Presuming Competence: A Thank You Note to Tina
Much of my work over the last 30 years has been a long-winded apology to Tina. I met her in 1987, when I was a 23-year-old student teacher at the International School of Brussels. My assignment was in a third grade classroom. One day I was asked to fill in at the high school for a teaching aide who was home sick. Art class was the only general education class Tina attended, so the Head of School didn’t want her to miss it. I was told that Tina had cerebral palsy, but this didn’t worry me as I was majoring in both elementary education and special education.
When we entered the room, the art teacher was instructing the class to tear a full-page ad out of a magazine. Students tore out pictures of Molson Golden beer bottles, Calvin Klein models, and the Marlboro cigarette man on his horse. The assignment was to tear the ad vertically, paste half of it on a piece of white 8.5 x 11 paper, and use colored pencils to draw in the missing half.
That day, unfortunately, my instructional decision making was fed by my special education training. I substituted extra-thick crayons and oversized chart paper for the skinny pencils and tiny paper, and then watched Tina do what I expected her to do. With great effort, she coordinated her movements and made random marks on the page. Cerebral palsy is the result of an injury to the brain, so mind-body coordination was sometimes challenging for Tina. I wanted to be encouraging, so I said, “Look at those pretty colors. Maybe you could make a rainbow.” (That suggestion—I hope—is the lowest “high expectation” I will ever hold for anyone.) The only thing I did right that day was to “aid and fade,” i.e., to give Tina some space to draw her picture without me glued to her side.
When I returned to her table after wandering, I noticed that Tina’s picture had changed. She had drawn large shaky colored lines in the shape of a rainbow across the top of her paper; but on the bottom, she had written a sentence with those same shaky lines: I am bored. I am embarrassed to admit now, but (irony aside) I was speechless. I didn’t know Tina could write, read, spell, or underline the most important word in the sentence. In fact, I had not even imagined that she could think. When I saw what she wrote, I sat down next to her, made a sincere apology; then I asked if I could have her drawing so that I could tell this story to teach other people how not to make this same mistake.
I kept my promise to Tina. Her story is a wonderful introductory tale in the university courses I teach about the importance of presuming competence in learners who receive special education services.
On my mind lately are children living in poverty. When a child living in poverty gets off the bus, we serve him a free hot breakfast; but when he enters his classroom—perhaps without enough sleep or a signed permission slip, or with unfinished homework—what do we offer? Sometimes we offer nothing more than the loss of recess. What might it take for a teacher to see that the child’s parents work the late shift and that he is responsible for putting his younger siblings to bed? To see that the whole family sleeps in one room so he can’t turn on the light? The school might have a “policy” regarding homework, but it sure smells like prejudice dressed up for the school handbook.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking even happens in my college teaching. Last semester a student, who lives with her grandmother in a trailer with no running water, came to me concerned about our attendance policy because it requires written documentation for a class absence to be “excused.” She shared that she doesn’t have enough money to go to the doctor, so she would never be able to bring in a doctor’s note. I don’t think as educators we are unkind, but I do think we are sometimes sloppy with our practice.
Over the years, I realized that this story about Tina, and children living in poverty—and all of the other children who are marginalized—is a tale of prejudice (in this case, mine) that finds its way into schools. I have come to recognize prejudice as a character in the most relevant conversations occurring in our field, and/or maybe aging has made me a better listener. Sometimes it’s like an undertow we pretend not to notice and other times it seems disguised as formal educational policy. During professional discussions, I am developing the habit of asking myself: Who is invisible here? Learning is too often designed without thinking about everyone.