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Practicing What I Preach as an Administrator: Global Special Ed Start-Up

Jess - Aaron - 2005.jpg
I've been a hypocrite. Over the past nine years and in my blog posts - including my recent series on educational entrepreneurship - I've preached the good word of what all educators should, could and must do to serve children. And while i've devoted my career to ending educational inequity, I've stayed timid in initiating to what I believe to be one of the greatest causes of my heart: Serving children with special needs worldwide. No longer. Join me in tackling your big passion as well - whether as a leader, contributor or spiritual supporter.

They say you never forget your first love and isn't that the truth.

I've committed the past three years to improving general education in China. But nothing comes close to the heart palpitations I feel when we talk about serving students with special needs.

So it feels like I've cheated on my lover when I admit that we still have not done much in Teach For China to serve our children with different learning needs. My reasons are the same as anyone else's anywhere around the world--we're trying to improve basic education, there are few policies and infrastructures, we don't have the staff or expertise. The list goes on.

But after more than seven years working as an education administrator and making my living off of telling teachers what to do, it's about time I practice what I preach about being brave, getting entrepreneurial and just doing it.

This year, amid countless changes in my work and life, I'm committed to starting and/or supporting a global program that empowers students with special needs in the most under-resourced communities worldwide. This is what keeps me up at night: Knowing that until something changes, it's the children in rural China, the slums of India and the mountains of Pakistan who are most at-risk of staying illiterate and stigmatized, most likely to being homeless and jobless, and most likely to have few resources, independence, friendships or opportunities in the world.

I'm not looking to be a CEO. I still have a day job. I don't need to start anything if an organization already exists. I just want to make sure that the problems that I've seen and heard first-hand in the poorest communities worldwide are addressed.

I want to be a part of something that supports village educators and parents in best practices that are grounded in and values their local context. I want to be a part of a movement that supports communities and governments to set up the infrastructure and minimizes the stigma around advocating for people with special needs.I want to be a part of an organization that makes special education accessible to any educator out there - even if they are a first-year educator with only a high school diploma teaching 70-students at once.

And the thing is, I want these things because that's what dozens of teachers, principals, students and parents have told me they want to see over the past three years in China.

In China, our teachers have 40-minutes a day (if they're lucky) to teach classes of 50 to 90 children. All at once. By themselves. If the statistics we use in the United States are accurate, about 14 percent of those students have some form of a disability that hinders their learning. And in China and elsewhere, it's that 14 percent of students who will undoubtedly drop out of school by the time they hit 6th grade, even they even have the chance to go to school. In China, there are few, if any, system-wide supports. There are no IEPs, psych-ed evaluations, or IDEA.

I've met families whose children stay at home all day because the local school won't allow their child to attend and the family can't afford private schools or institutions. I've met 8-year-olds who are on the verge of dropping out because they can't control their behavior, struggle to read and do math no matter how hard they try, and truly believe they're dumb. I've met young adults who can hardly form sentences or interact in public, but who probably have similar disabilities to the children I used to teach and who are on the honor roll right now in high school.

But for every instance of heart-break that I've seen, I've been reminded by how possible this is to solve. I've seen teachers create behavior systems and differentiate their instruction so that their most struggling learners can achieve and be more confident, even though they've got 80 other students to take care of. I've met impassioned leaders of schools for students with intellectual disabilities and speech/hearing impairments who have received no formal training themselves, but are doing whatever they can to ensure their students are as independent as possible. I've gotten to know parents who've only finished the third grade themselves, but devote their entire lives to teaching their children with special needs basic skills because no one else will.

But most of all, I've met countless teachers who feel equally passionate and urgent about serving all of their children, including the ones with special needs. They just want to know how to do it in their context and without the system-wide support that we enjoy in the United States. Already, a small contingent of first- and second-year Teach For China teachers are putting together resources, conducting research and testing out best practices in their classrooms in hopes of sharing it with more village educators.

I asked this question last year and got dozens of great responses, but am finally going to start this program this year. Are you interested? Do you already have a program like this? Message me so we can get this love affair started.

This piece was adapted from a June 13, 2013 blog entry.

Photo by Rachel Meiklejohn depicting Jessica Shyu teaching on the Navajo Nation in 2005

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