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The Water in Which We Swim

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

By Vicki Caruana

As those of us in higher education prepare new teachers, we focus some of that preparation on the cultivation of positive attitudes and beliefs about working with students in inclusive classrooms. Although the environment in which our students experience including students with disabilities is meaningful and robust, it is just one setting from which our new teachers learn. They do well and believe in the ability of all children, but sometimes when they leave the calm waters of their university and enter the unpredictable waters of the ocean of their internships or first jobs, their perspectives shift – and not for the better of our students. It seems we become like the water in which we swim.

Tom just finished his final internship at a high school. A secondary English education major, Tom had really hoped to work in advanced English classrooms when he had a teaching job of his own. Initially he was glad that during his final internship assignment he had one period that had advanced students in it. Tom described his perspective about working with students with disabilities. He saw himself as open-minded and accepting of everyone. “I mean, people are people,” he said. “So I feel that regardless of race, gender, color, religion, background, what you look like, how you’re born, whatever that may be, you’re a student and you need to be taught.”

This conviction was tested when Tom met Jon.

Tom’s cooperating teacher laid it all out for him his first day in her classroom. She pointed out which students in the classes were labeled with one disability or another. She reminded Tom not to worry too much about those students.

“I really just give them more time to do the assignments and most of the time they would actually come to us instead of us coming to them and say look I need more time,” his cooperating teacher explained to him. The onus was on the student to seek the help they need; not the teacher’s responsibility to know what that is.

Tom tried to apply what he’d learned in his coursework in this setting. “I looked on the student information system to see if this student or that one had a disability trying to understand what was going on with them. I was looking it up for both myself and my cooperating teacher’s sake.” Although Tom prided himself on being “man enough to ask for help” if he needed it, he admitted to not wanting to seek out the Exceptional Student Education (ESE) specialist to get answers. But the online student information system was difficult to navigate and he didn’t find what he was looking for.

Tom’s first period class was an advanced English class. These students were bright and they knew it. His cooperating teacher chose the path of least resistance and if her lesson fell flat, the students would criticize and ask her to change it somehow – and she obliged them. She’d given up on her students. If they needed something to pass, she’d do whatever they asked. This made Tom very uncomfortable. He was not willing to bend over backwards for his students and basically be at their beck and call. After all, he was the teacher, wasn’t he? The problem was that these students saw Tom as an “immigrant, an alien, an intruder.”

In this first period class was one student, Jon, who had been labeled as ADHD. He was also a gifted learner. He did very well in class. He was on task, on target and “not a problem at all.” Tom was surprised at how self-motivated he was. Jon needed a little more time to complete assignments and projects, but whenever he asked for that time, he got it. This surprised Tom as he expected that a student with ADHD would be difficult to keep on task. “He did better than any of the normal kids,” Tom said.

One day Jon was absent. Then the next day, and the next. Tom saw him on one of those days wandering the halls with “some girl.” Jon stopped turning in work and became belligerent when he was in class. His grades plummeted and Tom couldn’t believe that he’d give up his success to spend time with a girl. Tom went to his cooperating teacher for advice. She shrugged her shoulders and said “There’s nothing we can do if he doesn’t want help.”

How do we know he doesn’t want help? Tom wondered.

Tom decided to confront Jon the next time he saw him skipping class. He went out looking for him. He really didn’t have a plan. He just wanted to hear what Jon had to say for himself.

Jon had nothing to say. He mimicked the cooperating teacher’s shrugged shoulders and walked away from Tom. “He threw it all away!” Tom said. There was nothing he could do about it. If Jon didn’t ask for help, Tom had no choice but to watch him walk away. Tom said that he could “not for the life of me figure out what to do.” So he ended up doing nothing at all.

Tom’s story shows us how many of our teacher candidates adapt to the teacher behaviors, beliefs, and expectations they encounter once they enter the field. The question becomes “Are there ways in which we can mitigate the negative attitudes toward inclusion in schools?” If how we are preparing new teachers is not enough to combat the already negative attitudes, then what? It takes more than one grain of salt to turn fresh water into salt water; it appears we need to add more salt if the waters in which we swim are going to change. That being said, we can also build the potency of our new teachers as change agents and show them how to navigate the negativity they encounter in the field. If Tom had had an opportunity during his internship to debrief on his experiences with a supervisor who held up the positive preparation he had, he might not had given up so easily.

How we lay the groundwork of new teachers in inclusive classroom settings is just as important as what we teach them about the needs of many of our students. It is more than just learning how to teach; it’s a matter of what we believe about those we teach.


Dr. Vicki Caruana has an extensive educational background having worked in the field for more than 25 years as a teacher, learning specialist, curriculum designer, and professor of education. She holds a B.A. in learning disabilities, an M.A. in gifted education, an M.Ed. In educational leadership, and a Ph.D. in curriculum & instruction. Her best-selling book Apples & Chalkdust: Inspirational Stories and Encouragement for Teachers has sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide. For updates connect with Vicki on her Apples & Chalkdust Blog or follow her on Twitter @vickicaruana.

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