I’ll never forget the most important lesson I learned in college as an educator. It had a HUGE impact on me, and I still think about it every year as I get my new group of students.
I was a double major – elementary and special education. At my particular university, this meant I took 13 credits more than than someone pursuing a an elementary education degree. What it really meant – more sped classes. No biggie.
So I took my special education classes. Most were about filling out paperwork, dealing with behaviors, etc.
Regardless, the last special education class I had to take was different. It was the class right before I started student teaching, and it opened my eyes and changed me as an educator forever.
It was all about how we decide what placement students receive or what their diagnosis may be.
Throughout the semester we were given real-life scenarios the professor had encountered during his decades as a special educator. He had worked in public schools, behavioral facilities, and many other environments and with hundreds of students. He told us stories of children who had been abused and neglected, as well as students with minor needs who just needed a little extra support. One student held his urine for so long (as a form of “control”) that he actually started to sweat urine as his body’s way of eliminating the waste. Another child flung his feces any time he felt threatened. Some children struggled just a little bit with academics. Other kiddos had more severe needs.
Our “job” throughout the class was to look at the evaluation results. We poured through psychology reports, academic reviews, teacher notes, parent information, medical records, and more. We had to determine what category of services the child received, how much time they would need, and all other aspects of their special education placement.
We started the year in groups. Then we worked in partners. By the end of the semester, we were doing this on our own. Each time we would have to present to the class our determination and defend why we chose what we did.
It was fairly easy to determine the kids with Down’s Syndrome and other medical conditions, cognitive delays, or other severe needs. Many times our placement and proposed times were similar to our classmates. Even the kiddos who needed just a little bit of support because of learning disabilities were relatively easy to figure out on paper. After all – that’s all we had. Paper.
We really didn’t know anything about these kids. We just had paper. These were real students our professor had encountered in prior years, but we were determining where they should be placed in today’s classrooms and schools.
Then came time for our final exam.
Our professor told us this was our hardest assignment yet.
No one had yet gotten this one right. He’d been teaching at this university for ten years. Everyone had missed the correct diagnosis on this particular student.
We were given a choice – work in groups, work with a partner, or work alone.
Everyone set out to work.
“Benjamin” was a good kid. In third grade, he was a bit young – having just had a summer birthday two weeks before school began. Ben got decent grades – mostly Bs and Cs. He worked hard, but could get easily distracted. His psych report came back showing an IQ of 105. His ability scores ranged from just barely qualifying for services to 108. He had no physical disabilities, although he could be a bit clumsy at times. His parents were particularly worried about his reading ability. Ben did not like to read, and it was starting to cause issues in many different subject areas. As we educators know, the upper elementary grades are largely “reading to learn”. So his parents wanted him to get the most support possible. There was also a note in his file from his first grade teacher discussing Ben’s “hyperactivity”.
Knowing all of this information, everyone in our class got to work. How hard could this be?
At the end of the class, each group or individual presented our findings. Most of us felt Ben had a learning disability and would best be served with just a little extra reading support each week. Others stated Ben most likely had ADHD and needed to seek a doctor in order to get on some type of medication.
After we had all presented our findings, the professor told us…
…we had all failed. Just like every class before us.
So what was Ben’s “deal”?
Ben was a typical third grader.
There was no “label” for Ben. He was never put on any kind of special education services. He continued to earn many Bs and Cs all the way through high school, went on to college, and – last I knew – was working a $80k/year business job at a reputable company in Minnesota.
Our professor then told us, “You are going to encounter MANY students throughout your teaching career. As special educators, it’s your job to determine the correct label for your students and how to best help them. But sometimes we over label. Not every child needs additional services. All of our fancy ‘labels’ aren’t always effective. Sometimes we just need to let kids be kids.”
After an entire semester of “labeling” kids, it never even occurred to me that we might have a student who did NOT need a label. I mean, it makes perfect sense! Yet I was so stuck in the “label, label, label” mentality that I couldn’t rip myself away from it.
And that lesson has stuck with me, even a decade later.
Yes, we sometimes need to label our students for some reason or another at school. Yet there are no labels for kids. They are just that – kids. People. Individuals.
Not everything fits nicely into some little predetermined box.
Thank you, Dr. Fiegen, for a valuable life lesson.
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