Being a teacher is more than knowing one’s content and “covering” the material. Effective teachers do what they can to connect with each student
and build a community of learners who connect with one another.
The Individuals with Educational Disabilities Act (IDEA) provides for accommodations—that is, services to assist students with documented disabilities so they can access appropriate educational opportunities.
When people talk of classroom “accommodations” they generally examine them from the perspective of the student with the disability. Services like note-taking, extra-time on tests, assignment due date adjustments, use of recording devices, seating arrangements and the like often appear on letters classroom teachers receive from the coordinator for disability services. I received many such notices during my teaching career.
And while the accommodations were for the benefit of my students with disabilities, they made me a better teacher. Much better.
They stretched my pedagogical comfort zone. My teaching became more empathic and focused. And, in the end all of my students benefited—not just those with documented disabilities.
I vividly recall three (of many) teaching and learning instances over my 33 years in the classroom that reinforced the value of accommodations. I am forever grateful to these students. They taught me a great deal.
Lesson #1. One day I noticed a young man in the hallway. He appeared to be standing in a corner beside a classroom door. I then saw him back up a step and move forward directly into the wall. He did it again. I said hello and asked if he needed assistance. It was then that I discovered he was blind (I had not seen his cane). He turned toward me and with a slight smile said he was just trying to get into the classroom door but had gotten lost. My heart melted. I helped him to the room. He said thank you. I had an empathetic experience. How could I be a part of this brief encounter and not be changed in some manner? My respect for the challenge this young man—and others like him—faced, along with the courage he had, moved me to want to learn more and to do what I could to assist in their educational aspirations.
Lesson #1.1. Tim eventually enrolled in one of my history classes. One day we had a power outage and the room went black. As students gasped, he said from the back of the room with a wry sense of humor, “Welcome to my world.” Indeed. He always had a sense of humor no matter what he faced.
Lesson #2. I depend on visuals when I teach a class or speak to an audience. I take pride in putting time and effort into finding the right image to create the appropriate setting and message. One day as I was going through my slide deck in class, I looked over to my right. There in the front row was Joe, a blind student with a service dog beside him. It hit me like cold water. No matter how beautiful my images, they would do Joe no good at all. I stopped, turned to my sighted students, and asked them to describe graphically the images before them. Make them come alive! This helped Joe see the images in his mind’s eye.
Lesson #2.1. My sighted students benefited from my change in methodology. Verbal descriptions forced them to articulate what they saw. They could not just sit passively and observe the images. They had to take a more active part in their educational process and at the same time help a classmate with his. Community building one image and interaction at a time.
Lesson #3. Krista helped me to reach another level of the teacher-student relationship. She brought both visual and hearing impairments to our class. The first thing she did was to reach out and visit me in my office before the semester started. I had already received the accommodation notice. Her proactive visit, though, set a positive and interactive tone for our teacher-student relationship. Even though she had a note-taker in class, I learned quickly that her hearing impairment created challenges I did not anticipate. While she had some hearing, Krista had to wear hearing aids. And that created clarity issues when I played video for the class. What we discovered through trial and error was that if I placed her microphone (the one I wore each class that was connected to her device) close to the classroom wall mounted speaker, clarity improved dramatically for her. The joke became that I would jump on chairs for Krista—as every time a video came on, I got up on a chair and held the mic close to the speaker. The accommodation (developed by Krista and me working in concert) worked. For more information see the recommended video of the week below.
Lesson #3.1. Yes, I had to wear a microphone. Yes, I choose to jump up on chairs. And, yes, the class as a community became part of Krista’s educational journey.
Accommodations help the identified students. And they go far beyond that. Each accommodation becomes a step in the choreography of the classroom, in the educational dance. Being a teacher is more than knowing one’s content and “covering” the material. Teachers do what they can to connect with each student and build a community of learners who connect with one another. Tim, Joe, and Krista (and many others) became my teachers.
Video recommendation for the week:
Listen and learn about resilience. My student Krista Waters “taught” me a few things. Let her teach you a few things about proactivity, discipline, and fortitude.
Make it an inspiring week and H.T.R.B. as needed.
For information about and to order my new book, Stories About Teaching, Learning, and Resilience: No Need to be an Island, click here.
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My podcasts: The Growth and Resilience Network™ (http://stevepiscitelli.com/media-broadcast/podcast).
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Pearson Education publishes my student textbooks for life success—Choices for College Success (3rd edition) and Study Skills: Do I Really Need This Stuff? (3rd edition).
(c) 2017. Steve Piscitelli. All rights reserved.
Great post! Uplifting and practical. So happy that you acknowledged our mutual student/friend. It is well deserved and wonderfully timely!!
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As a blind writing instructor, I remember what it was like to be a disabled student – often the only disabled student in the class. You have expressed a series of beautiful student-teacher relationships here. Having disabled students in class does not slow down the course or put a burden on the instructor. These students have the right to an education, and their presence in class has the potential to make us all better learners.
Too often conversations about disability tiptoe around these seemingly difficult issues and barriers, but the best way forward is open and honest communication about our needs, strengths, and ideas. In a classroom where the teacher models inclusion and empathy, we can invite our students to model such behaviors in the world beyond. Disability is not a dirty word, but the pressure of confidentiality can make some students feel ashamed or awkward, even if they are not disabled. Open and honest conversation about accommodations makes everyone realize that a disability is not a curse or a shameful burden.
At the start of the semester, I briefly explain the accommodations I will need from students. Most of them have not encountered a blind person, much less a blind instructor before. One student stopped at my desk and said, “All my other teachers want us to print in size 12 font. Why do you ask us to print in size 18?” I answered, “So I can read your work.” He seemed surprised at such a simple matter-of-fact answer. But I think discussions like that are the best kind of activism. Just show disabled people doing their jobs, participating in their chosen hobbies, or out buying groceries, and people will realize that we aren’t pariahs or charity cases to be pitied.
Bravo, Steve, for your commitment to all your students!
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