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'Our Students' Relationships Start With Our Own': A Special Educator’s Open Letter to Teachers

'Our Students' Relationships Start With Our Own': A Special Educator’s Open Letter
First-grader Jesslyn Stalvey works in a special education classroom at Clinch County Elementary School in Homerville, Ga., with paraprofessional Vicky Henderson.
—Melissa Golden for Education Week
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Dear General Education Teacher,

Even though we have worked down the hallway from each other for years, we have both been so busy that we never got a chance for a proper introduction. Our jobs are similar in many ways—I also teach academics, write lesson plans, have parent meetings, go to professional-development trainings, and deal with challenging behavior and a mountain of paperwork and assessments. But there are some major differences between our classrooms. As a special education teacher, I have often felt misunderstood and isolated, and if I feel this way, I know my students may feel misunderstood, too. I am writing this letter because I want to clear up a few misconceptions you may have about my class so that we and our students can work together better.

Here are eight things you should know:

1. I teach academics, too. My students might not academically be on the same level as their grade-level peers, but they are still working hard on language arts, math, science, and social studies at their individualized level. Some of my students might need more breaks and shorter work sessions to get through their tasks, but we use assessments and data to plan our curriculum and instruction just like you do.

2. Just because I have more help than you doesn’t mean my job is easier. If you walk past and see four adults in my room, you might be a little envious of that extra support. I know we all could use some help at times. But whole-group and small-group instruction doesn’t always work with my students. The assistance I receive ensures that my students get the individualized instruction they need and makes academic and functional learning possible for them. It isn’t a bonus—it’s a necessity.

3. I’m not inflexible to be a pain. I’m advocating for my students. You may have had an encounter with me that left you thinking, "That teacher is a diva." Maybe you asked me if we could switch gym class periods for the day because of your testing schedule and I said no. Maybe you saw me throwing a small tantrum in the principal’s office because one of my paraprofessionals was out, and there was no substitute. Maybe you’ve seen me march down to the office on school picture day to switch my scheduled time. I promise that I don’t think my class is more important than anyone else’s.

In those moments, I was advocating for my students who can’t talk or properly express their wants, need, and frustrations. I was advocating for my students who have extreme difficulty with change and can get overwhelmed easily. I was advocating for consistent schedules and routines to help my students feel secure and comfortable and decrease their anxiety—just like you would advocate for yours.

4. I’d love for our classrooms to work together. As a special education teacher, I sometimes feel left out. Because our students are working on different skills, collaboration doesn’t happen as naturally. I know you are busy planning for your own classroom as well as organizing special events like pep rallies, spelling bees, dances, field trips, and class parties. But inviting my class to those special events so our students have the opportunity to interact would mean the world to me. While some special events may be too challenging for some of my kids, others can be a great fit.

5. I’d love for us to learn from one another. If you are doing a cool project or monthly theme for your classroom that I could incorporate into mine, let me know. I’d also love for you to learn about my classroom. I often feel like I am on an island all alone. Ask me what my students are working on. As someone who deals with a variety of different behaviors, I am an expert in the world of data collection and behavior management, and I may be able to share a helpful tip or two.

6. I’d love for you to model for students how to interact with my class. Your students might not know how to interact with my students. That’s OK—they're kids. Teach them about my class. Teach them about how we are all different. Teach them that differences aren’t scary. When you walk down the hallway and pass my class, say hi. Learn my students’ names. Be the positive role model that your students need to learn how to engage with my students.

7. It’s OK to feel scared or uneasy about my students' behavior. You may have seen some challenging or aggressive behavior go down in the hallway or at the playground. It’s always appropriate to ask if I am OK and if the student is OK. It’s easy to make quick assumptions that the student shouldn’t be in this school or that the behavior is unacceptable. But important details like medication and home life may affect behavior in a big way. I’d love to share with you what my student was trying to communicate and how we are working on teaching more functional behaviors, as well as what you should do in the future if you see that happening again.

8. Our students' relationships start with our own. Our students are all members of the school community. Giving your students the opportunity to have meaningful relationships with my students will create more empathetic, inclusive, creative, flexible, and understanding adults—the kind of adults who change the world and make communities better for everyone. When we can work together as a united force, all our students benefit.

Special Education Teacher

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