By Elizabeth Stein
As we all know, President Obama addressed American students on September 8, 2009. His back-to-school message was inspirational and realistic. He shared clear ideas about how each student could think and act in ways that would result in personal, community, and global achievements.
For purposes of this post, I will steer clear of the political focus of Obama's speech. I will share, however, my view that whenever the President of the United States wants to talk with students, it’s a good thing. All the hype that preceded the President’s address just made no sense to me. Obama’s message was motivating; he shared stories of people who refused to give up on their goals and eventually achieved success. He also encouraged students to work hard and do everything they can to meet their own goals. The President acknowledged that this requires hard work and determination—and he urged them to never give up. So as President Obama spoke to millions of Americans, he also spoke to individuals. As he aimed to change the world, he spoke to one child at a time…
When special educators think about how to make a difference, much depends on the setting and population of the students they teach. Of course, the more restrictive the environment, the more of an advocate they must be for their students. As the students get older and overcome learning difficulties—or learn to compensate for them—they must be given opportunities to exercise their abilities to make wise decisions about their present and their future. If possible, students must be a part of the process of making a difference.
This year I am teaching in a fifth-grade inclusion class. One of the things I love about teaching the intermediate grades is that, with guidance, the students can begin to become advocates for themselves. Over the course of the first month, I meet with each student to review his or her IEP goals, program modifications, and testing accommodations. I point out goals we are working to achieve, and I let them choose goals from the list to work on. Promoting this goal-oriented mindset can keep the students determined and motivated while making the work meaningful.
Of course, my intention is to guide students to become more independent for a successful school year. But more importantly, my aim is to give my students the necessary lifelong skills of self-discipline, determination, and leadership.
Some ways to turn your students into self-advocates:
- Teach specific learning strategies to guide independence.
- Engage in daily discussions to help develop their communication skills.
- Create a strong home-school connection.
- Teach organization and study skills.
- Incorporate cooperative learning activities.
A few years ago, I worked with a group of fourth graders in an inclusion class who were reading two-to-three years below grade level. The focus on “reading to learn” rather than “learning to read” posed a great challenge. Yet, halfway through November, I found a note on my desk that read: “Mrs. Stein, You make us want to read and write!” And each student signed the note. I know I was a part of something good here. At least it felt like I was a part of making a difference. But I still wonder about that.
The following year, these students still struggled significantly. Some of the progress from the year before was evident. Three of the five children, although still functioning below grade level, continued to make progress in attitude and performance. But the other two returned from the summer vacation with a defeated attitude. They were not the same enthusiastic students who left notes on my desk the year earlier. They decided to give into their struggles—they decided to give up.
Time for a reality check: I believe there are many variables that must be in place for a teacher to truly make a difference. Here are a few:
Variable 1: the school/peers/teachers
Variable 2: the home/parents
Variable 3: the student
As a teacher of the students described above, I know I was persistent in researching and implementing strategies, ensuring consistency, and maintaining a positive attitude. Yet, all variables needed to work together to make long-lasting change.
So, I may have been a part of making a difference for those students at one time, for those moments.
But for long-lasting change, it comes down to the students’ decision—the decision to never give up.