How an Inclusive Teaching Experience Changed My Life

Updated: Jun 24

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.