By Susan Shapiro

This article was originally published at the SWIFT Schools blog.

When I was a “Self-Contained Primary Grades Special Needs Teacher” in a public elementary school many years ago, I was exhausted—but not in the same way that other young teachers are exhausted. I was exhausted the way marketing and sales professionals are exhausted. Creative tired. Working-the-crowd tired. Selling-my-soul tired.

I wanted the young children in my special education class to be a part of the wonderful things that were happening in our school’s first grade class. I wanted them to make and receive lots of Valentine cards, to be there when the local naturalist brought in a fox, and to be part of the Alphabet Parade. I wanted them in that room for all of the reasons that many special education teachers try to mainstream their students. And I knew exactly when to bring them, and when not to, because I was able to look into my crystal ball (yes, really!). During my planning periods, I’d look into the ball and whisper, “The first grade class is going to be eating cupcakes to celebrate a birthday. Tell me, wise old ball, will my students be able to get something out of it?” And then I’d wait for the reply. Usually, in a voice that sounded eerily similar to one of my old professors, I’d hear something like: “Why, yes, of course your students will benefit from having cupcakes with the first grade class. It is a wonderful social opportunity.” And off we’d go.

Sometimes my queries to the ball were more difficult: “The first grade class is studying botany. They are labeling the parts of a plant today in their Botany Journals. Tell me, please, will my students be able to get anything out of this?” Usually replies to this kind of question came faster, and more furiously, almost with a tone of passive-aggressiveness: “No! You must remember that the curriculum that matters for children with disabilities is not academic. These children must be prepared for the real world. They must learn daily living skills, personal hygiene, recreation and leisure activities. There is nothing for your class to learn in a botany lesson.”

I thought I was a darn good special education teacher, so—honestly—at times I really didn’t use the ball. I felt like I just knew whether or not my students would be able to learn from a certain part of the general education curriculum, and, back then, I didn’t believe it was very often. My students had so many IEP goals to work on that the first grade curriculum seemed almost like dessert—we could have it; but we had to eat the special education vegetables first. So the home base for my class of young children was the segregated classroom, and every so often we’d go to the first grade for a visit.

I bought a lot of chocolate that year. And flowers. And I offered to play my guitar and sing children’s songs for the first grade teacher’s class. I smiled, laughed, chatted after school; I even complimented her shoes. I asked her what my students would need to be successful in her room and she made a list (e.g., write first name, use scissors, add numbers) that became my new curriculum. Tirelessly, I worked to prepare my students for our visits to general education. And like any good sales person, I wouldn’t give up ‘til I landed the deal.

But what was the deal I was trying to land? Part-time membership? Conditional belonging? During that year, I thought I wanted my class to be mainstreamed, and I worked incredibly hard to make that happen. However, in looking back 27 years later, I see two things:

1. Mainstreaming requires crystal balls, and crystal balls are not real. They do not exist in special education, and they do not exist in general education. We have absolutely no way to know what a child will or will not be able to learn, and so the best we can do is assume competence and provide supports and accommodations that respond to the learner’s needs. Not parallel curriculum! Not different goals! Our professional obligation is to give all children full-time access to the general education curriculum (social and academic) via class membership that is valued.

2. Belonging is a prerequisite for learning, and without a sense of belonging, learning is difficult. I find it ironic that our special education process identifies children as needing supports and services to learn, and then, all too often, pulls them out of the general education classroom. In essence, the process rips the foundation for learning (i.e., belonging) out from underneath them. These are the children who we think are having the most difficulty learning in the first place! Without belonging, learning becomes even further out of reach.

Perhaps it is time we retire the practice of mainstreaming, which teaches a child with disabilities that who she is as a learner is not enough: not smart enough, not communicative enough, not well-behaved enough, not anything enough. The practice of mainstreaming indirectly promises a child that someday, if she performs well in the special education classroom, she will become a member of a general education class. Mainstreaming teaches children that belonging is conditional. In other words, if you “act right” when you visit the general education classroom, you can belong. If you don’t “act right,” you will have to leave, and if you are lucky you will be given a chance to try again to belong on another day.

SWIFT Schools give me hope because the conversation at SWIFT is about the capacity of schools changing to fit children, instead of about the capacity of children changing to fit schools. SWIFT asks the question, “What are the available supports and resources in this learning community and ‘who needs what’ to be successful academically and socially?” No one turns to a crystal ball to determine if a child “can get something out of” the general education curriculum. At SWIFT Schools, the assumption is that every child can learn, every child can make and be a friend, and every child has the right to be a valued member of a general education classroom.

About Susan
I am a teacher. I began as a self-contained special education teacher, who learned in one year that “mainstreaming” is a toxic model that teaches children that belonging is conditional, and something that must be earned. So I became a classroom teacher for first and second graders, and fully included students with disabilities in my class. I made huge errors (which will be described in future blogs) but I realized that at least kids with disabilities were in the right place—-the general education classroom with their peers. Then I became one of New Hampshire’s first Inclusion Facilitators, back in the late 1980’s. Later I worked at the Institute on Disability doing teacher training, technical assistance, professional writing and lots of thinking: How do we build schools so that all children are valued and have full access to all social and academic learning? I still think about this everyday. I don’t know the complete answer, but I think part of the answer is increasing the capacity of general education teachers to teach children with disabilities. So, now my job is coordinating a graduate-level elementary teacher preparation program at Plymouth State University. By design, our program has no courses in “special education”, but we have lots of courses about diversity, supports and accommodations, and differentiating instruction, assessment, and environment.