For the last ten years of my career, I go to work every day with a mild case of cognitive dissonance.
This is because while I am a promoter of inclusive education (even for those students with the most significant disabilities) I continue to be a self-contained classroom teacher. This means that in my head, I understand that the setting I teach in is not necessarily the ideal placement for my students. Yet I continue to teach in this setting because I love the students I work with and desire to give them access to the general curriculum in an authentic and meaningful way.
Why I Fall Short
Unfortunately, I fall short all the time. If you are familiar with any of my previous writings, I don’t sugar coat the fact that the majority of schools in the United States are not ready for the full and authentic inclusion of students in general education. I don’t believe inclusion advocates do themselves any favors by repeating the mantra “All Means All” without also wielding an even larger banner that points the way to “how we do it”. The truth is that there are many schools who ARE doing it. How we disseminate that information is the constant struggle of the proponent of inclusive education.
Why I Don’t Quit
Perhaps you are like me, an inclusion-minded self-contained teacher, who wants desperately to break the mold of your classroom but doesn’t know where to start. So, while I mull around in my dissonance, I’d like to share with you 5 reasons why I have not quit my job yet for a teaching position in a more inclusive school system or environment.
1. There are very few options
Like I touched on in the above paragraphs, I simply love working with students with the most significant disabilities. In the area that I live (the Atlanta Metro Area), there are very few options for someone like me. So rather than move from the school and community where we have already planted roots, I have decided to live out inclusive practices the best that I can in the context that I am. As inclusion advocates we want want change…yesterday! We can only change what we directly have control over and in the words of Mother Teresa, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
2. We need good self-contained classrooms
Perhaps you would prefer if I used “segregated classrooms”, which I don’t mind at all. Let’s tell it like it is. My classroom by its very nature segregates students from the school community because we are educating students separately.
While some of you may be outraged that this still takes place in the United States, it is my responsibility to give my students access to the general curriculum…not be their babysitter. Since there are many classrooms that still function in the “medical model” of special education we have a long way to go in reforming that practice. As we wait for inclusion to permeate the education reform movement we need teachers who are willing have high expectations for their students and create ways that even in a segregated classroom can provide inclusive opportunities.
3. My students’ parents
There are some parents who read about inclusive education and they experience a bit of cognitive dissonance themselves. They know that they want inclusive education for their children but it is not accessible to them. What do they do? Some families move, some file for due process but some stay put because they know that there are no other feasible options. Should those parents feel guilty for not pursuing an inclusive agenda for their child? I know that part of my job is to support my families and sometimes that is listening to those who I am advocating for…which for them is to stay in self-contained placements.
4. Self-contained classrooms are not the only places students are segregated
A colleague of mine made a very good point the other day while discussing inclusive education with me. There are plenty of examples of students in general education that are segregated (albeit in a more invisible way) due to bullying, religious prejudice, or lack of differentiated instruction. The students in my classroom may be separated from their peers but I can create an accepting classroom environment that may not be available in general education.
5. Who says I need to run my classroom like a typical self-contained classroom?
I’ll give you a brief example. Something that I started recently was to link up with general education classroom to do a co-teaching lesson in my classroom. This way I get the opportunity to collaborate with my general education colleague and provide differentiated instruction on grade-level standards in my very own room.
This benefits everyone! In addition, we work with other classrooms to include my students for a portion of the day in an academic segment. This process is certainly not without its hiccups but allowing myself to have to flexibility has been a more inclusive way to go (all without extra staff or funding). I’ll drop another quote from one of my favorite educators, Paula Kluth, “over, under, around or through find a way, or make a way”. Making a way sometimes means making it make sense for your own context.
Don’t misunderstand me
There is over 30 years of research that says inclusive education is better for everyone. My point is that admitting that inclusion is not available to everyone is not the same thing as saying that is not possible or the right thing to do. I suppose this is why I continue to be the best self-contained classroom teacher I can be. I hope that you can live out inclusive practices in your context.