special education Archives - The Jose Vilson

special education

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.


Jaime Escalante

A few weeks ago @billcelis, one of my Twitter friends (still trying to adjust to ‘follower’) posted an article about notable educator Jaime Escalante, the main character in ‘Stand and Deliver.’ I am sure that every educator has seen the movie at least once; I think my count is closer to ten. Anyway, here is a link to the article. Mr. Escalante is very ill; he has been battling cancer for some time now. I was saddened by his story for a number of reasons. First, it appears that he is really suffering and may be near the end of his life. His family is also having a difficult time covering his medical expenses. But I was truly saddened for selfish reasons.

When he is gone, who will take his place?

I don’t mean who will be the next Jaime Escalante, per se, but really, who will be the next educator, parent, politician, etc. to take that type of stand for our kids? After all, he fought to teach his students the higher-level math (Remember when Lou Diamond Phillips’ character asked: “Who is Cal-culus?”) Everyone in the school thought he was crazy, but he was determined to prove that kids from the barrio (that’s neighborhood for the rest of you) could learn too.

Well, I kinda giggled too because I remember when my Yankee-ass decided to follow the district’s plan to teach Algebra to all 8th grade students. Keep in mind, I was a Special Education teacher. Most of my students had been “diagnosed” with a Learning Disability, Emotional Behavior Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, or a combination of the preceding. Basically, I taught kids who had been written-off by the system. On top of that, I was working at an alternative school at the time. Our students were sent to us after being expelled from their assigned schools. So here I was, sitting at a department meeting, eager as a beaver about teaching Algebra (an actual math class, with actual objectives and standards) during the upcoming year.

I remember that day as if it were yesterday. One of my colleagues said: “If they can learn Algebra, then they don’t need to be in a Special Education classroom. They should be in Regular Ed. You will be wasting your time, don’t even worry about it.”

Well damn. Talk about raining on someone’s parade.

It’s a good thing I don’t put much stock in other people’s negativity. I maintained my excitement and proceeded to comb local video stores for ‘Stand and Deliver.’ I thought, what better way to start the class then to show my students that they could (and would) learn Algebra, regardless of what others expected?

Fast forward to the start of the next school year. I found the video online, watched it at home to jog my memory, and prepared discussion questions to go along with our viewing. I opened the class with an explanation of the district’s new policy requiring all 8th grade students to take algebra. Of course, they moaned and groaned because they believed they were not smart enough to learn algebra (only after hearing it and being fed a watered-down curriculum for so long.) I explained that we were going to watch a movie, one that I thought would provide them with some motivation; they needed to be able to relate to someone in a similar situation, e.g., being labeled and assigned to a lifetime of remedial education.

In goes the movie.

Day One viewing, discussion, and writing went well. The kids were excited and said they were looking forward to watching the next day. (Little did they know that part of the motivation for watching the movie was keeping peace in the classroom!) Calling Day Two a ‘teachable moment’ would be an understatement. For some reason or other, the principal decided to pop into my room. I know it was not due to a disciplinary issue because the kids were really into the movie; one or two of them even had the nerve to shush the principal when he interrupted (more internal giggles from me).

The students were intently watching the movie when the principal asked, holding the (VHS) video case: “What’s this movie about?”

One of my students replied: “Man, if you read the box, you would know what the movie is about.” Not in a comical, joking sorta way. He was dead serious.

Outwardly, I wore my teacher-face and told the student that his response was inappropriate and that I would handle the situation. Internally, I was high-fiving him because, well, he was right. The movie synopsis was on the back of the video box, plain as day. But I knew that I needed to correct the student before the principal did because many of those young men neither liked nor respected him. Furthermore, had the principal said anything to him, it would have turned into a pissing match (you know how you males do) and all of the students would have inserted themselves into the situation. That is what I wanted to avoid because my students were already outcasts, both within that school and at their traditional schools. Despite my efforts, the students were still upset. Besides, that would have definitely ruined the lesson for that day and we all would have been in unpleasant moods.

Myself included.

For some reason or another, I was called into the principal’s office a week or two later; my department chair was also present. (Side Note: I spent more time in the principal’s office in my 5 years as a teacher than I did all my years as a student.) I had no idea why I was called in, but I knew I was in trouble for something! This man had the unmitigated gall (I really like saying that) to say that the movie was inappropriate for showing during the instructional day and it was not tied to the curriculum. (My mind was turning, thinking “This dumb S.O.B. hasn’t the first clue about curriculum.”) But I kept my cool.

I asked: “Why is it inappropriate?”
His response:
“Well, when I walked in, I saw the guy smoking a cigarette.”
Long pause (trying to calm the screams in my head):
“Are you sure he was smoking a cigarette? I don’t remember that.”
Him: “Yes.”

I reviewed the movie in my head because I honestly did not remember anyone smoking a cigarette. However, more importantly, someone smoking a cigarette was (in my humble opinion) a non-issue because many of the kids at the school had been expelled for either smoking or selling marijuana. Some had done both.

I said: “Well, the movie is tied to the algebra curriculum. Besides, it’s on the approved video list. I checked before I bought it.” Hmph.


I decided right then and there that I would not return to that school. For some reason, I have a problem working for obviously ignorant and incompetent people. Sadly, it appears that those are the most important qualifications for (some) aspiring leaders (building principals). I won’t paint everyone with the same broad stroke, but that has been my experience since moving here 8 years ago.

It’s really sad when you think about it: I worked at an alternative school, as a Special Education teacher, with all males, and it didn’t bother me. I actually loved it but I couldn’t deal with the administration. I couldn’t deal with the manner in which they dealt with the students. I especially couldn’t deal with the blatant disrespect of teachers. There were incidents more severe and offensive than the one I described. Those are some of the reasons that I believe teachers don’t just become ‘ineffective.’ They are driven to ineffectiveness. The leadership sets the tone for the building. Period.

I took a stand for the sake of my kids. Some may argue that I should have stayed, but I was still fairly young at the time and there were just some things I would not tolerate then. I have definitely grown since then, but there are still some things I will not tolerate. Who am I kidding? I’d probably do the same thing today! But the important thing is that my students knew I went to bat for them because so many other had not and would not.

Ask yourself, after Jaime and Marva are gone: Who will take a stand?

Monise Seward



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
  6. .
  7. .
  8. .
  9. ..
  10. .
  11. .
  12. .
  13. .
  14. .
  15. .
  16. .
  17. .
  18. .
  19. .
  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.