The Exceptional Children Challenge: Are You Up to It?

By Marc Walls
Thursday, January 7th, 2016

I have the unique experience of serving this year in two advocacy networks. The first is as a State Teacher Fellow (STF) with Hope Street Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization who has given me the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. The second is the Partners in Policymaking Leadership Institute, hosted by the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. I recently completed my first training with the Partners and heard many uplifting stories of children and adults who are chasing their dreams regardless of the conditions that affect them. I also heard some gut-wrenching tales of Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings and dehumanizing treatment for students with disabilities.

One of my main roles as a STF is working to elevate teacher voice and this is an appropriate avenue to amplify my own:

When it comes to our students with disabilities, we MUST do a lot better. It is an emergency.

And because of this I am asking you all to join me in taking the following pledge and share it with your colleagues at work, on social media, and throughout your Professional Learning Network.

  1. We MUST grow professionally, nonstop. I don’t know about you but, as a secondary educator, my special education training was limited to one course that offered a broad overview of every possible case in a spectrum of disabilities, and most of these students were not the ones I would ever have the privilege to teach. We need to acknowledge that most teachers are thrown to the wolves when it comes to teaching students with ADHD, Autism, and other specific learning disabilities. Teachers deserve practical experience and training in college and continuous yearly learning opportunities as educators that provide them with knowledge, strategies, and the flexibility to apply them to fit the unique learning of the students they teach.
  2. We MUST advocate passionately for the needs of all students against all interests, but our strongest work will occur within our own classrooms. This means following all accommodations for all IEPs. We have to understand these accommodations are the minimum. We always have the autonomy to do more, and, if it’s best for the student, we should.
  3. Finally, and most importantly, we MUST stop using terms such as “SPED” and “low” that dehumanize kids. What chance would schools ever have of eradicating hateful terms like the r-word if we never lead the change ourselves? People-first language is the only way to talk about our students, and educators should be leading the charge. Using people-first language simply means that we put the person before the disability when discussing him or her. It is a simple change to make that can help eradicate years of perceptions that equated disabilities with deficiency. That simply is not true. This concept is beautifully and succinctly summarized by Temple Grandin with her description of people as “different, not less.”

 

These are the students we teach. They are wonderful, articulate, smart, charming, capable students who, on a cellular level, have a complex, neurodevelopmental disorder known as Autism, or one of numerous conditions that affect the ability to learn, that we are unraveling our understanding about every day. I don’t just teach them. I’m also the proud dad of one!

Educators, join me in taking the Exceptional Children Challenge by signing this petition and let us show this great country one more time why Tennessee is making waves and leading the nation in academic growth and excellence.

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