I Was in Special Ed as a Kid, and I Share That With My Students

by | 03.15.19

Beckett Haight is a special educator. Follow him on Twitter @BeckettHaight.

I’m a special educator. One thing that sets me apart from most of my colleagues is that I received special education services myself when I was a kid. I was diagnosed with ADHD in first grade, and over the years I got into trouble. I was labelled “Emotionally Disturbed” (ED) and told I had “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” (ODD). I was sent away to a school that didn’t meet my needs. The fact was, the ED label wasn’t right for me. I just had a hard time at school. And because my teachers didn’t understand me and my behaviors, I was pushed into a place where I didn’t get the support I needed. I was later sent to juvenile detention, and eventually I went to rehab.

I’m glad I was able to get back into a regular high school with a resource program, where I finally started thinking about my future. I began volunteering in a special needs class in my school, which led to a job as a teachers’ assistant – and now, here I am: the special education teacher, working with kids like me.

I’m half black, and I think that had a lot to do with the way my teachers interpreted my behaviors when I was growing up. Black kids continue to be disproportionately labelled for special ed services – and that does a disservice to everyone: to the kids who get pushed into programs that don’t meet their needs, and to the kids who really do need special ed services. If my caseload is full of kids who don’t really need special ed services, then I don’t have as much time for the kids who do.

A few years ago, there was an African American girl put on my caseload for special ed services because she wasn’t doing her homework. I was told she had an “attitude” with her teacher. Her grades were bad, but I took a closer look to find out more about what was going on, and to ask some questions. I asked, “What happens when she doesn’t do her homework? Have we spoken with her mom? Have we talked with this student about things she might need?” It turned out this student didn’t need special education services. And if I hadn’t been sensitive to the historical forces at play here, this student might have ended up with a label that could have prevented her from having her actual needs met.

Because of my own background, I know what questions to ask about my kids, and I know how to connect with them. When they find out I was in special ed, too, they’re responsive. They’ll ask “Oh, really?” – and I have a chance to share some of what school was like for me. I might say, “Do you ever walk into a room and just forget what you’re doing?” and my student will say, “That happens to me every day. I hate it.” You can see the excitement in their eyes during these conversations. They’re thinking: Oh, this guy knows what’s up.

My job is to support kids with their academics, but I also want kids to know self-determination. I want them to be able to advocate for themselves. A lot of times, kids are hesitant to ask for the accommodations they qualify for – an adjusted assignment or extra time to finish an assessment. But I can say, “You know, I was always the last person to finish taking a test. I asked for my extra time, so make sure you ask for yours.”

I think kids believe me when I say something about special ed, because they know I’ve been through it. They can say, “You know, this guy was in the same support class in eighth grade, and he’s gone on from here. He became a teacher.”

Teachers don’t have to share their students’ background in order to be effective, of course. How could we? Each class comes with its own unique kids who have their own unique experiences. What we all do need to be able to do though, is to get to know them. We need to try to understand what our students need. We need to be willing to try different strategies for supporting them, and not jump to conclusions when students behave in ways we don’t understand.

My mantra is, not all kids are going to do the same thing at the same time. I think when teachers really identify what we want kids to know, and when we take time to learn what our students need, it makes it possible for us to work together and make sure every kid learns.

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