DisruptED TV Magazine

Accept Every Student as They Are

By Peg Grafwallner

Students come to us with packages and baggage. It is important to open and unpack each student’s background slowly and gently, with kindness, respect, and understanding. Building a relationship with a student takes time and patience, allow it to happen organically. If you force it, you’ll have to start all over and the relationship may or may not bloom.

Academically, students typically fall into three categories: Special Education, the average kids, and the gifted and talented students. Interestingly, education has made sure to label each category for ease of use.

Special Education

Special Education students, while protected by law, are a vulnerable population. Often, parents are thankful for the assistance they have been given by the school district, not realizing they could be entitled to more. Trying to navigate through the Special Education acronyms and laws can be difficult.

As the classroom teacher, remember that the parent that sits in front of you wants to be an academic partner with you for the sake of her child. Therefore, try to gather as much information as possible from the parent to create the very best learning situation for her child. Since you may not know the academic background of the student or the special education journey that the parent has experienced, keep in mind that the parent may have encountered some difficulty in getting services or support for her child. Try to see the situation from the parent’s perspective.

Be able to see the gifts every day; help them to discover them.

The Gray Students

Our brightest students are labeled “gifted and talented” and are often steered toward AP and IB courses designed to be rigorously intellectual. They are encouraged to join clubs such as Odyssey of the Mind or Mensa for Kids. They are embraced by a society that loves winners.

On the other hand, our special education population is protected by law under an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) designed specifically for each individual student. They are given certain designations that allow them more time on tests or exemptions from tests.

But what about the children in the middle — the average, “gray area” students?

What happens to them?

Society might believe “average” is satisfactory, — until one reads the synonyms for “average”; “typical,” “mediocre,” “ordinary,” “normal,” and “unexceptional.” Try telling a parent that their child is “unexceptional.” Yet every time the word “average,” is used, that is really what is being said. Teachers cannot and should not tolerate average as the norm.

Many parents of “gray” students are not sure how to advocate for their child. Guide them in supporting their child by offering opportunities of growth, creating positive student celebrations and encouraging parents to network with other parents. Give specific recommendations so parents and teachers know how to move beyond the average.

Gifted and Talented

It is not unusual for gifted and talented students to seamlessly float through elementary, middle and high school. However, while it may look effortless, teachers and parents know the time and work these students dedicate to being their best academic self.

The gifted and talented student is often overlooked because it is assumed she will learn in spite of the classroom teacher. Even if the teacher is not necessarily a solid educator, the student will still learn and make gains. But, this isn’t good enough. Parents and students must demand educators who are able to design, implement, and assess vigorous learning opportunities for all students — especially those who are considered high performing.

Be aware of the burdens the student puts upon themselves. Often, they will want to be in every club, advocate for every cause and perform in the school play. In addition, high school students will often carry a “full load” — who needs a study hall? — and be in the most demanding classes.

As their teacher, be on the lookout for student burnout. You are their safe haven from the storm; make sure they always carry their life preserver.

For the sake of our students, let’s move beyond the way it’s always been to the way it should be. Whether students have labels or not doesn’t matter, what does matter is creating opportunities of learning and leading toward lives of growing and grace.

(This article is an excerpt from Peg’s new book entitled, Lessons Learned from the Special Education Classroom: Opportunities to Listen, Learn and Lead published by Rowman and Littlefield, October, 2018)