about this full inclusion model. I was concerned about whether or not it was possible to meet the needs of all students in one classroom community. I worried that the students who had special needs may not receive all the services and support they needed. I also worried about the gifted and talented students—would they be appropriately challenged or would they disappear in such an environment? I wanted to be wrong, so I dove right in and tried it out.

The first few months were challenging. I was faced with teaching the most diverse group of students I had ever taught. I had a new student who previously attended small schools for students with special needs and this was his first time in a general education setting. He struggled a lot at first. He had boundary issues, little socialization, and very little experience communicating with his peers. There were times I felt frustrated or at a loss for how to help each student succeed. I was grateful for my special education certified co-teacher and the highly collaborative campus community. We all worked together to meet the needs of the students and I became less frustrated and overwhelmed. Even though I was not a special education teacher, I learned how to support my students with the highest needs. The specialists (i.e. occupational, physical, and speech therapists) were part of our classroom community. They would come in to provide services to both students with and without individualized education plans. The specialists were valuable resources and they showed me how to be cognizant of and address possible areas of struggle for every student.

In about the third month, as we neared our first holiday break, I reflected on my experiences. Here are a few things I realized:

  • Co-teaching and collaboration are invaluable practices.

  • I was wrong. It is possible for every student to receive the services he or she needs.

  • Kids are naturally compassionate and helpful.

  • Educational equity through inclusive practices is indicative of a socially just system and full inclusion is necessary to ensure the civil rights of all individuals.

Throughout the rest of the academic year, I was amazed at how much each of my students accomplished. In less than six months, my new student had progressed from communicating in a few broken words to sharing his thoughts in several, impassioned, complete sentences. I was blown away by his progress! During my end of year parent-teacher conferences, I was allowed to showcase the unique progress each student made, rather than focusing solely on standardized test results and determining whether or not a child fit into the “3rd grade product” box. It was as if each of my students had an individualized education plan and was allowed to progress on his or her own timeline. How liberating! I knew the parents believed in and trusted me as an educator. I also realized that our community was a remarkably strong, dedicated, and compassionate bunch.

At the beginning of the year, I had worried so much about my students with physical or mental disabilities. I worried they would be mistreated, picked on, or “babied” by the other students. What was most surprising is that we all learned, as a community, how to support one another in the most appropriate ways. The students learned about each other’s unique personalities and strengths, and they spent so much time helping each other learn that many of them seemed to become experts at scaffolding learning and encouraging inquiry among the group.

After this invaluable experience, I began to question the purpose of education. Had the current market-based education system blinded us to the simple fact that education is a social science and students are individuals in their own right? I began to wonder why educators still questioned and even spoke out against more inclusive environments. On a more personal level, the experience “opened my eyes” and I began to think of inclusive education as a civil rights issue. I knew, from this point forward, that I was an advocate for inclusive practices.

I had so many questions. What was it about this site that worked well? What is the essence of the phenomenon? Who are the teachers that thrive at full inclusion schools and what are their honest beliefs about inclusion? With a plethora of research questions burning in my mind, I decided to begin the intense (yet satisfying) educational journey of pursuing a Ph.D. in School Improvement.

As a doctoral student and research assistant, I spend the majority of my time researching, reading, writing, and researching some more. With this luxury of thinking time, I often reflect on my experience teaching at a full inclusion school. In nine years of teaching across three different states, it was this experience that impacted my life the most.


Prior to her current position as assistant professor (Teacher Education, undergraduate and graduate level), Katie was an elementary school teacher for nine years in Texas, California, and Colorado. She has experience working with grades Pre-K through 3rd across diverse school settings, including a rural Title I campus, an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme, and a SWIFT model charter school for full inclusion.

Katie received a PhD in school improvement and her award-winning project (Dissertation of the Year, American Educational Research Association's Leadership for Social Justice SIG) focused on gender diverse voices in K-12 schools.

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