Updated: Sep 7, 2022
How do you improve outcomes for exceptional learners? Yes, systems change, capacity building, and many other factors are at play, but some things are common sense solutions that require systems and building leaders to simply make a decision that EVERY student matters AND they will take the necessary steps to ensure their success.
A couple of years ago, I led a training called "Leading an Inclusive School Culture" to over 100 school and systems level leaders from all across the country. After the training, one of the leaders walked up to me and said "Toni, what you are talking about is an entire paradigm shift, and that is really hard to do." She isn't wrong, we do need to evolve our systems if we are going to create schools that work for all learners, but there are some things we can do that just make sense. Here are some things to ponder:
Assign the best teachers to the students with the greatest need.
The content experts are in your buildings. Think about it, who needs the expert math teacher the most, the student who is on grade level in math or the student with a math learning disability? How many schools are thinking about assigning teacher roles and responsibilities through this lens? What kind of progress might students make if content experts supported students with specific learning needs in reading and math?
The responsibility also lies in how we train educators, especially special educators. If special educators are to meaningfully advance growth for students with disabilities, teacher prep and teacher professional learning needs to prioritize building content expertise in sped teachers.
Students should not be expected to learn the same thing at the same time and in the same way.
As an adult with three degrees, working on four, I know that when I take my online doctoral coursework, I need to watch the video and read the transcript at the same time. My former colleague, Megan, prefers to just read the transcript. We both learn and process information in different ways and between the two of us, we have 5 1/2 degrees, so what does this mean for the elementary or middle school student who is still learning the basics of life? We have to rethink how we structure instructional activities and periods at school to maximize learning for all students.
Start with, "what is the best structure to maximize learning for all students in a given lesson?"
Consider organizing instructional periods into small groups to allow for this kind of differentiation. Maybe some students need to start with a small group mini-lesson with the teacher and others review an asynchronous mini-lesson online independently and in a small group. The question educators have to start with is "what is the best structure to maximize learning for all students in a given lesson?"
If a student who receives behavior support spends 80% of his time in general education, why does the expertise sit with the teacher who spends 20% of their time with the student?
I've said to a lot of leaders, "people can't do what they don't know." Typically, special educators, behavior specialists, and counselors are expected to know and understand how to support students with social-emotional needs. It's usually not that a general educator doesn't want to support a student with behavioral challenges, it's that they don't know how. We have to shift our perspective around who should know how to do what in a classroom.