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We’ve all heard the idea that every student can learn, but believing that takes on a whole new level of faith when you’re in the trenches with struggling students. Our gut instinct is to get out of the situation and hand that student over to someone “more qualified” to reach struggling students.

But what many general education teachers don’t realize is that there is no longer a place held for students we’ve been moving to special education in prior decades. The qualification window for students to be offered special education services is not growing to accommodate more. Rather, it’s shrinking at an alarming rate. This pushes more and more responsibility on the general education teacher without so much as a “how-do-you-do and please-accept-this-professional-development-course”.

If you plan to stay in education, most experts say that you can expect that trend to continue. Assistant teachers and helpers (who may have even fewer qualifications than you to handle the situations you’re faced with) will continue to “push-in” rather than “pull-out”, which means sooner or later, that student’s “intervention and remediation” is going to be on your shoulders.

Only the most severe and profound physically and mentally disabled* will continue to be separated from the general population.

With financial crises hitting districts, the aftershocks of the pandemic, and fewer and fewer educators being drawn to the profession, you have to expect this to be the logical next step.

So what can we do about that?

Well, reformation is all about doing things differently, and this week, we at the TFD blog tackle the toughest subject of all: educator attitude.

We’re educators, too, so we’re not saying that educator attitudes are “bad” or “wrong”. That’s not why we’re changing. We did not make the mess we’re teaching in - we want to be absolutely clear about that. We are not placing blame on teachers here. Rather, we’re saying that the changes coming will require educators to pivot to accommodate the changes.

Just as we give students a fresh start in a new batch of classrooms with new teachers and new books each year, we now have to have some “new”, too.

And in this “new” world of education, the most important thing to understand is that every single student CAN and WILL learn.

Let’s examine more closely what changes will have to occur along with that change of attitude, but before we go on, a friendly reminder: no one expects this of you NOW. Right now, it’s all about survival, and rightfully so. Leave this information in the back of your mind for rumination purposes. It will most likely come in handy in the near future. But this IS for the future. This is not for today.

Breathe. Then read. ;)  And stop and breath anytime you need to, because we’re really going to lay it all on the line this week. 

Our Understanding of “Normal”

Let’s just agree to drop the following words from our vocabulary, shall we: average, normal, and neurotypical?

Especially now that we live in mid- to post-pandemic times for the foreseeable future.

Now, more than ever, “normal” is an ancient, outdated concept.

We have to broaden our expectations of acceptable ideas of where we expect students to be academically at the beginning and ending of the year, each semester, each quarter or six-weeks, and even each week or day.

We have to adjust our curriculum.

We have to become experts not only in our subject and level, but also in the levels before and after ours, because our students will not all be even remotely on the same page now. It almost doesn’t even make sense to continue separating students by age at all, but that hurts our brains, so we can postpone thinking that through until another day.

The big picture, though, is that we need to redefine who is in our classroom seats, what they’ve brought with them, and how far they can reasonably go.

Then we’ll work on how to get there.

In order to do that, we have to stop thinking of some students as capable and some as incapable. We need to start thinking of ourselves as already capable of teaching certain students, or in the process of learning how to do that.

We cannot continue to say, “Well, we’ll let this student fail so they can qualify for special services.

You are the special services now. They qualify. They’ve got YOU. And you can do this with some help.     

Our Understanding of Time

Somehow, somewhere, we got the concept that some people just don’t learn, or that we as general education teachers just cannot teach some students.

That is a dangerously false notion.

Students with dyslexia can and do learn to read. They always have. But they’ve made a lot more progress with pull-out dyslexia teachers, a specialized curriculum that’s scientifically based, and a better concept of how, when, and why they learn the way they do.

Among the things we need to adjust is our understanding of the time it takes a student to learn certain things.

For example, phonics, phonemic awareness, spelling, and the core of “reading” skills are taught in grades kindergarten through third or fourth. That needs to be extended through middle school, and perhaps through high school.

Why? Because the notion that young children ALL learn to read in Kindergarten at the age of 5 or 6 has never been correct. It’s always been an invalid claim.

And honestly, what’s good for dyslexia is actually good for all learners. Do they all need it? No. But it sure won’t hurt.

We’ve constructed these ridiculous time-tables and notions based on the idea that if we want them doing x by fifth grade, they need to memorize this list and that rule and these spelling patterns by this time.

And it’s all made up.

Science has said that the brains of our students all operate differently. They are, as a rule, not rule-followers. We are all divergent in some way.

So why are we not creating and implementing curriculum, timetables, and offering information that not only gives them the tools they need to find the information (memorization will occur nine times out of ten anyway after they’ve found the information a certain number of times) that will make them successful.

Why aren’t we teaching students how, when, and what they need to be taught? Why are we teaching what lawmakers with no experience in the classroom say we should be teaching? Let’s educate our future lawmakers.

Now THAT would be a reformation. 

Better Training Is a Non-Negotiable

Teachers are going to have to demand - not ask nicely, DEMAND - better professional development.

Listen to us: You, your colleagues, and your students deserve better than you’re getting, and nobody’s going to be sure you get that higher level training except YOU. You may have to use some sick days, form some committees to meet outside school hours, and put your job on the line to risk speaking up in a board meeting or two.

That’s just what it’s going to take to make some changes around here.

If we’re stretching our speech teachers, diagnosticians, and counselors to the breaking point just to get kids tested, they certainly aren’t going to be able to provide the long list of accommodations each child needs. And frankly, they get paid more than general education classroom teachers do, so they are going to be cut at a much faster number than teachers are.

Which means we’re going to be doing their jobs on top of ours. That’s just a fact.

So start as soon as you can (not today, but soon) because you need to be ready for that. You’re going to have to up your game, and if it were us, we’d ask the district to pay for that.

Not sure how to work with non-verbal autistic students yelling through your entire class period? We need training on that.

Don’t really even understand the differences between language and articulation services provided by speech therapists? You need to be trained on that, too.

And if your district won’t provide it, get together with your colleagues, and PAY a speech therapist, diagnostician, or behavioral psychologist to train you. Pool your money, and find a way.

It doesn’t matter if you get a little certificate at the end, or if it “counts” as professional development credit within your district. You’re going to need that information to survive, so just make it a priority.

Every student can learn, but not every teacher has the tools they desperately need to teach them the things they need to know. You have to make that happen if no one else will.
Our Understanding of the Classroom 

Think “one room schoolhouse” not “factory”. In order to reach students on this rapidly evolving spectrum of levels, we have to move to individualized learning, which means a few changes have to happen.

First, we need to teach skills for finding information, not the information itself. Whole group instruction is on its way out the door, friends, so give it a going away party and a goodbye card.

Not sure what to replace it with? See above. There are some clues there. See the other articles in this reformation series. See what’s happening in schools around the globe that is working. Discuss, personalize, go forth and teach. The key here is no one can tell you exactly what’s next because we are all the pioneers. We’re not in familiar territory. We are in the ship, heading for the unknown, and very well may already be over the part of the map that talks about dragons and monsters - I don’t know. None of us does.

What I can assure you is that every single teacher is going to have to roll up their sleeves and start digging in to do the heavy work. Every single one of us is going to become an innovator. We are setting the course for the generations that come behind us.

Don’t lose heart now, and don’t think for a minute you’ll have time to rest. It’s time to change all the rules and make education what it desperately needs to be for these students and the students who will take their seats in the future.

Will we fail? YES. Will we get up and try again? Yes. Will we all want to quit every day for a long time? Absolutely. But we ARE the new pioneers.

Every student CAN learn, and every student WILL learn.

Move over Maria Montessori and Henry Gardner. Just have a seat and get comfortable. Your ideas were pretty and useful for a long time, but we’re about to show you how learning goes in a global pandemic.

Welcome to education in 2020, where the game has been reset, and where it turns out hindsight is nice and clear, but the future is where we plan to keep our eyes focused. We have no idea what’s coming next.

And that’s okay with us. 

*NOTE: We generally prefer to use the terms like “differently abled”, or “students with differing abilities” rather than “physically or mentally disabled”. However, in this context, we wanted to make it clear that current trends are leading toward only the most severe cases (for example, those students in the life skills classes) being included in special education pull-out programs. There is a good chance that there will be no place for students with divergent needs outside of the classroom soon, as all services are currently being pushed inward.

While the writers here don’t necessarily disagree with that move, we also think it’s vital that teachers understand and prepare for that change. Otherwise, many more students are going to be underserved in the future. 

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