My teaching certification is in secondary English, and my first teaching job was teaching middle school Language Arts. Any student at the school who was unable to conform to the behavioral or academic standards of the school without support was segregated into a combined class of students with IEPs or students who were English language learners at each grade level. They were separated in multiple ways: the students in this class ate lunch and went to recess at a different time than their grade-level peers, and generally were excluded from grade-level activities. I was uncomfortable with this enforced separation of students, particularly in a school that promoted itself as a site for educational equity. Since my teacher education had only cursorily covered differentiation, and since other teachers in the school seemed to find this arrangement acceptable, I asked few questions about why the arrangement existed.
When I left that school after that first year and started teaching high school English at a different school, my new principal informed me that I would be co-teaching two classes: one with a teacher certified in special education, and one with a teacher certified to teach English to speakers of other languages. I was both excited and terrified: excited that I would be working with people who knew how to teach “those kids” who had been hidden from view at my previous school; terrified that I would teach them incorrectly and destroy their futures. When my principal asked me if I wanted to participate in a monthly professional development with the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms project, I lept at the chance to learn strategies for teaching “those kids” effectively.
My work with TCICP was transformative for me in multiple ways. I learned strategies for differentiation and Universal Design for Learning, but I learned those strategies from other teachers, who were invested in creating their own inclusive classrooms. I was pushed to value myself as a teacher-intellectual, with the capability to reflect and refine my practice. Most importantly, I learned a different way of thinking about my students. Prior to my work with TCICP, I was so focused on what my students couldn’t do (and how to teach them accordingly) that I didn’t even think about what they could do. That small-but-seismic shift changed both the way I taught my students and the way I viewed my students–so much so that when my principal wanted to meet with me and my co-teachers separately to talk about “their” kids and “my” kids, we pointed out that all the students were our students.
An inclusive classroom is one in which what students can do is what is honored. Teaching all kids acknowledges that everyone has strengths, experiences, and challenges that inform their learning, and works to use those strengths and experiences to address those challenges–viewing kids from a strength-based capacity stance. This seems to be so basic and fundamental, and it is, but in a system that is so focused on what kids can’t do, it’s difficult to remember. I am profoundly grateful to TCICP for shifting my thinking and providing a different window through which to view my own practice.