For students with disabilities or unique challenges, finding a source of understanding at the school level makes a profound difference. For Aubrey Bridges, a student with an intellectual and developmental disability, having a teacher who saw her ability made all the difference for her; however, the impact she had on me forever changed my capacity as an educator. Aubrey grew up with multiple disabilities that include autism, verbal apraxia, auditory processing disorder, and a Vein of Galen Malformation that required surgery at age three. Because it was difficult for her to talk, she learned sign language and uses communication devices.
Fortunately, I crossed paths with Aubrey as an 8th grade math teacher at WC Friday Middle School in Dallas, NC. Most people saw her as the girl with autism who liked earrings and couldn’t speak. I saw her as a mathematical genius and a funny eighth grader—much like her peers. In my class, we educated one another about our unique needs, and she taught the class sign language for five minutes each day.Fast forward to the end of the school year where a student who some had given up on passed her state math assessment, transitioned to high school, and graduated with a 3.0 GPA.
What I never anticipated was how this opportunity would change my life and make me a much better educator. Through seeing Aubrey blossom and flourish, I learned that high expectations, appropriate support, and strong school/family relationships created the perfect recipe for attaining the impossible.
When I became a school administrator, I discovered that Aubrey’s triumphant school experience was unique. Students with disabilities and challenges often find themselves in school environments that have difficulty providing the expectations, support and relationships necessary to help them succeed. How can leaders promote more inclusive environments in schools? I challenge you to reflect on your school’s progress in the following areas:
The Culture of Opportunities
As I began talking to others about their journeys of inclusion, I often heard the reasons why it would never work. It seemed that educators were too comfortable living in the reaction zone, seeing students with unique learning needs as problems. For true learning to occur, we must move more toward the relationship zone. It is here that all parties involved can discuss student abilities and begin to address areas of weakness with creative fervor prior to there being an issue to solve. Some ways you can do this as an administrator are having meet and greets with parents in the summer, and being an active participant in the IEP meetings. When I go into an IEP meeting, I often remind myself of what it must feel like to be on the other side of the table and remember the courage, strength and perseverance demonstrated by Aubrey and her family.
Responding to the Label
Another aspect I see quite frequently are educator reactions based on the child’s disability. While we know that all students, regardless of their background or disabilities, have individual learning needs, there seem to be preferred courses of action based on certain labels, not the student. These actions are born out of sympathy, fear, or uncertainty. As an assistant principal, I asked five students with disabilities to facilitate a conversation with my teachers centered around one question: “What I Wish My Teachers Would Have Known About Me.” All of the students shared that they desired to be pushed past the predetermined boundaries to explore their strengths. How does your school do this?
For true growth to take place, teachers must communicate the potential of each student and then build scaffolding of support unique to each student’s needs. This will inherently mean that teachers and administrators are exploring out of the box ideas to meet the student needs in areas such as scheduling, service delivery, educational pathways, etc. Some ideas for administrators to think about are promoting peer buddies, creative facilitated seating in lunch, or a reading buddy program for students in separate settings.
In reflection, what ways does your school provide inclusive opportunities for students with disabilities? How can you as an administrator become an active participant in IEP meetings?
Meghan LeFevers is the principal at Tryon Elementary School in Bessemer City, NC. She is the 2018 North Carolina Assistant Principal of the Year, the 2017 Milken Educator, and the 2017 Gaston County Schools Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @MeghanLeFevers.