Creating a Welcoming Classroom for Special Ed Students: The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 56 transcript
I can remember the first time I taught students with special needs. It was sixth grade, and twelve students with IEPs had been placed in a single class period with me. Despite the fact that I’d had a whole 3-credit college course devoted entirely to special education, I was absolutely clueless. I mean, I had seen their IEPs, but I didn’t really know how to interpret them. I was introduced to Kathy, the resource teacher who would accompany these students to class every day, but I wasn’t sure what her role was or what shape our relationship was supposed to take.
And needless to say, that year with that class period was an absolute train wreck. This is already a long episode so I’m not going to go into detail here, but let’s just say it was really, really hard. I know I didn’t serve those 12 kids well, and the remaining students also suffered, because I knew nothing about how to manage a class with such a wide range of abilities and needs.
I can only imagine how different that year could have been if I had known someone like Jam Gamble. I just discovered Jam–short for Jahmeelah–on Periscope a few weeks ago. She was talking about how she dealt with a student’s misbehavior one particular day, and just listening to the love in her voice and the careful way she handled this student’s feelings, not to mention the breakthrough she experienced with him, I knew right away she was the kind of teacher I absolutely loved. Once I realized her work focused primarily on special ed, an area I haven’t given nearly enough attention to on Cult of Pedagogy, I knew I had to have her on the podcast.
Ms. Jam is a developmental services worker in Toronto, Ontario. She supports students with disabilities, holds workshops, consults, and hosts her own TV show called A Voice for All, which focuses entirely on promoting disability awareness within the greater Toronto community. When discussing possible topics for our interview, Jam and I talked about how so many regular ed teachers feel inadequately prepared to serve the needs of students with special needs. But every year, more and more teachers are likely to have these students in their classrooms. Because Jam spends every day doing this kind of work, we decided to have her share some ways regular ed teachers could make their classrooms more welcoming for special ed students. Honestly, it was hard to squeeze all of it into one hour, and this interview certainly doesn’t cover ALL of the things teachers can do, but it offers some really smart, thoughtful advice teachers can start applying in their own classrooms right away.
Before I play the interview, I’d like to thank the sponsor of this episode, mysimpleshow. Mysimpleshow is this really cool online tool that allows you to create your own animated videos for free. It’s so easy, and so fast: You can either upload your own PowerPoint and let the tool extract the most relevant information to form your script, or you can write your script from scratch using their templates. Whichever option you choose, mysimpleshow then finds images to match your text, which you can fine-tune until you’re content with the video. It would be perfect for flipping your classroom or having students create their own videos. To learn more and try your first video, visit mysimpleshow.com.
I also want to thank everyone who has left a review for this podcast on iTunes. Every time someone contributes a rating and a review, it brings more listeners to the show, so I really appreciate it. If haven’t left a review yet, I’d love it if you could find time today to leave one.
Now let’s start talking about how you can make your classroom more welcoming for Special Ed students.
GONZALEZ: I would like to welcome Jahmeelah Gamble to the podcast. Hello!
GONZALEZ: Hi. And people know you, and we’ve talked about this already, people know you online as Jam Gamble.
GAMBLE: Yes they do. I think everyone knows me as Jam. When they hear “Jahmeelah” they’re like, “I’m sorry, who’s that?”
GONZALEZ: Right. So I sort of discovered you just a couple of weeks ago, actually. Somebody else that I’m following on Twitter put a Periscope up that was a live Periscope of you talking about sort of a problem that you had had with a student and how you worked through it, and I was just totally captivated, and I was like, “We need to get this woman on the podcast.” I just loved your whole spirit, I loved your whole message. And so Jam is a … why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself. Tell us who you are, what your background is.
GAMBLE: So, I’m Jam. I’m from Toronto. My background is a DSW, and that stands for developmental services worker. I’m not sure if you guys have that title in the states, but basically I’m a person who is qualified to work with people with all types of disabilities. I’ve been in the field for 17 years, but I’ve been teaching for five years. I kind of feel like I’ve been teaching all these years, but professionally, with the board, it’s been for five years. I’m also a TV host and producer for a show called “A Voice for All” on Rogers TV. It’s the only show that solely promotes disability awareness and education within our community. And like I said, I teach during the day, but I also do workshops and consulting with families. So 95 percent of my work revolves around disability education and awareness.
GONZALEZ: Got it. And the show is called “A Voice for All,” and we’re going to …
GAMBLE: “A Voice for All,” yeah.
GONZALEZ: Yes. And we’re going to make sure we link to that in my show notes so that people can find that.
GONZALEZ: So I just want to let everybody who’s listening know that this going to be kind of a bilingual show, because we’re going to be using Canadian and U.S. terminology for things, which is pretty cool, I think, because I’ve not known what the Canadian words were. This is actually something that I love about Twitter is all of a sudden now I’m talking to people in Canada all the time, whereas before, never. So our whole goal today is that we’re going to be talking about creating a welcoming classroom for special ed students. And the term that you guys use the most is “spec ed,” you say “spec ed” a lot.
GAMBLE: I feel like it’s like a slang word.
GAMBLE: It’s just “special education,” like you only hear that from people who are outside the field. But if you’re in it, you know, it’s just the slang of, yeah, “spec ed.”
GONZALEZ: OK. And so we talked about a lot of different possibilities, and we kind of landed on this that teachers who work in a regular mainstream classroom who do not have any training with special ed students, when, and this will always be the case for just about any mainstream teacher, when they have special ed students in their classrooms, there is a sense of, “I don’t know exactly what I’m doing here.” So we’re going to give these teachers some suggestions for how to make their classroom more welcoming for these students.
GAMBLE: I’m really excited to be a part of that.
GONZALEZ: I’m excited to hear what you have to say about this. So what we decided to do, is we came up with five suggestions, but we also agreed …
GAMBLE: Which was so hard.
GONZALEZ: We may go off and add more, but we figured we’ve got plenty to say about just these five. OK, so go ahead and give us the first thing that teachers can do to create this welcoming classroom.
1. Express your fears and concerns.
GAMBLE: The first thing you have to do, and I’ve said this so many times, but you could have the most accessible classroom in terms of space and layout and, you know, lighting and all those types of things, but if you don’t have an accessible attitude, your classroom’s not accessible. And I’ve seen teachers who’ve done all the, you know, the framework of, “OK, we have someone coming in. I have all the certain objects that might fall on them. Or if they have epilepsy, we have the lighting dimmed.” But then your attitude is so wrong that it just makes your whole room not as pleasant as you want it to be. And I’ve seen some teachers have unfortunately they’ve not admitted those fears. I’ve been in the field for 17 years, and I admit when I’m uncomfortable. I have no issue with doing that. I can’t expect that every student or every client I have I’m going to be instantly comfortable with them, because they’re a person first and foremost. We have to get to know each other. So I’m always going to be on guard, but I admit that. I go, “OK. I have a new child coming in. Hoo, let me get these jitters out. Let me find out what I need to know,” and then we hit the ground running. And you can’t be so bubbly at first, but you have to admit if you’re nervous. You have to admit if you have little worries. [UNCLEAR AUDIO] how you say it, and then you can find the right people who could help you get over those fears.
GONZALEZ: OK. So talking about fears or discomforts that you have.
GAMBLE: Talking about it does … yeah. You know what? And I think it all comes down to people thinking that they’re going to be judged, and that people are going to say, “You’re an educator. You shouldn’t be saying that.” It’s how you say it. It’s one thing if you said, “Oh my gosh. I can’t have this kid in my class,” versus “I have this child with autism coming in. I’ve never had a child with autism. Where do I begin?” Do you see the difference?
GONZALEZ: Yes, completely, yeah. The second person is somebody who is asking for help and wants to do better.
GONZALEZ: So who would they go to with these?
GAMBLE: One, I always say the parents. I think we don’t make parents realize how big of the experts they are. A lot of parents coming into the school system, especially with a child who just got a diagnosis, they’re coming to us like, “You are the person who knows everything.” And I want those parents, especially because parent empowerment is such an important piece, I go, “No, no, no. You know your child. Teach me. Teach me who your child is, and I’ll bring my skills to the table, and together we’re going to help your child have a fantastic school year.” So first and foremost, talk to the parents. You know, ask them about their child. How was their summer? Even human questions like, “How was their summer? How was school last year? What were goals that you wanted to see manifest last year but didn’t manifest that we could focus on this year? What are things they’re doing outside the school that we could incorporate into their lessons?” Questions like that gives you so much information that you can take and run with. And then, in Canada, there’s terms that we use called teaching assistant, educational assistant, education resource facilitator, all of these fancy titles. At the end of the day, it’s the person who’s assigned to work with this child. Talk to that person. I don’t understand why there’s teachers who don’t. I don’t get it. But this is someone who is there for the sole purpose of that student, and they understand a lot about inclusion and integration and program planning for this child. Why wouldn’t you talk to that person to get that juicy information that you need?
GONZALEZ: In the states we call them resource teachers, usually.
GAMBLE: I love resource teachers. I’m going to start, like, pushing for that in Canada.
2. Consult with your specialists.
Regularly.GONZALEZ: So in addition to talking to the parents, you want to talk to their resource teacher or their educational assistant. And when we talked about this before, you were saying that these teachers have so much expertise that the regular classroom teachers rarely ever even take advantage of.
GONZALEZ: So tell me a little bit about what kinds of things would they be able to help a classroom teacher with, if the teacher would only ask for them?
GAMBLE: Right. OK. For my personal experience, I think there’s a misconception about a teaching assistant. And quite frankly, I hate the term. I’m not “assisting” you. I’m actually teaching as well, you know? So I already have issues with that name. But with the years that I’ve been in the field, unless you ask me, you wouldn’t know that I have supported people with disabilities from birth to seniors. So I have a wide range of experience in terms of who I’ve supported, whether they’re lower functioning or higher functioning, someone who’s dependent or independent. I have a wide range of experience when it comes to seizures. I’ve worked with a lot of children who are nonverbal. I’ve worked with children who are verbal. I’ve worked with people who have echolalia. I’ve worked with children who have fears and phobias. I’ve worked with all these different people that I’ve taken all my personal experiences from them, and I’ve put it into this one big recipe book that a child could come in, and I could go, boom. I know exactly what to do. And I’ve actually had some teachers who I’ve come in, and I’m like, “You know what? These are my capabilities,” and I just let it all out. And unfortunately, they’re very threatened by that. And I don’t know if it’s just because they think that they have more schooling than me, and maybe they’re like, “OK, I have my master’s,” or “I have … “ whatever it is. But I know my stuff, you know? And I think there comes a clash, a kind of a personality clash or a job description clash that gets in the way of the student’s success, because egos are now getting in the mix.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Egos are so bad for education.
GAMBLE: Oh, terrible.
GONZALEZ: I’m thinking about my own experiences with resource teachers. The first time I had a resource teacher in my room, I had maybe 12, and at this time, this was in Maryland, they called them Level 4s, which meant that they were fairly significant in their need for assistance.
GAMBLE: Yes. We have that too.
GONZALEZ: So, and they said to me, I was a second-year teacher, they said, “You think you can handle 12 Level 4s next year?” I didn’t know what that meant, so I said, “OK, yeah I guess so.”
GONZALEZ: That was the level of education I had. And then when the resource teacher came in with them, she never said anything like that to me. I didn’t know what I was supposed to get from her. And I felt threatened by her in the way that I knew I was probably doing things wrong, and that she was sitting back there judging me, but we never …
GAMBLE: And, you know, she probably was, unfortunately.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. And we had never sat down and actually gotten to know each other, and so I never felt like I had that relationship with her that I could say, “Can you give me some suggestions? Can you tell me what … ?” I just was kind of thrown into the situation. I’m guessing, if that was my experience, that’s probably similar to a lot of other teachers too that they don’t even think to say, “Hey, maybe I should sit down with this person before the semester starts and get to know each other.”
GAMBLE: “What’s your skill set?” I absolutely love some of the past teachers I’ve worked with who they’ve come to me to like, “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t know where to begin.”
GAMBLE: “Can we talk? Tell me what your skills are.” And I’m like, “Yes. Oh my goodness, yes.” Because I’m not here for myself. I’m really here for my students. So please, utilize me, and let’s have that relationship that I can help benefit the student. I’ve had teachers create IEPs without talking to me. Now IEPs in Toronto, in Canada …
GONZALEZ: No, we have those too. We have ‘em too.
GAMBLE: OK, good. I’ve had teachers and the people who are supposed to be responsible for creating the IEPs, go and create the IEP without talking to me. I’m like, “Wait a second. You want me to implement the programming, collect the data, but you don’t want my feedback for the IEP? How does that make any sense?”
GONZALEZ: Do you not have IEP meetings where you’re supposed to sit down and … I’m just thinking as the regular classroom teacher …
GAMBLE: I wish your listeners could see how I just fell off my chair.
GONZALEZ: Well, yeah.
GAMBLE: In a perfect world, we are supposed to go to those meetings. But for some reason, there’s some schools that let the TAs come and some schools who don’t want our input whatsoever. So I’ve become a very pushy person, and I’m certain I’ve been blacklisted many a time, because I make it very clear to you, you are not creating that IEP without it going through me.
GAMBLE: And again, there’s people within my union who are too scared to speak up like that. We are actually supposed to be a part of the process, but there’s this whole mix of like, “Should TAs be a part? Should they do this? Should they say that?” And so a lot of TAs just say, “Hey, you know what? Let me stand back.” I don’t operate that way.
GONZALEZ: Wait, are you saying the regular classroom teachers in Canada are the ones who write the IEPs?
GAMBLE: Alongside with another person who’s, like, on the IEP team.
GONZALEZ: That’s so strange, because in all of the schools I’ve been in, it’s been the special ed teacher who is in charge of that IEP, and the regular classroom teachers are invited to come, but really it’s more like, you need to show up for this.
GAMBLE: But you still need to talk. You still need to talk to the resource teacher and say, “Hey. What are you noticing?” One time I had a student who I started working with and on her IEP they said, “In order for her to improve her writing skills, she could look at her peers’ work to have a frame of reference on how they piece together their thoughts.” And I was like, “Oh yeah, that sounds great. But if you had spoken to me, you would know that when she gets frustrated with her work, she actually will go across the room and snatch somebody’s work and copy it. So maybe that shouldn’t be a resource for her. If you had spoken to me, you would have known that.” So then the IEP teacher actually called me like 9:30 one night and said, “I’m going to leave you a copy. Please tell me what you want on it.”
GONZALEZ: Wow, that’s frustrating.
GAMBLE: Well, yeah.
GONZALEZ: The whole point is to have a lot of people, like, give their input. OK. So let’s move on to the next one. So really the first chunk of this has to do with talking …
GONZALEZ: … talking to your resource person and really being open about what you need and what you don’t know. I think it’s interesting too that you talked about this teacher who said that they didn’t even know where to start, because we don’t even necessarily know what we don’t know.
GONZALEZ: And so there may be several conversations that are really required, you know, while you’re working through the year, basically. OK. So what’s next?
GAMBLE: You know what? Honestly, I feel like we could talk for seven hours. I want to go back to attitudes and fears though.
GAMBLE: And when we first met, I told you that I have stories for days, and somedays I think I should write a book, just to channel my thoughts.
GAMBLE: But I think … one of the things I’ve come across too many times, unfortunately, is that educators, you know, teachers, your job is to teach. That’s it. It doesn’t matter what a child presents as. Your job is to teach. But unfortunately, I’ve come across people who look at students with disabilities, and they assume that they’re unteachable. So I had a student once who has a very rare syndrome called arthrogryposis.
GAMBLE: And it’s more physical than developmental. So when I got him, he was about 3.5, had no speech, it was almost like having a baby. But when I looked up his diagnosis, it said that developmentally he should be fine. So I treated him as such. I spoke to him like a 4-year-old. I corrected him like a 4-year-old. I kept going on, just like I would treat any one of my other students. So he was making massive progress. It was actually so beautiful to see, because background story: I worked with his mom when she was pregnant with him, and she didn’t know he had a disability. And then when he was born five years later, I’m teaching him. So it was just really crazy how it all came to be.
GAMBLE: So one day I was taking him to the staff room so we could eat ice cream, which was educational, by the way. It was an educational experiment, we were trying to eat ice cream. And I came across this one teacher, and she looked at him, and she shook her head and she goes, “Poor thing.” I go, “I’m sorry, who are you talking to you?” She goes, “Him. What’s he going to do in 10 years?” I go, “What are you going to do in 10 years?” You know? She goes, “Well, you know … how are you going to help him? What’s he going to be able to contribute?” “I’m sorry. I didn’t know my teaching contract was to be with him for 10 years. I’m pretty sure I’m only supposed to be with him until June. Where are you going with this?” “How is he going to be able to contribute to society?” These are all the questions she’s asking right in front of this child. She doesn’t recognize that there’s a person in front of her who has a heart, who has a brain, who has ears, who has feelings.
GAMBLE: She thought she was looking at a vegetable who could not understand anything. So I then turned his wheelchair around, because he did not have to be a part of this conversation, and she just had all these awful things to say, you know? “How do you know he knows anything?” “I do assessments.” What else? I was dumbfounded that I was actually having this conversation with a teacher, not somebody on the street, not some ignorant … a teacher was asking me how do I know a child knows anything? I was shocked. So I really want … when I work with teachers, I’m trying to teach them from the get-go, do not underestimate this child. Just because they’re nonverbal does not mean that there are not thoughts and feelings that are going on. This is a person. This is a human being, and we have to treat them as such. You’re supposed to see the person first, and the disability or the label or the diagnosis afterwards. Person first, and I’m not seeing enough of that, unfortunately.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah.
GAMBLE: That’s my rant.
GONZALEZ: That’s a good rant. That’s a really good rant. I think that’s something that people do with their discomfort. The lack of exposure and the lack of experience. I think when you’re a special ed teacher you are around kids with disabilities a lot, so you can get past the disability to where you can see all of the rest of the child.
GONZALEZ: The teacher who has had limited exposure, they’re still kind of like, “Ah, I don’t know what I’m dealing with right now.”
GONZALEZ: And so just experience and exposure. And, you know, we’re getting more and more mainstreaming, and more and more inclusion, and so there’s just going to be more of that.
GAMBLE: But you know, the first thing is, just see them as a person. Something so simple is not being done enough, you know? Don’t approach with caution, just approach.
GONZALEZ: Right. Just approach.
GAMBLE: Just approach. That’s it.
3. Design activities that challenge everyone.
GONZALEZ: So one of the things that you had mentioned, and this kind of segues right into this. You had said if you have a student with a physical disability, although this probably applies too to the learning disability, create activities that suit that student’s abilities, but can still be challenging to the rest of the class.
GONZALEZ: So give me some examples of how a teacher does this.
GAMBLE: So I’ve done this before. Once I had a student with a visual impairment, and we created a sensory challenge where everyone had to be blindfolded, and you had to touch different objects and try to guess what they were. Or we did like a scavenger hunt around a classroom. “Four steps to the left. Three to the right. Stop. Put your arm in front of you.” So that they could experience what it was like to move around the world around you with a visual impairment. I’ve tried it before, and I had a terrible headache, I had a terrible headache. But it really made me see, ironically enough …
GAMBLE: … how the world is viewed by other people. And with another client, I actually had, in a different setting, in an outside school setting, my co-worker was putting on a movie, and she asked him if he wanted to watch a movie, and he goes, “I don’t want to watch a movie,” she goes, “Well that’s a bad attitude.” He goes, “Well, I don’t have a bad attitude. I’m blind. I don’t want to watch your movie.” And I was like, “Wow.” So from that moment on, any person I worked with who even had a slight visual impairment … One time I actually put on an audiobook, so we all had to listen, we were all on level playing field here of listening to an audio of a movie or a story versus having to watch it.
GONZALEZ: Right. Right, right.
GAMBLE: We don’t … it’s easy to actually find different ways to flip something and not make it seem like we’re only doing this so that Garrett here can do it, but this is something we could all do as a class. I’ve had students with physical disabilities that we’ve had them actually lie on the carpet, because they are immobile, so we’ve had them lie on the carpet, and all the students lie on the carpet, and we all just talk about our feelings, and we’ve asked the child questions. Like I had one child last year who had hypotonia, and I asked all the children to tell me what they saw when they saw him. They’re like, “Well, I see someone who has two arms.” I go, “Who else has two arms?” So we did a body check. Who has two arms? Who has two legs? Who has two eyes? So that they could see that he was equal to them. Yes there was some limitations, but that’s not our focus right now. Our focus is including everybody in our class and making sure that everybody has a place.
GONZALEZ: Right. And so as often as possible …
GAMBLE: As often as possible.
GONZALEZ: Yes. Teachers should try to design these kinds of activities that really are inclusive and not, you had mentioned this just a second ago about not announcing it like, “Well we have to do it this way, because we have this student.”
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Make it much more of, like, an adventure.
GAMBLE: Because they will pick up on that on their own. A lot of the children I’ve supported who have very severe disabilities have been in kindergarten. And I don’t know if you’ve worked in kindergarten, but those children are blunt. They say it as it is. They hold nothing back. “Why are his toes like that? Why is he shaking? Why can’t he talk?” Just blunt, you know?
GAMBLE: So I find ways for them to be my mini assistants, you know? I have them maybe push the student around the room, or I have them do a Play-Doh activity, and I stand back, and I let the learning happen between the two of them.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. When it’s kids that young, I think the teachers are used to answering all different kinds of questions, but should a teacher be encouraging those kinds of questions, should they answer them in front of the student, or should they do this in private?
GAMBLE: So I’ve a bit of a devil’s advocate. It depends on the class. So there’s been classes I’ve worked with where, it sounds bad, but I’ve had really immature kindergartens, and I can’t have that conversation with them, so I kind of wait maybe a couple weeks before I do. But I’ve had some classes where I’ve just, “You know what? Let’s just be straight up about this.” I actually, one year, on the second day, because we do a staggered entry, where when it’s a new [J case?] coming in, they don’t come in on the first day of school, they come in on the second day. So half of them come on the second day, and the other half come on the third day, and then by Friday, everybody’s in together kind of thing. So when everybody was in, I had teachers bring the parents in the room, and we had a class discussion, because this was the first time the school had a student like this, who was in a wheelchair, who had physical needs, who was nonverbal, they’ve never had anybody like that. And we just had a … and with his parents’ blessings, essentially, we had a group discussion about it, about his body, about his speech, about … and you know, and I asked the children, “What do you see? Do you have any questions? Please ask the questions.” And I told Dallas, “Dallas, you might hear some things, and it might make you a little bit upset, you know? But know that I’m here to defend you.” How much of that’s going in his head? I’m not sure, but I’m letting him know.
GAMBLE: That I’m here to defend you. And one child asked, “Why is his body so small compared to mine?” I go, “You know, some people’s bodies grow differently. Like, look as Ms. Jam’s body. I’m a giant. I grew way faster than some of my friends.” And they’re like, “Oh, that makes sense.” So a lot of the things that they directed to him I deflected on me. So I said, you know, “When I was growing up, this is what my growth was like. This is how my speech was like. This is how it was for me when I was doing this. So they could see that, “Oh, so people’s bodies do change.” I go, “When you were born, was your body born just like this? Did you come out of your mommies like a big 5-year-old?” And they’re like, “Ew, no!” And obviously the moms were like, “Good God. No they did not.” And I go, “Exactly. Everybody grows differently. There’s not a race. Everybody’s body grows differently. And that’s it. It takes its own time, because at the end of the day, it’s going to be a beautiful package. It just takes its own time.”
GAMBLE: And so when we had that initial conversation, those kids were probably the most beautiful children I have ever seen with a child like that. It was just so magical to see how the class changed with them.
GONZALEZ: Now you said, though, that whether or not you would have that kind of a conversation really depends on the personality of the class.
GAMBLE: It depends, yeah.
GONZALEZ: I would guess also, and the parents too.
GAMBLE: And the parents too. So I always ask the parents how they feel about it. And most of the parents, for some reason, they trust me on it. So they’re like, “If you think it’s a good idea.” And the first thing I always keep in mind is to preserve the child’s dignity. This is not a bashing fest, like, “Oh, ew, what’s wrong with him?” I always have house rules. We’re going to be respectful. We’re going to be courteous. But if you have certain questions, you can come and ask me. And in some of the kids have just been … they’ve seen something, and I could see their body language that something is making them feel very uncomfortable, so I’ve pulled them aside, and I’ve had little one-on-one conversations with them. And then I’ve also included little activities where they can kind of get to know each other a little bit better and get over that fear and see that this is another child in their class that they can play with.
GONZALEZ: What about when something’s really obvious, like a physical disability, those questions are going to come up more readily, but I’m thinking if we shift to sort of, like, let’s say an eighth-grade classroom where you have a student who gets a scribe for tests or something like that. And then all of a sudden one day somebody shows up and starts writing for him. I can see your average 13-year-old being like …
GAMBLE: Yeah, “Lucky you.”
GONZALEZ: Right. And so how do you advise teachers handle that?
GAMBLE: So in that situation, I’ve had that before. It was very awkward for me, just because I’m used to little people who don’t have much to say, you know?
GAMBLE: They just see me as another source of help for them. So the way I’ve done it was that in this particular child I was working with, I was like, “Man, honestly, when I was growing up,” again, bringing it back to me, I go, “I remember I was doing a test and all my ideas were up here, but my hands just couldn’t get it out quick enough, OK? So I’m helping Johnny over here get these ideas out, but you know what? If you ever need help with something, just let me know, and I’ll help you out too.” So I kind of spread myself out.
GAMBLE: I don’t make myself seem like this exclusive, VIP scriber over here. I mix and mingle, so that the students know that I’m also here for them too. I’m not just here for the child who has issues, as they may think. I really go around and spread that attention and spread that support. And at the end of the day, they start to realize, “Yeah, this person needs some extra support, but I know if I need help with something, this person could come and look out for me too.”
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Did anybody ever take you up on it? Ask you to start scribing for them?
GAMBLE: Yeah, one child did, and I go, “If you could text, you could scribe, so sit down.” Like, he had his phone out, and he’s like on his BlackBerry, and I was like, “Umm, you’re good. You don’t need me. Nice try though.”
GONZALEZ: Would it be appropriate to say that this student here … is it appropriate to explain to kids that there’s such a thing as an IEP, and we’re legally supposed to do this, or is that just too much?
GAMBLE: Here’s the thing. It’s becoming so common in classrooms now, it’s no longer taboo. Let’s just be straight up about that. Back in the day, I’m not, you know, in my 40s or anything like that, but I don’t remember anybody in my class having a TA or that person who “stood out,” but now teaching, my gosh. I was in a grade five class two years ago, my teaching partner had 21 IEPs, 21.
GAMBLE: It’s not uncommon now. It’s so common to know that there’s someone sitting next to you who’s struggling.
GAMBLE: It’s so … “Oh, OK. You’re not good at math? Oh, you can’t spell that well? Oh, you need to go into the resource room to do your quiz?” It’s no longer like a walking on eggshells like, “Oh my goodness, someone’s going to think I’m weird.” It’s a very common practice, and it’s not only being done for students who have a learning disability or a physical disability or a developmental, it’s also being done with students who have emotional issues, who need to be outside of the classroom, because they’re feeling anxious being in a large space with many people. They can’t focus, because there’s too many people who are talking, so they need to be pulled out. Everybody’s doing it now. So you almost don’t even have to have that conversation, you know what I mean?
GAMBLE: In this generation in particular, they’re seeing it so much, they’re like, “Oh, just another teacher in the room.” And that comes back down to September when the teacher is doing introductions. “My name is Mrs. Smith, and this is Ms. Jam.”
GAMBLE: Don’t say, “This is Ms. Jam who’s here for the child with the disability.” “This is Ms. Jam.” That’s where it starts off in how you introduce this other body in the room, and every class I’ve been in, my teaching partner’s always said, “This is Ms. Jam. You’ll see her a lot with Dallas or with Kayden, but if you ever need some help … and Ms. Jam will never say, ‘No.’” I’m like, “Oh no, guys, Ms. Jam is here to give you guys lots of love.” We’ve started it from the get-go.
GAMBLE: So that’s where it starts, because if you’re just the person who just keeps coming in and no one knows who you are or what your purpose is.
GAMBLE: You know? But I’ve worked with students who have a learning disability, and again my teaching partner’s gone, “I’m Mrs. Smith. This is Ms. Jam. She is one of our new fantastic people to this school, and she’s going to be coming in this classroom, and she’s going to show us so many cool things on how we can learn.” Nobody knows.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, right.
GAMBLE: They’ll pick up over time that I’m spending a lot of time with that person, but nobody is going to say anything, because I’m just such a regular person in the classroom that again, I talk to them, I engage them, and they know I’m there to help them as well.
GONZALEZ: And there are a lot of kids probably in every classroom who don’t have an official diagnosis, but who could probably use a little tip here and there, a little strategy.
GAMBLE: Those are my favorite. The ones where you know something’s going on, and you’re just waiting for that meeting where we can get a diagnosis. And oftentimes the principals actually when they’re doing the classroom list, the child who’s identified, they will put them in the class with the other two, who we know something’s up, but they can’t get EA or TA support.
GAMBLE: So I’m in there just to spread the wealth.
GONZALEZ: Yep. That’s actually a great idea. I can remember having students who I really thought needed that extra help. And it’s funny, because I would be told that their IQ was too low to get a diagnosis.
GONZALEZ: That there was a ratio, basically, this is what I was told a couple of times.
GAMBLE: Too low or too high?
GONZALEZ: Too low.
GAMBLE: If it’s too high, they’re not getting any support from us.
GONZALEZ: This is what it was. The problem they said was they said, “This child’s performance is commensurate with their IQ.” Like, they’re basically saying that they’re doing the best they can. And I remember thinking, “I feel like some special ed support would make that different though.” Do you know?
GAMBLE: Yeah. But I have a pet peeve with that. Because I’ve worked with students who I’m supposed to be assigned to this child, and like going back to your levels, this is a Level Four child, OK?
GAMBLE: This is a Level Four child, and then they’ve put in additional students in the class, usually behavioral students, and then that child is taking all my time and attention away from my Level Four child, because my Level Four child is compliant, they’re not aggressive. And so I have issues with that. I don’t mind helping people, but put people in the room that I can manage everybody and not too much attention’s going to the other person. I’m seeing too much of that, and unfortunately what that’s resulting in, which is a whole other podcast, is burnout.
GONZALEZ: Burnout in the special ed teachers, yeah.
GAMBLE: Oh my Lord. When people ask me, “Oh my God, are you married?” I go, “Yeah.” They’re like, “How many kids do you have?” I’m like, “Seven. Oh wait, no. those are my daytime kids.” Because I have seven kids during the day. I’m a single mom to seven kids.
GAMBLE: I don’t have any spousal support, you know?
GAMBLE: It’s tiring. It’s a toss-up. Like, I have kids in my class who … Today I went to my principal, and I was like, “You sent the psychologist in this week?” She’s goes, “Yeah.” I’m like, “I’m just going to conveniently walk down the hall with this child who there is something going on here.”
GAMBLE: I will help that child, but I can’t …
GONZALEZ: That’s not who you’re assigned to, right.
GAMBLE: That’s our issue here.
GONZALEZ: So the part about you helping the other students in a room has more to do with just creating that welcoming environment for the special ed student. It’s not meant to have you literally be using your own resources on all of the other kids all the time.
GAMBLE: Unfortunately that’s what happens.
GAMBLE: But I find a way to kind of make everything work, so students I had last year, I had a student with a severe chromosomal deletion and hypotonia, and then I had two students who had autism. Those two became my mini TAs. So they were getting his backpack, they would push him down the hall. They would read books to him in the library. So I was able to work with all three. I found a system that worked. But unfortunately in some classrooms, it’s not always possible. Like, I’ve had students who are highly aggressive. I’m out in the hallway dealing with that child.
GAMBLE: And then my other one’s in the room. So it’s all about balance and how you set up the classroom for success.
4. Recognize that parents struggle with their own discomfort and fear.
GONZALEZ: Let’s go back to parents. We’ve got two more things on this list. One of the things that you had talked about was, because we talked earlier about consulting with parents to learn about the child, but now let’s flip it. You talked about really recognizing that when the parents are coming into this relationship, they also have fear and confusion and some defensiveness. So talk a little bit about that.
GAMBLE: Yeah. I love parents. I really, really, really love my parents, and this is my first year not meeting my students’ parents, and it’s almost November, and I’m kind of getting a little irritated by that. The parents that I’ve worked with, again, some of these parents just received a diagnosis, OK? So they’re going through their own guilt and denial and embarrassment and shame, and all those types of emotions that you have to look at the background story before you judge these parents. And unfortunately, I’m seeing too much judging happening. We’re looking at their external behavior, and we’re not looking at why their behavior may be happening. And sometimes when we look at our students, what’s the number 1 tip? Behavior is communication. Why don’t we see that with parents, you know? That sometimes they’re acting a certain way, and it’s because … there’s a reason why they’re acting a certain way.
GONZALEZ: What kind of behaviors do you see, that teachers are misinterpreting?
GAMBLE: So I’ve had parents who are very silent. They don’t want to come to the meetings. When you do get them in for a meeting, they don’t have much to say, there’s parents who have, like, a wall, there’s a wall that’s up. They don’t seem like they want to engage. They’re missing out on certain activities, where it might involve them coming in and mixing and mingling with other parents. I have a quote that I say when I create an IEP for my students, I create an IEP for my parents as well on how we are to communicate with them, on what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, because I see all those things in September. And another thing that’s a key piece is cultural attitudes towards disabilities. Here in Canada, in my area, for example, it’s a very multi-cultural community, OK? I had one school where it was 80 percent predominantly Muslim families. If you know anything about the Muslim culture, some parents, some families have very different thoughts towards disabilities, what caused that disability, what their child is going to be capable, all of these thoughts come into place, right? So if you take note of those types of attitudes, I’m not saying that everybody has that attitude, but if you are aware of that, then you know how to approach this family. So I had two parents last year. My student’s mom was Filipino, and the dad was Eastern European. Two different cultures, two different attitudes and thoughts towards disabilities. Mom was very, “OK. What should I do?” Dad every meeting had his arms crossed, and everything he said was, “Yeah, but.” And my goal was to work on Dad. OK, I’ll work with your daughter, but my eyes were narrowed in on Dad onto fix his attitude. I go, “When your wife was pregnant, did she give birth to a 5-year-old? No, she didn’t. You gave birth to an infant who grew. Your daughter is still growing. The success or the limitations you’re seeing right now may not be what she’s like when she’s 10 or 15 or 25. She’s still growing. You need to see that.” So when I would talk to him about her success, he’d go, “Yeah, but,” and I’d go, “Yeah, but what?” I actually had to get a little bit hard on him.
GAMBLE: He needed that.
GAMBLE: He needed that tough love, that by the end of the year, he came in in tears, we went over her report card, he was in tears. And we’re saying what she had done that was so well, and he hugged her, and he goes, “I love you, bubby. I’m so proud of you.” I cried, because I worked for months to get that dad on board. And every other teacher who knew those parents said, “OK. Dad is in denial.” Dad’s not in denial. He’s scared. And I have to recognize that. I have to recognize he’s scared and not judge him but help him. So I’m helping three people here. I’m helping the child, and I’m helping those parents, because I don’t want to be the only one celebrating our student’s success. I want those parents to stand proud with me too, when they’re seeing their child.
GAMBLE: That’s my goal. So I used to be that ignorant person when I saw parents coming in go, “Oh, you’re that parent.”
GAMBLE: And don’t get me wrong. That parent exists, you know? But there’s also a lot of parents who are honestly scared. They don’t know what’s going to happen from here. And instead of be optimistic, their initial attitude is one of fear, and that’s what they’re operating on right now.
GONZALEZ: So you’re approach with that father was to be a little bit tough on him. Would you say that in general … I’m guessing just based on knowing you for this short time, I’m guessing that a lot of times your approach is just hardcore optimism and being super positive, and that that eventually rubs off on the family, so if they see that confidence from you …
GAMBLE: Yeah. When I meet parents, I don’t call them “mister” and “misses.” I actually go, “Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad!” you know? I’m very bubbly from the get-go, and I lay down my vision. I go, “My vision is for your child to have the best school year they can have. I don’t know what those goals may be, but that’s my vision, OK? Maybe the only goal we get through this year is that they sit on the carpet. By God, they sat on the carpet, you know?” But I want them to have the best school year, and the student I had last year, two of the students I had last year, the year before, one of them had never been left alone with anybody, so I was the first person, so I had a mom who was very, like, you know? She would wait outside in a parking lot, you know?
GONZALEZ: I bet.
GAMBLE: And then the second child was nonverbal, having accidents, running outside the classroom, to last year speaking at the school assembly, performing in plays and using Snapchat, OK?
GONZALEZ: Oh my gosh.
GAMBLE: This was the magic that we made. And so when I encounter parents, I go, “I need you. I need you to meet me halfway. I want you to be invested in this, because I’m invested in your child. If you’re not invested, you’ll get 20 percent of my profit, and that’s about it. But if you really want me to do the magic I’m capable of doing, I need you in on this with me, and if there’s things that you’re scared about, if there’s things you’re unsure about, let’s get through this together. I completely understand it, but I’m that person who overwhelms you with talking.” But ultimately I have parents at the end of the year who go to my principals and request for me to be with their child next year, so I know I’m doing something right.
GONZALEZ: You know, I’m thinking, just listening to how you talk to them, especially at this first meeting, that you’ve got parents who up until that meeting have been feeling this weight and this doom and gloom and this interpretation of this diagnosis as a kind of a death sentence of what they thought their life was going to be. And that first sit down when you come in talking about your vision for them and you sound excited. You sound like you’re planning a vacation with them.
GAMBLE: It is.
GONZALEZ: You know? And that’s got to be such a huge shift in mindset for them and such a weight and such a moment of happiness for them.
GAMBLE: I jump in. The boy who had hypotonia, the one whose mom’s never given him to anybody, as soon as he came to the door, I’m not even lying, I swear on my budgies and my birds’ beautiful lives, as soon as he came to the door, I was like, “Oh!” I had like this big happy clap. I go, “Can I hold him? Can I hold him? Can I hold him?” She was like, “Yeah, yeah, you can hold him.” Because she wasn’t expecting that I was going to be …
GONZALEZ: Sure, she’s probably used to people kind of recoiling and acting all awkward.
GAMBLE: Yeah. And I hugged him, and I gave him a nickname. I deemed him my squishy, and that was it. And from that moment on, every week Grandma was bringing me lunch, she was bringing me knit goods. We became family, you know? And that’s what the mom told me. She goes, “You’re not my son’s teaching assistant. You’re family.” You know? And I would hope that teachers and educational assistants let these parents, the same love we give to these students, some of these parents need that love as well. They come from families who do not accept their child, and when they come to school, they’re looking to us as that source of comfort. They just don’t know how to initiate. It’s like going on a blind date. You don’t know how to approach the person. We have to be patient with these parents.
GONZALEZ: Oh, my heart is all full right now listening to you talk about this. I just … I’m just excited about this.
5. Read books with students that promote diversity and inclusion.
GONZALEZ: OK. Last one, because we’ve limited ourselves to an hour, and we’re probably going to set ourselves up again another time, because we’ve got plenty of other things. But the last thing that you suggested was about books, including certain books with your students in your classroom library and what you teach your students. And you wanted these to be books that show differences and promote inclusion, and what we decided was that you were going to recommend a few of them, and then we’re going to recommend a whole bunch more on the website.
GAMBLE: I’ll give two. So one of them is “My Brother Charlie,” and that’s from Holly Robinson Peete who has a son with autism, and it’s a book written on her daughter’s point of view about her brother who has autism. “And this is my brother Charlie, and this is what’s so awesome and sweet about him.” And then another book that I read to my students three weeks ago was called “Some Monsters Are Different” by David Milgrim. This book was pure magic. I found it by coincidence in Indigo, it was $5. I’m a bargain shopper, so I was like, “Yay, $5 book, yes,” you know? And the cover was really, really cute, so I was drawn to it. But each page had maybe one to four words. And what I love about those books is that it’s one-liners, and it gives you enough time to start a conversation with your students. So one of the books said, “Some monsters are quiet.” From there you could go, “Who’s a monster in this class that’s quiet?” And so some of my students were like, “I’m a quiet monster,” and then the other kids were like, “I’m a loud monster.” “Some monsters are picky eaters.” So it doesn’t specifically talk about a specific disability, like autism or Down syndrome. It just talks about some people are different, and that’s totally OK. So the most beautiful happened was at the end of the book, when you open the back cover, it’s all these blue characters, but there’s four characters who have very unique outfits and styles and they stand out. So I opened the book and I showed it to my class. I go, “What do you see about this page?” All of them said, “Oh. There’s blue monsters.” “Yeah, OK. Give me more here.” “OK. Some of the monsters are looking left.” “OK, give me more here.” One child puts up her hand, she goes, “All the monsters are blue, but then there’s those four who stand out, because they’re unique, and being unique is beautiful. Like imagine if you had a garden. Your garden wouldn’t be that beautiful if you only had one flower in it. But if you had different flowers in it, you’d have a really beautiful garden, and we’re kind of like those flowers. We’re just beautiful and unique.” And I’m sitting there going, “You’re 6. How are you seeing this?” But she said it. “We are all beautiful. We’re all unique, and our class would be boring if we were all the same.” And I was like, “Everybody,” so I did a Periscope on that. Everybody needs to read a book like that, because there are children who are in themselves and they’re afraid to come out out of fear what other people are going to think about them, and when we read books like that, we don’t have to wait until Autism Awareness Month or Down Syndrome Awareness Month. This needs to be a weekly thing that we talk about being different and promoting differences and celebrating it as a uniqueness and not something that we have to be cautious about.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s funny that while you’re talking about these books, I’m thinking about how helpful they would be for transgender children in the classroom too.
GAMBLE: Oh, heavens yes.
GONZALEZ: You know. There’s so many other different varieties that you get of kids who want to conform and yet that’s not who they are. And so something like that …
GAMBLE: Have you heard of “Pete the Cat”?
GONZALEZ: Yes, we have this.
GAMBLE: OK. “Pete the Cat” is the coolest cat. I use that book actually for myself, and I tell a lot of my colleagues that all these books that we read to our students, we should actually be reading to ourselves, because we buy these expensive self-help books, and a lot of these children’s books have such a deep message in it.
GAMBLE: And so in the “Pete the Cat,” walking in his cool school shoes, Pete gets into all these different messes. Does Pete cry? Goodness no. Pete keeps singing his song and moving along. And that’s a line I use not only for myself and my colleagues but for my students when they find themselves in difficult moments of frustration. I go, “Did Pete cry? Goodness no. He kept singing his song and … ” they’re like, “ … moving along.” You know? But giving them that encouragement, so I really stress, for any teacher listening to this, to read beautiful books like that on a regular basis so these ideas can marinate in their head. And when they’re in moments of difficulty, those books will come to the forefront, and they can use that as inspiration.
GAMBLE: Are we done?
GONZALEZ: We’re done with the list that we made.
GAMBLE: OK, good.
GONZALEZ: So it’s probably a good stopping point, but I would definitely love to have you back on again, because you were talking about burnout in the special ed teaching population. And boy, I mean …
GAMBLE: Burnout and compassion fatigue.
GONZALEZ: Yeah, OK. Well let’s definitely plan to …
GAMBLE: When you just don’t care anymore.
GONZALEZ: Yeah. Oh gosh. And I think you would be a perfect person to talk about that with, because you don’t seem to have gotten there yet.
GAMBLE: Oh, I have.
GONZALEZ: You have? And you’ve gotten past it?
GAMBLE: You know what? I actually do workshops on compassion fatigue and burnout, and I say at least once a month I go through some form of burnout and compassion fatigue, and I actually do respite on the weekends. So on top of everything I do, I do respite, and the reason why I do respite is not for money, but because it’s in my terms, I remember why I got into this field, and why I love what I do. So when I take my kids on the weekend, and we go get our nails done or we do some baking, and there’s no learning involved, it’s just bonding. I really get a reminder as to why I’m in this field, and I need that. Like I was watching a show last night, and it was a boy with autism who doesn’t do public speaking, and he did a speech, and I’m sitting there bawling my eyes out, and my husband’s like, “There, there. You do this on a daily basis.” And I go, “I just need to be reminded.” So yes, I go through it. And I’m human enough to admit it that I go through many little [vacations?] of burnout.
GONZALEZ: Right, right.
GAMBLE: I’m human.
GONZALEZ: Tell my listeners where they can find you online.
GAMBLE: So you can find me on Twitter at @MsJamPccs. You can find me on my website, msjam.ca, and you can follow me on Facebook, at facebook.com/msjamgamble. “Jam” is in everything, because I’m just that sweet. That’s my tagline. So you’ll see me there. You’ll see my show. And then random videos that I do as well, because when I Periscope, I get to kind of be unrestricted and just speak my mind.
GONZALEZ: Yes. I’m going to make sure I link to your Periscope account too, because you are a great, great person to follow on there too.
GAMBLE: Thank you. I’m so excited I got to do this.
GONZALEZ: Me too. Thank you so much, Jam.
GAMBLE: Thank you, thank you. And thank you to the listeners. I hope you guys got some takeaways from there, and if you are someone who’s in the field, and you are getting a student who happens to have a diagnosis, please believe me when I say there is so much to learn from those students. I credit all my work and all my success to what my students have taught me and not what I learned from an institution. So take your kids as a source of knowledge and enjoy the year you’re going to have with them.
Jam Gamble - Connector of People, Ideas and Energy