Special Education Was Created to Push Students Forward But It’s Been Used to Hold Them Back

Jun 20, 2017 12:00:00 AM

by Jemelleh Coes

I was a special education teacher for six years in the resource and co-teaching setting. Though I could not be more proud to be an educator with a special skill set in working with students of various abilities, I rarely introduced myself as a special education teacher because 1) the title comes with so many negative connotations and 2) my title of special education teacher ‘outs’ the students (particularly those in the resource setting) as receiving special education services. Trust me. Very few middle schoolers want people to know that they receive special education services. When I was named the teacher of the year for Georgia, I would watch my students wrestle with the idea of telling others that I was their teacher, and I completely understood why. From the vantage point of a K-12 student, there is nothing positive about being associated with the label of special education. Unfortunately, the belief is also held by many adults, and that is our fault. Special education was created to ensure that we make spaces where difference can be celebrated, that we acknowledge that it is okay for students to learn in different ways, and that we adopt the belief that all students can learn if they have the right supports and are held to a high expectation. It demands that we provide supports so that all students can have a quality education and insists that educators should be held accountable for the success of all students. On paper, special education sounds like a perfect idea, but in practice, we continually neglect to address the unintended consequences, making special education the scarlet letter in education, a designation it does not deserve. In the name of special education, we have privileged academic prosperity over social and emotional development and have turned a blind eye to the idea that some of the practices educators engage in not only ignore social and emotional development but damages it. We pull kids out of their traditional classroom setting to provide small group or read aloud supports for testing, not recognizing that every time we disrupt the environment by removing certain students and not removing others, we are imparting a social tax of deficit on those students. [pullquote]In the name of special education, we have relegated students to lowered expectations when they were more than capable of meeting the high expectations set forth.[/pullquote] Sometimes we provide students with more supports than they need, stifling their progress; sometimes we abandon needed supports, not allowing students to reach their full potential and writing their progress off as “insufficient due to the severity of the dis/ability,” consequently lowering the expectations so that they can appear successful. However, what that really equates to is a continual need for special services. In the name of special education, we have separated and segregated children within schools and classrooms, causing teachers to believe that the notion of “your kids” and “my kids” in the same classroom setting is somehow appropriate. Classroom teachers often believe that the achievement of students receiving special education services is the responsibility of the teacher with the special education designation while the other students in the classroom are the responsibility of the teacher with the general education designation. Our misguided idea that this is appropriate creates a rigid and uncomfortable environment for learning. In the name of special education, we have outcast and mistreated educators who work just as hard and many times even harder than their peers. Special education teachers have to know content well enough to identify possible gaps in understanding, figure out appropriate accommodations before the gap impedes the learning process, manage any other manifestations of a student’s dis/ability, and keep a detailed record of student progress. Yet, far too many special education teachers are asked to make copies, grade papers, attend to behavior infractions, and cover classes when they should be teaching, as if they don’t have an increasingly important job to do. In the name of special education, we have created progress monitoring systems that distract from an educator’s ability to provide the best learning experience and opportunities for students. Data matters. However, there are aspects of a child’s education that cannot be accurately capture by the data we attend to most. The fact that a student is a brilliant seamstress who has designed and created prom dresses for all of her friends will not be captured in “Sarah will increase the appropriate use of answering and asking questions using interrogative sentences in conversation and written work to 20 percent above baseline or 80 percent accuracy as measured by written work samples and observations during classroom discussion. Progress to be monitored and assessed every two seconds (two seconds is an exaggeration, but as a special education teacher, it definitely  feels like every two seconds).” Data matters, but sometimes our focus is off and we collect the wrong data. Special education, was created to be more dynamic than we have allowed. It was created to promote inclusion, yet has been used to foster exclusion. It was intended to be a learning ramp to a more robust education. It was created to push students forward, but has been used to keep them back. It is clear that we have misunderstood and sometimes misused special education. Special education deserves better from us. All of us.

Jemelleh Coes

Jemelleh Coes is Georgia’s 2014 Teacher of the Year. She spent six years teaching English/language arts and math in both the general and special education setting at Langston Chapel Middle School. While there, she also worked as the site supervisor for the 21st Century Learning Community Afterschool/Summer Program. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in educational theory and practice with certificates in interdisciplinary law and policy, disability studies, and qualitative research at the University of Georgia. She currently works as a field instructor for teacher candidates at the University of Georgia in the middle grades teacher preparation program. She also serves as a teacher mentor for classroom teachers throughout the state. In this capacity, she supports teachers with career development and special projects. While pursuing her terminal degree, Jemelleh serves as the education co-chair for Georgia’s National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Chapter, president-elect of the Georgia Teachers of the Year Association, advisory councilman for the Georgia Partnership of Excellence in Education, board member for the Georgia Cyber Academy, advisory councilman of Georgia’s Network for Transforming Educator Preparation, and board member for Georgia Southern University Alumni Association. She is also a very active member of  the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. She travels nationwide to give keynote addresses and workshops for schools, districts, policymakers, businesses, communities, and service organizations to discuss hot topics in  education and to keep them engaged in how everyone can work together to ensure a bright for all students. She is the daughter of immigrant parents from Guyana and a first-generation college graduate. She was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Decatur, Georgia. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degree in education from Georgia Southern University. She lives in Athens, Georgia with her husband Alvie Coes, III and three-year-old daughter, Gabrielle.

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