I stood proudly at the doorway of my self-contained fourth/fifth grade special education class. I had survived my first year and returned with dual special/elementary education certifications. I was prepared. I spent the summer writing curriculum and researching everything I could on classroom management. No longer a novice teacher, I was ready to take my place in the elementary education arena. The first day meant assembly and my students were quietly lined up behind me waiting to be called to the lunchroom. One class passed by quickly followed by the second, children nodding at me as they passed by. As I turned to remind my students about appropriate line behavior, I heard these fateful comments:
"Oh, that? That's the dummy class and she's the dummies teacher."
I quickly scanned my students' faces to see if they had heard. No outward sign from them, but I felt physically sick. I remember thinking, "Thank God they didn't hear that."
I remember crying as I drove home that night. Is that what everyone thought of my class...of me? I know it was a child, but it still hurt. I was exhausted and nauseated like the morning sickness during pregnancy.
Instead of celebrating a successful first day, I spent that evening and the next week trying to figure out why. The upper level learning support room was new, but the lower grades division was not. Did they get the same label or was the stigmatization due to maturity level of the students? Had I done something wrong? We were considered a separate class with separate motives. Lunch was the only shared period. We even had our own page in the yearbook.
That internal debate laid the platform for a solution. The separateness was evidenced by the small class size (eight students) and separate scheduling. The class itself was set up to be defined as different. The students were so obviously isolated from their peers for all instruction, hence the 'dummy label,' and, by default, my label.
This was 1991 and inclusion was not yet universal. Only the most progressive programs were trying to implement it. I spent a month researching and went to the principal with a proposal. "Let me investigate and do site visits to see if this would work at our school." He was not only on board, but went with me on the visits. I visited several programs and was awed by the creative use of personnel, space, and instructional techniques.
I was hooked and spent the rest of the year designing a two-year implementation program. My vision of children being included for all subjects could not be mandated overnight. I had spent nine months preparing and, unlike birth, knew that this change would need to be gradually put into place. Science and specials first, then build from there.
The principal asked me to present at an in-service on the last day of school - prime time for boredom, but definitely an attention-getter. I would love to say they welcomed the concept with opened arms. I might have even replied, "It's the law!" during a somewhat heated discussion. Yet, within months of implementation the social, emotional, and academic advantages of peers learning with peers was evident.
With the birth of a new child, you often hear the family state, "I can't imagine life without them." Inclusion at my school was born out of the need to change and banish the concept of "dummies." The result? Classrooms where everyone belonged, and no one could imagine life without it.