iep Archives - The Jose Vilson


I Am Special Ed

by Jose Vilson on September 27, 2011

in Mr. Vilson

Special Ed of “I Got It Made” Fame

I have a confession to make: at one point or another, at some point in my life, maybe even this one, I am “special ed.”

No, not the rapper, but the title we give to students who have specific needs that can’t be met in a 30 student to 1 teacher classroom. As I look around my classes over the last few years, none of the “special ed” kids looked any different from the other kids in my class. Only by looking at their IEPs (Individual Educational Program) and using my own assessments do I realize that certain students needs a little more attention than most … which is to say that I pay a lot of attention a lot of the time to even my most self-motivated students.

Thus, my mother added another layer to what I do in the classroom when my fiancee and I sat down with her and her friends for dinner. She started telling her friends that, in my youth, my school informally assessed me and said that I could qualify for special education classes. They also (very explicitly) told her that she would qualify for certain financial benefits that come with such a program. Her neck swiveled and snapped, telling the people who urged me to do this expressly (and in Spanish): “And then, they wanted to take my son and put him in a special class, and I said ‘NO! Absolutely not! If my son has a speech problem, then I’m going to take him to a speech therapist right at the hospital. Otherwise, you’re going to put him with the rest of the kids, and that’s that.”

I kept chewing on my food. I wanted to say, “Mom, my fiancee’s gonna think I’m nuts.” Then I realized that’s why we’re engaged. More importantly, I stood back because I didn’t even know this about myself. I do remember being placed in an ESL class in 1st grade, even though I read English ahead of the other kids in kindergarten. They kept me there for a day until I told my mom. Everything blanked out (as I’m sure she did) and next thing you know, I’m at the door of a 1st grade class where a young classmate greeted me with a “What are you doing here? Don’t you belong in the special class?”


During that first class, I went from being the kid who people considered too dumb to be in a regular class to a kid people considered too smart. The teacher tried to give me “extra work” to advance my learning. I did it for the first week, but rejected it after my teacher told me I couldn’t go higher than 100. (“What do you meaaaaannnn …“) Then they tried to skip me up a grade a few times. I relished the idea of older girls, but I didn’t want to feel weird because my classmates would be a whole year older. That’s like an eternity for a kid.

It’s as if I always knew I just wanted to be considered regular, normal, just like everybody else. I wanted to have the same experiences and not be exceptional. Maybe I’d fade into the background where I wouldn’t get called. That is, until I wasn’t pulling in the right grades. Then, my mom got on my case until I finally submitted to actually trying my hardest.

After mom blew up my spot in dinner, I sat there thinking of how my students must feel whenever people say they’re an IEP kid or that they’re getting special services … and the whole class knows. There’s no shame in needing circumstances that could best assure that learning occurs effectively for the student, whether in a 12 (students) – 1 (teacher) – 1 (paraprofessional) setting or a 30-to-1 setting. What’s most shameful is being in a situation where people (teachers included) don’t believe you can learn the same material that someone else can because they have to approach your learning a little differently.

For that, I guess I am special ed. I want the most special education for my students and want them all to have enough time for each of them. I’d love for there to be special attention given to every student and already have an individualized program for each student so they all feel included in the school culture. The more demanding their needs, the more attention they get, and the more resources carefully placed in their direction.

I am special ed, and in a way, so are you.

Mr. Vilson, who wants you to visit my page and hit “Like.” Because we’re special.


No Doubt

“Well, not for nothing, but the student you’re looking at now has an IEP. She’s come a long way from where she was …”

In my mind, I was thinking, “The next word out of your mouth when talking about my students better not classify them as ‘ELL’ or ‘IEP’.”As Ira Socol said in a lively discussion (that I’m not sure he thought I was paying attention to), these terms are often no different than “retard,” “stupid,” or “less than adequate” in the context of too many conversations we as educators have.

On the Future of Teaching blog, I went into more detail about my beliefs about students with “disabilities” and how often we focus on the first prefix rather than the rest of the world. The prefix in the context we give it (and a popular prefix) can be debilitating. This is especially true when the teacher thinks that there’s something to be embarrassed about for the student, or the teacher is defending his or her work in front of visitors of any color, and there’s something inherently wrong there.

Nothing tells me more about a teacher than when they use labels first to discuss students. Part of it isn’t their fault. We’ve been trained too often to make classifications for our students right off the bat. Students get a certain number and letter combination for their main class. They get testing modifications that sometimes make no sense. Teachers get data from grandiose systems that put classification before academic performance. In some cases, the classification is right next to the parents’ name and date of birth. As a matter of fact, because of the way certain classes are set up, even the teacher who teaches these students gets a label for their ability and specialty, limiting the teacher as a professional.

What I’d love to see in a dialogue between teacher and any other professional, more than anything, is the following:

  1. A student’s name and class
  2. The student’s proficiency levels in the subject I’m looking for
  3. Some strategies that the teacher has used to address that student’s need
  4. Maybe some socio-emotional contingents here
  5. How well the student performs in other classes besides yours and the like
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  20. The student has an IEP / is an ELL.

I know this sounds rather optimistic, and maybe even a little naive. Of course these classifications will come up eventually. With all the data-driven education of the day, the state regulations (some of which do the job and others that hinder it), and the plethora of ed-reformers who believe anything that fits their corporate-driven agenda. It’s complicated and, while those of us who want to see these classifications get less priority see some progress, it’s going to be a long way to go. Other labels are on the horizon, and we need to understand how these labels work before we put them in the educational zeitgeist.

After the teacher said that to me, I turned around and waved my hands, saying, “You know, it’s OK. I don’t need to know all that.” In my head, I was thinking, “You’re trying to hard to lower standards even when you’re not seeing it. The kid will suffer if you keep that up.”

I just hope the teacher got the intended and the ostensible message there.

Mr. Vilson, who doesn’t want you to tell me ’cause it hurts.