The tears I wiped away from the corners of my eyes on Friday night, at the moving up ceremony for our eighth graders, were not tears of regret for my decision to leave the classroom, nor were they tears about missing particular students as the year ended or colleagues as I ended a portion of my career. I was listening to a student sing a song often chosen by middle schoolers who like musicals. "Tomorrow, tomorrow...is only a day away." She sang with a strong voice, once she got used to the microphone and forgot her nervousness about the crowd. Another student had sung before her, with a paler voice, pitch perfect but thin. The applause matched it, strengthened only by the desire to get out of that auditorium and into the gym where they could move around and listen to loud music and show off their clothing. But then her singing was over and this girl stepped forward.
This girl would not have been in our school if not for two decisions on the part of our local school board, at the recommendation of our superintendent. She is in a special program for educating autistic children, one classroom of which is housed in our middle school so that its participants may be placed in core classrooms while receiving the support they need to succeed. Our school board had to approve the location of that group of students in our building. According to our superintendent, the decision was not unanimous. Some members had to be convinced that it was a good thing.
That same school board approved another recommendation by the superintendent, five years ago; that is, to pursue a policy of inclusion. Our classes would include all the students with individual educational plans, IEPs, and consultant teachers would be hired to co-teach for all students of differing abilities. In other words, resource room students were to receive the same education as their non-IEP classmates. This decision was controversial with teachers who felt unprepared or who didn't want to interrupt the sovereignty of their rule over day-to-day classroom curriculum. I admit that I was nervous about co-teaching, but I welcomed the shift in attitude and the insistence on teaching to all children instead of just to the middle.
And so it was that, five years later, Olivia, the singer, came to my classroom, and students like her to other classrooms, and students with a variety of special needs into other classrooms where they had seldom been seen before and had certainly not been welcomed with special instructional awareness before. Olivia, and these other students, came to be accepted and included by the other students, as well as teachers who felt more and more comfortable as training was provided and their comfort level with the consultant teachers increased.
I don't want anyone to think that our middle schoolers no longer used the words, "retard" or "retarded," in a negative way. I have had to say my standard admonishment, "We don't use that word in that way in this classroom," more than a few times this year. The behavior of students, the treatment of students with differing abilities by their classmates and by their teachers as well, though, has changed. Attitudes, and thence behavior, take time and legislation to change. The legislation was provided when the board adopted the inclusion policy, and invited the Oaktree classrooms to our district. Training came in fits and spurts, sometimes amid protest (it was stressful to be out of my classroom with state assessments and the accountability that accompanies them hanging over me) even as we knew we needed help. Time passed, until the evening that Olivia stepped to the microphone.
My tears came when her classmates heard her sing so beautifully and reacted so honestly by listening, murmuring their astonishment, and standing to give her a loud, heartfelt ovation. She almost couldn't continue the song because of her own tears, but her classmates stayed standing and the cheers subsided enough so that she could put the last chorus on the song and finish, again to loud applause, cheering, and obviously compassionate support. I was so moved by the changes in attitude displayed by often immature, needy, difficult eighth graders -- in other words, normal thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds.
Our school's journey to that moment was not easy or smooth, didn't always look polished or professional. I remember the first year when the state sent an audit team to evaluate our response to students with special needs, and I was so unsure of many practices in my classroom. We grew through that bumpy beginning, though. It was simply a given that our students were going to be given quality instruction in the same classroom at the level they required, with awareness of special needs, learning styles, brain-based research. All decisions flowed from that assumption. All expectations began there.
Underneath my proud tears and astonishment at our students' growth, at our school's growth, are my questions: why can't we make other educational changes so quickly? Why do some changes occur with just a bit of kicking and screaming, while other conflicts between past practice and current research resemble civil wars in third world countries, with fires set in the streets, sniping from the rooftops, secret meetings at midnight in the faculty lounges? How can educational reform happen faster so that more students reap the benefit of new research?