Teaching the Individual

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by Malory Campbell

Malory is a second year teacher in San Diego California and has experience as a elementary and middle school teacher and special education resource teacher. She is a fan of all things the beach, sun, and coffee!

I am on my second year of teaching in San Diego, California. I have taught 5-7th grade general education. I have also worked as a Special Education resource teacher.

When I began looking for resources for my first student with Autism, I quickly pinned dozens of items on my Pinterest account. This is so great, I thought, it was so easy to find this stuff, and it will solve everything! Wooohoo teacher of the year! Right? Wrong.

 What many people don't realize when they begin working with kids who have special needs is that every case is different. What works for one student may not work with another. I gave my student with autism a stress ball, and thought it would magically fix everything. 

That it would keep him from throwing a fit any time the schedule changed. That it would keep the rest of the class from seeing him as some sort of alien.

That it would help him learn. That was my first mistake.

In doing this, I put my student in a box. I wasn't really trying to help him, I was trying to fix him. 

Now, I'm not saying stress balls are bad. For one student, it may help to ease their mind, but for another student, it may become a weapon to peg other kids with.

My student was the latter. 

I finally sat down to my computer to do some real research, not just adding to a Pinterest board. What was supposed to take 30 minutes quickly stretched into hours, reading article after article. But when I stood in front of my class the next day, I still felt like I knew nothing. 

Special Education is a huge topic, and there is SO much information out there. I felt so overwhelmed that I tried implementing as many things as I could the first day. I'm so behind, I thought, I've been this kid's teacher for 2 months and haven't given him all these supports that he needs!

That was my second mistake. 

Can you imagine how my poor student must have felt? One day he comes into class, and randomly, his crazed teacher starts pummeling him with a desk schedule, fidget toys, flexible seating, and rules (or lack of) that applied to only him? Poor kiddo.  Although my intentions were good, I could see the frustration and embarrassment all over his face. All I did was further alienate him from his peers. When I sat down to research once again, I felt defeated. I ended up calling an old teacher of mine who had always made differentiating instruction look painless and easy. 

How am I supposed to plan a lesson when I have 25 different students all with different learning abilities, different learning styles, different needs, different backgrounds - and I'm supposed to make learning FUN?! 

She laughed and simply said, "Teach the individual, not the curriculum."  No idea what that means... I thought as we hung up. 

Here goes nothing, I thought as I began writing down attributes of my students. At first it was an attempt to include things to generate student interest into my lessons, but it quickly went beyond that. Soon, I had 25 separate lists, including interests, family lives, personalities, quirks, senses of humor, behaviors, etc. 

Still unsure of how it would help, I stood in front of my class with a different point of view. 

I was seeing them, not what my research had told me about them. 

So keeping my students in mind, I proceeded to give directions for the presentation project we would work on.

I knew C hated speaking in front of an audience. I went up to him privately: C, you may present to me and one other friend during lunchtime if you prefer.

I knew M always did well on projects using colors. M, go ahead and color code your project.

I knew J might need some space spread out. J, you may work at my desk.

I knew L gets stressed over time limits. L, take as much time as you need.

When I turned to look at my class, I saw smiles. Some were even humming to themselves as they worked. Then I saw my student with autism, the one I had been worried about supporting, come up to me. Thanks for not making me the only one, he said. 

I realized that in teaching to the individuals in my class, I had taken the pressure off of my friend. I had been teaching my lessons to two groups: the typical general ed student and the typical special ed student. 

That was my third mistake. 

In reality, I should have been teaching my lessons to 25 different kids - not to two separate groups. Because each student should be allowed to learn at their own level. Once I started teaching to the individuals in my class instead of a curriculum, there was nothing our class couldn't do.