Presuming competence is the foundation for effective special education. We can no longer build models based on repetitive behaviors, rewards, and exclusion. Our lack of understanding as educators must be the curiosity incubator rather than the cage that causes us to recoil when our foundations and pedagogies are questioned. We must evolve from the mindset of you must learn to fit in and change into I was wrong so let’s learn together.
Curiosity did not kill the cat, repetition did; adherence to the thinking that what worked once will always work.
My first person understanding of disability did not insulate me from error as a special education teacher. My insight allowed me to presume competence and then allowed me to test my theories on myself. Before I tell you my story, Phoenix, I wish I could ask the NT world to settle into their posture, put on some relaxing music, grab a hot beverage and prepare to absorb my ideas with a fresh perspective. I dare not say open mind because I do not want to set the stage for inactive absorption. I’d rather they listen actively, react, get mad if they need too (I find having paper to crinkle and throw is helpful). Just be ready to consider something new.
Our brains will thank us.
No one had ever taken me seriously before, not like this. I had been a freelance teacher for 20 years to a wide variety of leaners. In my 20 years of teaching to that date, I had students with ADHD, hearing impairments, and even non-verbal ASD, which allowed me to develop a few theories and interventions in education. My against the grain thinking had gotten me uninvited more than accepted, and limited me from traditional teaching positions. No matter, the work was rewarding. I was teaching students other teacher’s couldn’t teach.
THe results were obvious to parents and those closely involved with the students, but I always seemed to hit a wall of disbelief among fellow educators . and schools. Most of my “how about we try this” moments were answered with “that’s a nice dream but it won’t happen.” It was frustrating.
So you can imagine my surprise when Hirsch Academy in Decatur, Georgia called me in to discuss starting a music class. I told them my experience, and my dream, making all of these bold statements that anyone, and I mean anyone, can learn to play music. After I finished my presentation, they said, “Ok, let’s do it. What do you need?”
[insert draw dropping emoji here]
They said yes, with enthusiasm. I was walking new territory and I had no idea what to ask for. The leaders at Hirsch wasted no time. They contacted every student, getting half of their student body to enroll in lessons, put them in contact with me, created space in their school, and help me set up a schedule. Not only did they create space in their school, they created space in their community for me. They introduced me around to parents and professionals in the community. A few times they hired me to speak to parents about living with Autism, hoping that my message would add support to their community too.
This level of presuming competence was unparalleled. The leaders as Hirsch;
1 – Presumed competence in their students by believing they could learn to acquire the skill of playing an instrument.
2- Presumed competence in me as their teacher, seeing my autism as a valuable asset and insight needed to balance out their environment.
3 – Set up the environment to ensure success, never once placing me in a closet or making me hang out alone after school. I was treated as part of the faculty, and interacted with the other teachers.
4 – Created flexibility in their acceptance and supports so we could learn from failures and improve what was offered. They never allowed any one else’s doubt to set me up to fail.
5 – Installed me into their community to give me support, and infuse me with loving energy.
No goal was too lofty. What we were trying to achieve was never reduced or discouraged. Instead they helped me to facilitate a realistic timeline for a student’s goals. This allowed me to dream with the students, and explore the marvel of music.
Day one of classes approached, and I was bursting with energy. I got set up, and laid out all the instruments for the kids to try. Each student entered excited, and nervous, about the possibility of exploring a musical instrument. I was living a dream, and they were getting to dream. It was perfect.
A little after noon, a student came in with a good bit of body control issues. This student was non-speaking. (I am intentionally keeping their identity quiet. Her is meant to be gender neutral as this is meant to be a combined experience of two students.) I placed the instrument on her shoulder and helped her play. As she started to grasp what to do, I was stunned by the stark realization that I was wrong.
I had come into the school, after a few years of experience teaching another non-speaking ASD student, believing that I just needed to break down the pieces. But I was wrong. My first ASD student was in early primary school and though this approach was good for her, older non-speaking students would be insulted.
The more I realized I was wrong, the more excited I got. I was wrong that they needed it broken down, they were capable of much, much more. You and I felt the Autism energy, Phoenix. An energy exchange that I cannot explain to NT people, but is an obvious language between people with Autism. I could feel this student screaming inside. I needed to help her get out.
That evening I went home and I was up all night. I went into restructure mode, replaying my entire repertoire of music in my mind. This is a bigger process than you think because I have every piece of music I have ever played memorized and catalogued in my head – though I forget the titles often. WIth each song, I rebuilt the method and realized that for a student like this to study music professionally, I was going to have to change everything.
Here is what I discovered –
1 – Do not break it down, pull it apart. People with Autism are fighting our bodies ability to communicate with the mind. Yes, shorter steps can be helpful, but that often leads to oversimplification. Don’t make it lesser. Unbox it and let is explore. We learn all the same pieces, but we don’t assemble them in the same order because we have to start where our bodies are least limited.
2 – Repetition has it’s limits. We reach maximum absorption of new concepts that are related to purposeful motor. Intellectual concepts are dry, so we soak those up fast. But purposeful motor is heavily saturated. We need time to absorb motor, and each of us at different rates on different days. Our ability to absorb motor changes as frequently as the weather, but that doesn’t mean we won’t come back to it. I learned to push motor to a point, and then MOVE ON TO SOMETHING NEW. Waiting until acquisition of skill was proved was torture. Students get it, I just return to it later. Like sweeping up sand, we can’t get it all the first go around.
3 – Deliberately differentiate between Basic and Simple. Basic skills are the foundation points for learning anything. Beginnings are fine, and we all start there. However, special education has this problem with making things Simple. It’s a way to waterdown concepts because the approach is that kids with disabilities cannot learn like their NT peers. Basic is the training wheels. Simple is the tricycle.
4 – Independence is not yoked to skill acquisition, it is a result of self-advocacy. A student can learn to do everything they need to life an independent life, but without self-advocacy they will not have the self-confidence to try, accept failure, and know when to ask for help.
Ok, the 4th one I already knew but I learned I was right, and then some. The beauty of this was I was finally able to express my ideas, test them, be wrong, and then grow them all because someone said, “we believe in you” and then made sure the road didn’t crumble beneath my feet.
That is presuming competence and the amazing result of letting us fall.
Until nest time,