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It's About the Team

Once, when my daughters were young, we decided we wanted a cat. So we headed to the animal shelter with all four girls in the backseat thinking of names. When we arrived, we met a lot of cats. The shelter staff explained to us that some cats had been abandoned at birth and were not as comfortable with children, some were not as healthy as others, some needed regular grooming, and some were very old. Then we met George, who had been living at the shelter for almost ten years—a grand master of the place, roaming as he pleased. It seemed he had earned a cage-free life for good behavior. We loved George. We loved him so much. And we knew that even though he wasn’t the fluffiest kitten, he was the cat we hoped we could take home. 

Our desire for George was not selfish, however, because we knew what life would be like for George at our house. We knew about the big fields and stonewalls, and the warm spot by the woodstove. We knew the pantry was stocked with cans of Tuna Delight, and that a basket of cat toys awaited him on the kitchen floor. We knew he would have access to the best cat medical care with our local veterinarian, but most importantly, we knew the dedication, talent, and collaboration of our team. 

When we asked the animal shelter staff about adopting George, they suggested we go look at the kittens. When we told them we really loved George, and wanted to give him a wonderful home, they explained to us that George was a complicated cat with complex needs and a very unique history. They feared we might get him home and wish we had a cuddlier cat, and then send him back to the shelter—and they didn’t want that to happen to George. They told us “no.”

Looking back, I see that the animal shelter staff did not understand who we were as a family—as a cat owning team. We were committed, dedicated, and talented—ready for anything. On our team, we had Ruthie who knew how to speak silently to animals in the way that only some people do, and Emma who was willing to weather storms of rain to find a lost pet in the woods, and Chloe who knew how to set up a soothing functional environment for any living creature, and Harriet, the world’s most responsible five year old who would never forget to feed him. We arrived at the shelter committed. Not once in our conversation about pet adoption did we entertain the notion of things not working out. When we met George, we saw that the challenges might be different than we expected, but we never wondered if it would work—instead we thought about how. 

Nothing about this cat tale is intended as a metaphor for teaching children, except the part about the team. The team is everything. Whether it is a family team working together to care for a cat, or an educational team working together to educate a child, the team makes things work (or not). A good cat team can adopt any cat. It didn’t matter whether George was a fluffy cat, a loner cat, an old cat, or a fragile cat; our team was flexible, resourceful, collaborative, and innovative. When the shelter staff thought about us adopting George, they thought about the characteristics of George. When we thought about adopting George, we thought about the characteristics of our team. 

A good educational team can educate any child.  Yet, too often when schools consider inclusive education, they sit as a team thinking about only the child’s characteristics. In my work as an educational consultant, I am sometimes invited to these meetings. They usually start with someone telling the parents/caregivers that the school really wants to include the child, but are not sure yet if they can. Then someone speaks about the child’s physical characteristics, and someone speaks about the child’s language characteristics, and someone speaks about the child’s social-emotional characteristics. And then someone speaks about the child’s cognitive characteristics and someone speaks about the child’s behavioral characteristics. The unspoken assumption is that a deep study of the child will lead us to an answer.  

While the team members do their reporting about the child, I take lots of notes. They probably think I am taking notes about the child’s characteristics, but really I am taking notes about the characteristics of the team. I am noticing who presumes the child is competent and who is still waiting for evidence; who is dedicated to making inclusion work and who sees it as an experiment; and who speaks in a way that embodies exquisite respect for the family/caregivers. I am noticing who is flexible, who is dedicated, who is innovative, who is resourceful, and who speaks about the child with dignity and honor. I am noticing who listens. I am noticing who asks questions and who has all the answers. I am noticing who is a collaborator and who would ride in on a white horse to help. I am noticing who smiles and who grimaces—who can look people in the eye and who is brave enough to admit not knowing how to do this and is strong enough to ask for help. I take notes about the characteristics of the team because those are the characteristics that matter most. 

Eventually, the hour-long description of the child is over, and the team usually sneaks a peak my way to see what I think. I tell them first about all of the strengths I have noticed in each of them.  And then I suggest ideas, resources, and professional development opportunities for their team to grow even stronger. I never mention the child because it’s not about the child; it’s about the team. Inclusion works when teams make it work. Conversations about inclusive education that focus on the characteristics of the child are misguided inquiries that leave people believing that some children can be included and some children cannot. 

In nearly thirty years as an educator, I have met a few teams that really did not have what it takes to successfully include a child with a disability in a general education classroom, but I have never met a child that could not be included. Let’s be really careful here about the legacy we are creating about inclusion—the story we are telling about how disability fits into childhood. Let’s interrupt conversations that size up children, and measure the breadth and depth of their disabilities, instead of measuring the breadth and depth of our own professionalism. Let’s stop putting children under a microscope to see if they are “eligible” to be included, and instead, look in the mirror.

My kids were a strong cat team. They were willing to take full responsibility, sit out in the rain, communicate without words, and set up everything to work just right. They were collaborative, dedicated, innovative, and resourceful. Since that first visit to the animal shelter many years ago, we have successfully adopted a lot of cats. Maybe we have a knack for picking just the right cat, but I don’t think that’s why we’ve been so successful; I’m pretty sure it’s our team. 

- Susan Shapiro

I am a teacher. I began as a self-contained special education teacher, who learned in one year that "mainstreaming" is a toxic model that teaches children that belonging is conditional, and something that must be earned. So I became a classroom teacher for first and second graders, and fully included students with disabilities in my class. I made huge errors (which will be described in future blogs) but I realized that at least kids with disabilities were in the right place----the general education classroom with their peers. Then I became one of New Hampshire's first Inclusion Facilitators, back in the late 1980's. Later I worked at the Institute on Disability doing teacher training, technical assistance, professional writing and lots of thinking: How do we build schools so that all children are valued and have full access to all social and academic learning? I still think about this everyday. I don't know the complete answer, but I think part of the answer is increasing the capacity of general education teachers to teach children with disabilities. So, now my job is coordinating a graduate-level elementary teacher preparation program at Plymouth State University. By design, our program has no courses in "special education", but we have lots of courses about diversity, supports and accommodations, and differentiating instruction, assessment, and environment. I consult with school teams interested in learning designs that provide all children access to all learning. I can be reached at: sashapiro@plymouth.edu