Here is my final ‘First Person’ column for the Virginia Journal of Education. After five years, it’s time for me to pass the torch to another educator and writer. I look forward to finding a new home for my writing.
“Come give me a hug!” Zaveah commands when Justin enters the classroom. She has, at only four years old, the authority of a Southern grandmother. It is this affection, and sense of belonging, that is crucial to Justin’s success.
Part of my job as an ESOL teacher is to help people belong. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize how important it is for my own child. I’ve participated in many IEP meetings,but that only prepared me for the terminology and the process. Sitting on the other side of the table, listening as experts explained all the ways our son was delayed, was an entirely different experience.
The mothers usually cried during those meetings. I had assumed it was the stigma their home countries clung to about “special” children. Now I know better. It’s the weight of worry and guilt. They ask themselves: Was it something I did during pregnancy? Should I have played with him more as a baby? Will he ever be “normal”?
The placement recommended for our son was a pre-K inclusion classroom, with a curriculum focused on play and communication skills. I was impressed within minutes of observing Ms. Nelson’s class; the educator in me knew it was ideal.
We worried about how Justin would fit in. He struggled socially, we were making this change mid-year, and he was one of just a few white kids in the entire school.
If you think these differences shouldn’t matter, you’re right. However, there’s no denying they do matter. I’ve heard of kindergartners teased for being slow runners, and children who have nobody to play with at recess. What I later learned was that these things tend to happen more in “top-rated” schools, environments with more affluence and less diversity.
But Justin was embraced, as were we into a school community whose unofficial motto is, “We come as friends and leave as family.”
Sometimes we find a “home” in unexpected places. Within weeks it seemed like the entire school knew Justin. I hope to learn and write more about the correlation between diverse populations and successful inclusion models. What I do know is that in a school with nearly half of the students labeled as “at risk,” children introduced themselves to me, held the door, and couldn’t wait to “help” with my younger son at the playground after school.
Inclusion is so much more than “letting” certain children into the mainstream classroom, or putting a kidney-shaped table in the room for the resource teacher. In Ms. Nelson’s class, it’s difficult to tell which children actually receive services—all the students are engaged all the time.
As educators, we tend to focus on the academic goals of students with IEPs, the legality and paperwork. You can accommodate special education or ESOL students until the cows come home (and your test scores may even show it), but true inclusion requires a shift in perspective. It means teaching open-mindedness and acceptance through modeling. It means filling schools with diverse staff who can do this well.
Justin’s school also has a dual-immersion program that seems to benefit from a sort of prestige among parents and staff. It’s really the inclusion classroom that should be getting the accolades. While the kids across the hall may be learning English and Spanish, Ms. Nelson’s students are learning how to form friendships and how to recognize differences instead of fearing them.
As we search for Justin’s next school, among many other things, we’re seeking a diverse community. It’s hard to explain to friends who have never been a part of a Title I school, or who don’t have an “outlier” child, why diversity is so important to us.
We want to be a part of a community (because it takes families and schools) where students learn to become the kind of children, teens, and eventually adults who know how and when to speak up when others are being bullied, oppressed, or just left out. And yes, I believe that as early as preschool, this work can begin. Ms.
Nelson’s classroom is testament to this.
Friends like Zaveah, Sunny, and Maire seem to innately know when Justin walks into the classroom some days, pushing his heel in and out of his sneakers or biting his nails, that they have the power to help him become grounded again. He is reminded that this is where he belongs.
Come give me a hug.