Learning and teaching together

Feeling a sense of belonging is a basic human need. However, in many schools across the nation students are receiving specialized academic instruction outside of the general education classroom, despite the federal law that requires students with disabilities receive their education in their least restrictive environment.

Norman Kunk in “The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” explains the paradox of pullout programs:

Although the intent of segregation is to help students with disabilities learn skills and appropriate behaviour, the very act of removing students with disabilities from the other students necessarily teaches them that “they are not good enough to belong as they are” and that the privilege of belonging will be granted back to them once they have acquired an undefined number of skills. The tragic irony of self-contained classrooms is that as soon as we take away students’ sense of belonging, we completely undermine their capacity to learn the skills that will enable them to belong. Herein lies the most painful “Catch-22” situation that confronts students with disabilities — they can’t belong until they learn, but they can’t learn because they are prevented from belonging. This injustice is compounded by the fact that the lack of progress in a segregated class is seen as further evidence to justify the need for segregation

Inclusion is not a fad or a program. It is a human right. It is the opportunity to learn and grow together.

So what do we do?

I am by no means an expert, nor do I have it all figured out. However, my belief that all children should be educated together, to the maximum extent possible, drives me to find ways to provide inclusive programs, despite not having all the answers. I am extremely fortunate to work at a school with a principal who is a staunch advocate for inclusive education. When I began working at Fernan STEM Academy, the administrator, William Rutherford had already paved the way with an inclusive Title Program and was working on creating an inclusive special education program. In 2017, Mr. Rutherford began Northwest Expedition Academy (NExA) where I currently teach. NExA is a project-based learning school which, by design, utilizes Universal Design for Learning principles to ensure all students have access to the general education curriculum. I am so grateful to have landed at a school where not only am allowed to have an inclusive program, I am expected to.

I have found that co-teaching during core instruction is the most effective way for me to provide specially designed instruction to the students on my caseload, while simultaneously ensuring they can access the general education curriculum in their least restrictive environment.

With two credentialed teachers in the classroom, all students benefit from the reduced ratio. For instance, the dialogue between two co-teachers during a mini-lesson creates an intimate and much more engaging experience for students because they are watching teachers think out loud, practice discourse, and model the collaborative exchange of ideas. When students are working independently, co-teaching allows two credentialed teachers to work with students individually or in small groups. This allows an opportunity for differentiation and a reduction of the student-teacher ratio during this crucial conferring time. During the lesson debrief, students get an opportunity to hear the rich discourse and “noticings” of student and adult learners.

I would like to tell you that I co-teach in one classroom all day long, a model some consider to be the gold standard of co-teaching. However, at this time and in this place, that is not currently possible. What is possible, is what I call “guerilla co-teaching.” We use unconventional tactics to meet our goal of meeting the needs of all students in the general education classroom. We are a Title wide school thus are able to pool resources so that we are able to co-teach in as many classrooms as possible.

If you are providing an inclusive education for your students or have questions, I would like to hear from you! I am curious how other teachers are meeting the needs of all students in their true least restrictive environment, and I love answering questions about what we are doing at NExA!

Vanessa Staudacher

About Vanessa Staudacher

Vanessa Staudacher has been a teacher since 1999 and is currently teaching at Northwest Expedition Academy in Coeur d'Alene. She graduated from Chico State University in California.

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