When I Look at my Students, I’m Looking at Kids – Not Labels

by | 06.7.19

As a special education teacher, my mission is to make sure every child knows they have limitless potential. Students come into my class carrying all these different diagnoses and labels, but I don’t see labels when I look at them. I see a group of students with unique learning styles.

When you go to the doctor’s office, your doctor asks you questions and runs tests to diagnose what is going on with you, then offers you a prescription to help. As a teacher, I see my role as somewhat similar. When I’m considering how to support my students, I look at each of them – one person at a time, one student at a time – and I run my own diagnostics. I need to ask questions and try things out to learn what challenges my students are dealing with, and then I try strategies and resources to support their learning. I typically don’t modify the content for my students. I just provide the supports and accommodations that are necessary for them to get where they need to be.

The students in my class have a full spectrum of disabilities – from emotional disabilities to blindness – and they need all kinds of different strategies to support them. One student uses a “paragraph-shrinking” reading strategy, where we break down a text paragraph by paragraph and discuss it as we go. One of my students is still developing basic reading skills, and while we’re working on reading interventions, we don’t want him to miss out on grade-level material. For now, the solution is an online “read aloud” program. He just goes the computer, has the text read to him, and then comes back and orally answers questions about it to show his learning. Technology like that can empower kids to be independent, and a huge part of learning is developing that system of independence.

I want my students to trust themselves and feel safe enough to take risks. Every move toward independence is a win – and I see wins every day in my classroom.
I had one student who started with me in the middle of the year, labelled as a “non-reader.” And today, six months later, he offered to read a grade-level text out loud for the class. To me, that was a huge win.

I have another student who is partially blind, and when she came into my classroom, she could barely count to ten. Yesterday, she was sitting at an aide station in my room, working on place values up to the hundred thousandths. I heard her tell the aide, “I can do this by myself. I don’t need your help.” I turned around and said, “Did I just hear that?” She said, “Yep, I know how to do this. I don’t need help.” She came over and showed her work to me, and she was so filled with pride.

All of these tools – the paragraph-shrinking model, the read aloud tool, and others – are available for all students, not just those in special ed. All special education students are general education students first. When I sit in meetings with my colleagues who teach general education classes, we emphasize that the students aren’t divided into “my kids” and “their kids”: All the kids at the school are our kids. Sometimes my colleagues are surprised by the level of rigor in my classroom. Sometimes they want to know more about the supports I use, because the students in their class could benefit from the same strategies. All general education students have unique learning styles, too.

No matter who we are teaching, isn’t it our job to connect every kid with what they need? It’s a matter of being able to take a lesson or a unit we’re working on, look at it, and ask, “OK, what students do we have in our classroom? What barriers might each of those students encounter here? How can we break down every barrier and allow every student access?”

There is nothing more rewarding than connecting kids with the right supports and then watching them grow into independent learners. And that’s what each and every one of our students needs.

About the Author

Eric Calderon
Eric Calderon

Eric Calderon is a teacher in California. Follow him on Twitter @epcp2010.

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