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Reflections from a “General Education Teacher” at the “Parent Mentor Conference”

By Jennifer Johnson

This fall, I had the extraordinary opportunity to go where very few general education teachers have ventured before:  The annual GA Parent Mentor Conference.  It was a week of emotionally uplifting stories, informative academic sessions and moments of bonding with fellow parents, educators and community activists within the special education community. I entered the conference as a passionate, yet slightly worn out, advocate. Before reflecting on my time and posing sJennifer headshotuggestions as to why general education teachers should attend each year, please take a brief peek into what brought me to the conference in the first place.

My parents gifted me with a childhood of inclusivity.  I grew up as a pastor’s daughter where opportunities to serve others were frequent and diverse.  My parents often tell me I was born active, tenacious and driven.  Their challenge became in steering my passionate (and sometimes defiant) personality into an opportunity to be someone who could fight for social justice and equality. Recognizing those personality traits in me, my parents consistently sought ways to provide authentic moments for me to develop a natural sense for and a passionate belief in being an inclusion human being.  Meaning, all humans had an important and equal role to play in the lives of one another.  They took my fire and pointed me in directions where I wasn’t afraid to stand up for what I felt was needed for any individual that didn’t always have a voice.

As a young adult, I pursued the path of education.  I had a heart for ALL children and entered the education program with a desire to change lives as best as I could. The college that I attended offered a dual certification in general and special education.  My intention was to pursue the dual degree.  However, as I began taking classes and interacting with peers and professors I became discouraged and enraged with the disregard that students with exceptionalities were being given.  A professor told me that due to a lack of special educators, it was unlikely that I would ever be in a regular education classroom if I became certified in both. She was actually attempting to talk me out of a special education degree. This was 2005!!! How had we not come any further as an educational society?! It was at that moment that I decided I would be a special educator in a general education environment.  I graduated with a single degree in early childhood education only.  From day one, I volunteered and insisted on being the mainstream, inclusion, co-teaching class for my grade.  I didn’t have all the knowledge or experience (and continue to improve) on how to help the 25 students within my classroom, but I had the heart and the open mind to give every breath that I had to them.  My journey to advocacy also led me to become the mother of 3 unique and inspiring children.  My husband and I adopted two of those children from the foster care system within Georgia at the age of 9 and 11.  Between the three, I have a child with a 504 and a child with an IEP.  People who knew me before thought I was “crazy” enough as it was…. Imagine me sitting in IEP meetings as a mama bear trying to make up for not being able to fight for my child for the first nine years of his life.

In my ten years as a gen ed teacher, I have had many opportunities to observe and reflect upon how special and general educators interact and perceive one another. I’ve had many conversations with parents (of students with exceptionalities) on how they view general education teachers. Us general education teachers aren’t always looked upon favorably and are sometimes seen as an obstacle for children with disabilities.  Honestly, I can see why! I continue to be amazed and disgusted by the mindset of “SOME” general education teachers.  It’s appalling. That being said, I have the privilege of working with unique, caring and passionate general education teachers who care about all of the students in their classrooms.  These are teachers who laugh, cry, love and pray for their students of all differing abilities.  That fact is why I believe the Parent Mentor Program could benefit from inviting and including as many general education teachers as they can get their hands on.

I was invited to attend and present alongside my county’s special education director and parent mentor. We presented on the topic “Where I Sit.” The purpose of the session was to train individuals in understanding the viewpoints and roles that all of the individuals bring to an IEP meeting.  Our goal was to create environments within an IEP that lead to productive, beneficial and effective IEP meetings.  As a presenter, I had the chance to then sit in on many sessions covering a myriad of topics.

Here is what I learned and/or what other general education teachers could take away from this partnership with the parent mentors.

  •      Parent Mentors are NOT just hired to prevent parents from suing the school system!

Here I was a long time teacher who advocated for students with exceptionalities and I didn’t even realize we had a parent mentor who could guide and support my students and the parents.  This conference was a profound moment for me as I realized how vital their role is in our school system and community.

  •      Passionate Parents Change Communities

Having the opportunity to hear about the trials, obstacles, heartbreaks and AMAZING PERSEVERANCE of families with children who are differently abled can change a general educator’s mindset forever! The passion exuded from them can pour into the soul of a gen ed teacher and reignite the flame for change.

Scroll down for a Roll Call of Parent Mentors who previously served as teachers.

  •      Sensitive Word Choice/Vocabulary

The entire event included words that were naturally occurring within parent mentor and special educator communities.  Phrases like: special education is a series of services not a location, differently abled, exceptional children, assistive technology, adaptive services, transition plans: are not typically words that general educators are exposed to. The conference was an amazing opportunity for a general educator to develop his or her vocabulary when building relationships with parents.

  •      Community Involvement

Hearing from organizations such as “Maven Makers” highlighted the vital and absolutely necessary part that communities play in helping create an opportunity for students with disabilities to thrive and contribute to their society.  Partnerships with community leaders and businesses play a substantial part in allowing youth with exceptionalities to develop self-determination and individualized success.

  •      Parents of Students with Special Needs Want and Desire the Same Things for Their Children as Anyone Else. Let that thought sit there for a minute……..These parents (myself included) want our children with exceptionalities to make friends like everyone else, to have a sense of belonging, to find and feel success within the school building, to attend technical schools or colleges, to find work that fulfills and provides for them, for them to find love, to interact and be accepted by the world around them.  Imagine being a parent that is consistently told “YOUR CHILD CAN’T or WON’T!” General education teachers need opportunities to have dinner with these parents, hear these parents speak, meet the students and see the successes possible when we don’t say or think: “He CAN’T or He WON’T”
  •      General Education Teachers Need Professional Development in areas of Specialized Instruction

It’s been my experience (in more than one county) that general education teachers comment that they can’t help their students with IEPs because they don’t have the expertise that the co-teacher does.  As a general education teacher, I spend countless hours each year on becoming a better writing teacher, or learning new math strategies or being introduced to new technologies. They are programs offered and/or required by their system of employment. General educators are not often given a chance to attend very specific classes on providing for the students within their mainstream class the proper support and interventions.  I like to think (and hope) that many general education teachers would love to participate in professional development within the realm of exceptionalities.

  •      General Education Teachers Have Power

If we within the school system identify the right teacher-leader educators in the general population I believe we could see expedited changes for our students with differing abilities!  Even a handful of regular ed teachers can go back to a school system and spread their newfound knowledge and passion to their teaching peers.

o   Just from spending 3 days in Savannah, I have come up with 4 immediate goals and plans to take back to my school.

  •  #1- I am working on adding an “adaptive games” element to our annual fall festival so that all students will have access to carnival games within their school and be provided a natural chance to socialize with peers.
  •  #2- I am collaborating with our school’s PTO to inform parents of the information they can obtain and use to help their child by accessing the GA DOE’s SLDS platform.
  •  #3- I am writing and creating 4th grade curriculum that aligns with state standards while creating an “inclusive” friendly classroom. Students will use reading, writing and research skills to develop technology, art and other presentations highlighting famous figures that overcame disability obstacles and changed our world.  They will have an opportunity to be involved in a community event celebrating the arts this upcoming spring.
  •  #4- I was able to make contacts with professionals in specialized fields (such as Trauma) that I can reach out to, to help any students in my room who may be dealing with childhood trauma and how they cope within the school building

I will leave you with a question to think about.  Can you picture a general education teacher that contributed to the success of your child? A teacher who you knew shared the responsibility and passion for advocating for your child? A teacher with the skills to differentiate instruction and treat all students as though they each had an individualized education plan? Do you know a general education teacher filled with drive for social and educational change?  I would highly recommend that your child’s school system provide an opportunity to work with the Parent Mentor Partnership.  General educators can be just one more needed piece to help with the family, school, and community elements so desperately necessary for our children’s success!