As a grad student we’re often asked to reflect on our teaching philosophy, and how we see ourselves decreasing the achievement gap. Over the past 11 months my philosophy hasn’t changed much. However, my understanding of the challenges faced by students growing up in an urban jungle like New York City has definitely become more clear. Here’s my first stab at my teaching philosophy from back in July 2012.
Since beginning the application process for the New York City Teaching Fellows, I have consistently refined my understanding of what it means to be a teacher of students with disabilities in the twenty first century. I believe that I will need to seamlessly understand and care for the sensitivity of my students’ disabilities, all while still striving to push my students toward a positive well-being and holistic development, even if they don’t initially see the reason(s) behind my methods. Many times students may feel as though they know what the best direction is for themselves, but as a teacher, I must be sure to always steer my class in the direction that will enlighten them, and best prepare them for the end goal: graduation and being positive contributors to their communities.
I believe teachers need to have enough awareness in themselves to know what purpose(s) they stand for in life. It will be hard to direct students as they begin their expectations through academia and life if I, as a teacher, don’t know what life has taught me. Students want to feel like they know their teachers. How will they get to know me if you don’t know myself?
Students need an advocate that can fight for them behind the scenes in IEP meetings, meetings with administrators and meetings with parents. Being a strong advocate on my students’ behalf is important, but it must also take a backseat to advocating and fighting for my students in front of the classroom. They will need me to fight daily for their attention, support, and learning to ensure their growth.
Throughout my time as a Long Island University graduate student, I have been able to consume and digest many different articles and media clips showcasing the diversity and depth of the special education epidemic in America. These resources have been immensely informative and have strongly helped me cultivate the image I have for myself as a teacher in the New York City public school system.
“… [The] disproportionate referral and placement of African American students in special education has become a discursive tool for exercising White Privilege and racism… African American students are disproportionately referred to and placed in high-incidence special education categories of mental retardation, emotional or behavioral disorders, and learning disabilities… These realities suggest that “race matters,” both in educators’ initial decisions to refer students for special education and in their subsequent placement decisions for students identified and labeled as having disabilities” (Blanchett, 2006).
As a future special education teacher, I was disturbed to read about the history of special education, and how race, class, and culture have been used to determine potential learning gaps in a student. This was a red flag indicating that minority students were assumed to be at a disadvantage, and therefore more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability, due to the cultural trends of their households. This mentality was prevalent in special education’s infancy as a way to sustain the systematic framework of white privilege through our children’s public education. However, my fear comes from the understanding that today, many practitioners still view students with non-mainstream cultural beliefs and upbringings as disadvantaged compared to their assimilated counterparts based solely on their race, class, and culture. This has helped to perpetuate White Privilege and minority disadvantage.
Using race, class, and culture as a barometer for student disability is detrimental to our development as effective and agile teachers and more importantly the development of our students. The New York City Teaching Fellows program, in context, is comprised of hundreds of individuals looking to recast the mold that has thus far predetermined our students suppressed life opportunities, on top of the social, systematic, and economic challenges that their living situations may present. Our goal is to help close the achievement gap between urban schoolchildren and their private/suburban counterparts. I believe that there is a danger to framing inner-city education this way. This frame subtly supports the notion that race, class, and culture may in fact be one of the reasons why students have additional barriers to get an equal education. Whether these barriers are self-imposed or imposed by one of America’s many systems of oppression is less important than the knowledge that students from low-income backgrounds are academically behind their peers. The piece that gets lost in this argument is that the inner-city students still have the tools to become successful learners and productive citizens inside of them. Our students have been labeled to their own detriment, what they need are caring individuals in their lives who can see past their cultural differences to help show the children different ways to access the same academic knowledge as their suburban and private school peers.
As a new educator, I am concerned with helping my students increase their academic and personal development regardless of the level they come to me, and identifying new students that may need special education services to fully benefit from their education. My main challenge will be doing this without falling into the same cycle of elevated minority student identification and placement into special education. One of the techniques I believe will be important for me to use is the idea of personal narrative and personal agency.
“…research with those labeled as “others” – with the specific desire to use their own words to represent themselves – enables the co-construction of knowledge. Such knowledge, therefore, attempts to address widespread misrepresentation, as well as imbalances of power” (Connor, 2006).
As an educator, I need to assume that my students come with a level of competence and understanding of the world and their roles in it that I may not be aware of, or perhaps may want to overlook due to my status as the classroom leader. I want to infuse the concept of personal narrative into my instruction and classroom management to show students that I respect and accept them for who they are, knowledgeable beings. I come from a community-based organization that honored students’ agency in the programmatic decision making process. This agency gave us a better sense of what our young adults believed worked for them, and what helped them create a more solid view of themselves as young leaders.
I want my students to have the same agency in my classroom. Many people probably envision that teaching urban students with disabilities is a restrictive classroom environment. However, I think actively seeking out and using my students input will help transform my class into a more lively and enriching atmosphere for all of my classroom’s stakeholders. My students will feel empowered to be active participants in the creation and sustainability of my classroom culture. I will also bring empowerment into the classroom by helping my special education students grasp the steps involved in creating and implementing their individual education plans.
“Through our research on student-led IEPs, we found that students andteachers alike reported that students using this process knew more about their disabilities, legal rights, and appropriate accommodations than other students and the students gained increased self-confidence and the ability to advocate for themselves” (Mason, C. Y., MaGahee-Kovac, M., & Johnson, L., 2004).
The techniques will also help my students feel more independent, and capable of confronting challenges and working through problems with assistance from a supportive staff member.
In conclusion, the articles, videos, and the class discussions have helped increase my knowledge and understanding of the special education field in general, my own classroom practice, and personal philosophy as a teacher. I’m interested in seeing how my views and opinions about education shift through my years of interacting with students, parents, teachers, administrators, and government systems. My plan is to revisit this paper in my times of strength and struggle in a continued push for clarity.
Blanchett, W. (2006). Disproportionate representation of african american students in special education: acknowledging the role of white privilege and racism. Educational Researcher, 35(6), 25.
Connor, D. (2006). Michael’s story: “i get into so much trouble just by walking”. Equity & Excellence in Education, 39, 163.
Mason, C., MaGahee-Kovac, & M., Johnson, L. (2004). How to help students lead their iep meetings. Council for Exceptional Children, 18.