Students with disabilities in the US have been subjected to a long and difficult history of exclusion, segregation, and low expectations. When asked to identify any significant events they know of related to the history of disability and place them on a timeline, my teacher candidates are often at a loss - most listing only 1-2 events. Many are surprised to learn of the eugenic sterilization that was standard practice in institutions across the country and the connections between racially segregated schools, special education, and the overrepresentation of students of color within special education programs.
I teach a class focused on inclusion and collaboration for teacher candidates in elementary, secondary, and special education and often these candidates were never introduced to the complex history of disability, it’s intersectionality with race and economic status, and the lasting impact of this history on our current educational system. At the same time they read about legislation related to special education, they also read Ferri and Connor’s (2004) “Special Education and the Subverting of Brown,” which draws critical and overlapping connections between segregation by race and by disability in US schools. Resources such as the Disability History Museum and the Disability Social History Project have helped to ensure that I include a wide range of events and individuals in our discussions, and that I involve candidates in the process of making this history relevant by encouraging them to make connections between this history and current practices/issues facing individuals with disabilities.
As one candidate shared, “As educators, we need to be aware of our ability to be advocates in a culture that still holds many damaging beliefs about disability. It is important that we are aware of the history of popular thought on these issues so we can learn from the past, educate others, and work together to create more equitable, effective educational environments for our students.”
Once candidates examine the underlying racism and ableism that form the foundation of our current education system, they are more prepared to take action through the practical work of creating classroom and school spaces that are both inclusive and responsive to all learners, including students with disabilities. We analyze ways in which traditional curriculum and teaching approaches can serve to exclude some learners, and how an approach to teaching based in the philosophy of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), and interventions grounded in the proactive framework of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) can lead to engaging, effective, and accessible instruction. Candidates are encouraged to think beyond the revered “7-Step Lesson Plan” and instead begin planning with careful consideration of both their teaching objectives and their learners. The UDL Guidelines available on www.cast.org provide a framework for considering lesson accessibility, and candidates work in co-planning groups to embed student choice and voice within their units while considering multiple means of expression, representation, and engagement within all portions of their lesson. Candidates have shared that this activity forces them to think more critically about the “match” between their teaching approaches and their students. For example, a single-subject art teacher wrote, “I am excited to use UDL in my art class. I think it leads to deeper connection with the material and a more enriching experience for every student as it requires me to teach with a more well-rounded pedagogy.”
Although teacher candidates often experience a sense of powerlessness as they enter schools where they student teach or work as interns, there is evidence that providing new teachers with tools to sustain their agency to engage in social justice work in schools will support their continued commitment to the field and to their students (Naraian, 2014; Pyle, Wade-Woolley, & Hutchinson, 2011; Salinas & Casto, 2010). The swiftschools.org website has been an invaluable resource to me in providing new teachers with a framework, examples, and practical tools to implement inclusive practices. Concise video explanations of inclusive academic and behavior instruction illustrate systems in real classrooms, while research briefs provide summaries of the evidence-based practices exemplified in inclusive educational approaches. Using this website, my students and I observe short video clips, identify the specific practices illustrated, and then use sections of the SWIFT-FIA self-evaluation tool to examine practices at their own school sites. Candidates then select a resource from the SWIFT website (or discussed elsewhere in class) that might be used to address one area of weakness identified on their evaluation. In small teams, candidates discuss steps they might take in their classrooms or at their school sites using these resources. Potential actions identified by candidates include increasing the use of flexible grouping in their classrooms, providing more options for how students demonstrate learning, and initiating conversations about increased collaboration between general and special educators. In her reflection, one candidate shared, “Inclusive classrooms benefit all students and the entire school community, so as a teacher it is my responsibility to champion that. It takes buy-in from teachers, administrators, parents, etc., so I need to make sure that I am teaching and advocating in ways that support it.”
Beginning teachers are entering school systems built on entrenched systems that are often difficult to change, but by providing them with both the knowledge and motivation to implement inclusive approaches within their own classrooms, while also advocating for more systemic changes at their schools, I hope that we are playing a role in promoting collaboration, empowerment, and inclusion among the next generation of teachers.
Ferri, B., & Connor, D. (2004). Special education and the subverting of Brown. The Journal of Gender, Race, and Justice,8(1), 57-74.
Naraian, S. (2014). Agency in real time? Situating teachers’ efforts toward inclusion in the context of local and enduring struggles. Teachers College Record, 116, 060302
Pyle, A., Wade-Woolley, L., & Hutchinson, N. L. (2011). “Just listen to us”: The role of teacher empowerment in the implementation of responsiveness to intervention. Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 57(3), 258-272
Salinas, C., & Casto, A. J. (2010). Disrupting the official curriculum: Cultural biography and the decision making of latino preservice teachers. Theory and Research in Social Education, 38(3), 428-463.