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All Ed Is Special

By: Esther Klavan
Director, SINAI Shalem HS at TABC

Your son comes home from school with a gloomy look on his face. When asked what’s wrong, he responds that he just received the test calendar for the next two months. There are tests scheduled in almost every subject, with some on the same day as others and many for classes inwhich content has yet to be introduced. He is studious, bright and capable. He will be fine. But what is the goal here? You listen, you validate and you sigh, quietly thankful that your own school days are far in the past.

I was raised by superb parents, themselves educators. Growing up, I was expected to fit into a system, to recognize that there are perspectives beyond my own. I learned to manage, to accept, to recognize my place, to problem solve, to communicate, and to adapt to whatever was thrown my way.

The question is: can we teach these important skills and life lessons while still recognizing that at times, making adjustments to our practices as parents and educators and nurturing a child’s inner worth may actually produce an individual who is better equipped for his future?

The answer is a resounding yes. But to do so, as parents or educators we need to stop and reflect on our own practices. We can’t just operate on autopilot, pulling out last year’s curriculum, or sending our son to the same camp as his older brothers, just because. The look and feel of a traditional classroom is evolving, in a good way. As parents are faced with more options of schools, camps and extracurricular activities, they are considering the specific needs of their child. We are certainly making strides. And we have more work to do.

I appreciate the enormous challenge that teachers face: They have to do it all. Teach the academics, provide opportunities for character development, maintain a pulse on current pedagogy, incorporate motivating elements into the classroom, cover material, all while still adhering to tradition—and doing so for 20+ varied students, some with IEPs and many with their own unique circumstances. On some level, the challenges feel even greater at home. Raising our children in the digital age, juggling carpools, attending sports games and the list goes on. Rarely is there time to stop, to breathe, and to consider our approach when parenting.

My immersion in the field of special education has caused me to feel in my bones that our unique and tailored approach toward complex students actually belongs to every learner. Why, I ask, is their education deemed “special education”? Isn’t all ed special?

What drives our approach is our focus on a child’s goals. Once we have identified the appropriate goals for his future, the rest begins to fall into place. Let’s consider some of our highly successful strategies:

Teaching to mastery. In special education we immerse our students in the learning until they are living it. Our gauge of when to move on is based on ownership, not the reality that it is Monday and there is an expectation to start a new unit in the textbook. If it is clear from classroom experiences that the students have not yet mastered certain concepts, the learning continues. The new unit waits. The students are not ready. Summative assessments (i.e., tests) are rarely necessary as teachers maintain a pulse on each student’s achievement regularly. Let’s remember, the goals were devised for him and we want him to own them. All children benefit from this approach. The level of skills may differ as will the amount of support. But the goals of confidence and ownership are the same. Let’s let our students’ abilities guide our pace. Let’s worry less about covering ground when it won’t really matter, and more about mastering that which really does matter.

Soft skills: In the world in which I am professionally immersed, it is the soft skills that ultimately matter most, often taking priority over learning. When we teach a child to “read a room,” to notice what is going on before he enters a library or a shul, to take responsibility, to communicate and to take perspective, these are the soft skills that will impact his future success. After all, these are the skills that make each of us successful as adults. Many teachers do prioritize soft skills. They lead by example and model to their students that complimenting is such a valuable goal that it deserves an entire lesson. It makes me smile every time—until the student receives an assignment indicating that he needs to read a chapter in the textbook and answer questions because there wasn’t time in class. Prioritizing the soft skills means letting other things go from time to time. If we truly value soft skills we would not punish a child by expecting him to learn material that wasn’t taught. Remember, what is the goal?

Homework: Teachers model, engage, connect and teach with the hopes that their students will be motivated to achieve and to accomplish. In the Judaic realm, teachers strive to inspire their students to love learning Torah. So I ask: are rote worksheets night after night inspiring? What is our goal? In the world of special education, the primary goal of homework is to teach responsibility. Follow the system for knowing that you have an assignment and recognize that an expectation is in place even when you are not in school. This goal can be accomplished in an assignment that takes ten minutes or less. If the goal is for the educator to assess if the student is able to apply the skill outside of school, this can be accomplished by assigning five math equations, not a worksheet of 20. The student will either demonstrate aptitude or the need for further review. Consider your learners, their lives, their needs and their goals. Does the homework assignment promote those goals?

Opportunity: In special ed, every opportunity is a teaching moment. I often have teachers indicating that they didn’t get to the goals on their lesson plans because their students lacked background knowledge so they took time to fill in the gaps. They are wondering if that is okay. My answer: It is preferred. Do not teach something they aren’t equipped to learn. Take the opportunity to ensure they can be successful with the new lesson. Similarly, every opportunity outside of school is a teaching moment. While most parents speed through a supermarket due to time constraints and obligations, the supermarket is actually a real-life classroom. It is full of expiration dates, unit prices, luxuries and necessities, waiting on line, creating a balanced meal and more. Grab on to each teaching opportunity whenever possible, whether it exists in the classroom, your kitchen, or at Home Depot. Engage in the activity of real-life learning. It’s a noble goal.

Few would disagree with the value of these best practices often specifically attributed to the special ed domain, though many would argue that it is impossible to apply them to typical learning environments. Be it time constraints, expectations of the administration, parent pressure, competition among the schools, it just wouldn’t work. Perhaps this is true. Or perhaps you can open your mind as a teacher or parent to just one change. Choose one subject, one group of students, one errand with your children. Teach it to mastery or prioritize the soft skills that time. Reflect on the quantity of homework in one class and whether or not it supports your goals. Dialogue with your administration about how to best teach the students, rather than the curriculum. Start small. Choose one idea.

When you consider the true meaning of special education, what comes to mind? Better ratios in the classroom, modifications, extra time on a test, use of a computer to take notes, related services? To me, what comes to mind is: Who is this child? What does he need most from the world around him? What are his goals? How can I contribute toward helping him get closer to his goals?

And when I think even harder, I come to the same conclusion every single time. Shouldn’t all ed be special?

This article was originally published in The Jewish Link.