As the start of a new school year approaches, I feel the need to comment on education as it affects students with disabilities. I have a lot of mixed feelings about Special Education, both as a student who went through the system and now as a certified teacher.
People are often surprised to hear that I have no interest in becoming a full-fledged Special Education teacher. I think that Special Education Departments straddle a fine line between giving students the support they need, and stifling their potential.
In October of my senior year in high school, we were given the assignment everyone gets in English: a persuasive essay. We were free to choose any topic, with one exception. In a deadpan monotone, my teacher said, "Do not write about school uniforms. I don't want to read it. If you write about school uniforms, I'll fail you for ignoring basic instruction."
My English teacher is a very unique man. People either love him or they hate him; people either "get" him, or they're terrified of him. He is an excellent teacher, but if you screw up and don't care, he's not going to hold your hand. If you get on his bad side, it's a long road back. It is also a very well known fact that he never gives a mark of 100%. He's not impossible to please; he gives you the mark you've earned. Nothing more.
He's a published author; the man knows a thing or two about good writing.
The instructions were simple: Pick an issue, present it objectively and most importantly, have an opinion and find secondary research to support it. I decided that I wanted to write about a disability issue but I had no idea what, let alone how to go about doing it. I said to him, "I'd really like to write about something disability-related, but I'm not sure I can, or if I should. I have a very obvious bias; I don't think I can be objective."
He smiled, "I don't want you to be objective. I want you to have an opinion, and to argue it. You need to present the issue objectively, but then, you have to take a stance. You have a disability, so it's very natural that you have opinions and biases regarding issues that affect you. You need to make a case for your opinion. I understand that it's intimidating, but you can do it. You definitely should do it. Listen, I'm an author; I write stories and people read them. If I decided to write a story that had anything to do with living with a disability, I could do all the research in the world and I still wouldn't have the authority that you do. The truth is Layla, the issues facing someone in your position should be written about, because people need to know, they need to understand. Someone needs to write about these things. It should come from you. If you think you want to, you should try."
I decided I wanted to address the issue of relationships wherein one person has a disability and the other does not.
I handed it in thinking it was pretty good; I was also terrified because of how personal it was. I was on pins and needles for a week waiting to get it back. Finally, the day arrived; he went around quietly handing essays back, face down. When I got mine, I flipped to the last page and what I saw left me speechless. 100%.
Halfway down another isle at the back of the room, he saw my head pop up. "Are you kidding me?" I screamed. As he continued to hand back papers he said, "Layla, I would never kid about such things."
Word of my perfect grade trickled through my entire roster of teachers and eventually made it to the Special Education Department. The same Special Education Department that told me, upon seeing that I was registering for university prep English, Philosophy and Writer's Craft, that taking three U-level courses in the same year would be too much. "If you do that, you'll fail," they said.
I was surprised that they would be so blunt (and negative). "Don't you think you should let me try, before telling me I'll fail? Don't tell me I'll fail before I even try."
They were shocked to learn that I'd earned a perfect grade from one of the toughest teachers in the school. Suddenly, they changed their tune. They wanted to photocopy my essay, frame it and display it proudly on the wall. I was mildly disgusted by that idea; they had nothing to do with my success in this class, or any of the others they had cautioned me not to take that I was now acing.
Just to make sure that my reaction was not overwrought, I went to my English teacher, explained the situation and how I felt about it.
He said, "Layla, you should be mad. They want to take credit for something they had nothing to do with. Didn't they tell you that you would probably fail this class? Not only are you not failing, you're acing this class. You've just received a perfect grade. Suddenly they want to tout you as the success story of their department? Don't let them. It's insulting. They seem to think that because you're in a wheelchair, because you have learning disabilities, you are somehow incapable or unintelligent. That's just not true. I believe that they are very good at giving you the specialized help you need, when you really need it. But that doesn't mean you're deficient. You've told me that they've been trying to stifle you since ninth grade. They only seem to admit you're capable when you demonstrate capability in things they can take credit for. Here's the difference between them and me: As soon as I got to know you, I knew you were capable of achieving this. I never doubted it. Am I proud of you? Absolutely! But I will not pat you on the head and give you a gold star. I am not shocked that you're thriving in my class or any of the others you're currently acing; you're finally being challenged; you have teachers who respect you. We give you the help you need but we NEVER lower our expectations for you. That's the difference between teachers like me and the Special Education Department."
I'm still in touch with him. It is no exaggeration to say that he changed my life, along with a few other teachers that I will write about soon. Two people got me here, writing this blog that I love. He's one of them.
Special Education cannot be approached with a one-size-fits-all mentality. You cannot err on the side of caution and base your approach to every student in terms of the most high-needs individual. It stifles the potential of students who do not need such a high level of assistance and is likely to make students who do need higher levels of assistance feel ashamed. Even the most high-needs students are not fools; they will see the eye rolls of exasperation from their peers. It may cause them to be embarrassed for needing the amount of help that they do.
I decided I wanted to become a teacher at a very young age. Of all my teachers who've inspired me, only one of them is a Special Education teacher.
My English teacher - that's the kind of teacher I will never stop striving to be.
By Layla Guse Salah (DTN, Social Media Manager)