The following was written by Elizabeth Vance, a science teacher and DoD STEM Ambassador. DoD STEM Ambassadors work with the Defense STEM Education Consortium (DSEC) to advance STEM outreach for students who are underrepresented in STEM and/or military connected. Vance was selected by CYBER.org, a DSEC partner, as their DoD STEM ambassador for the 2020-2021 school year.
On December 9, 2013, I received a call that changed who I am as a mom, a friend and most especially as a teacher. On that day, my maternal fetal medicine doctor called to tell me he’d received the results of blood work which showed that my husband and I were having a daughter with Down syndrome. My world was rocked. I quickly called my husband to tell him the news before my planning period was over and students started arriving for the final class of the day. Ironically, out of all the different units I teach each year, we were smack dab in the middle of the genetics unit.
From that fateful day to the day our daughter was born and the seven years since, she has taught us so many things about compassion, perseverance and fierce determination. She’s taught me that, as a teacher, I’ve been handling inclusion in my classroom all wrong.
As my daughter grew and started school I found myself pondering, “What is meaningful inclusion?” First, let’s define inclusion. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, inclusion is “the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and/or are members of other minority groups.”
It is so clear to me now that for inclusion to be successful for all students it must be meaningful. To fully include all students in a typical classroom means much more than showing up, sitting at a desk and simply being present in the room. Meaningful inclusion means that all students are provided the same opportunities to learn. Meaningful inclusion means that faculty and staff collaborate to provide individualized support that best meets the needs of each student.
I’ve had special education students visit my classroom to participate in science to satisfy their individualized education program. Honestly, I didn’t always do the right thing for these students. I didn’t make sure they were immersed and included in what I was teaching. I was content for their paraprofessional to walk them to my room and sit with them in the back until class was over, and then they’d walk back out. I didn’t ensure they were actively participating in our activities and feeling valued. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I didn’t know better. College did not provide training for these situations. We as an education system must begin to do better. Teachers need relevant training on how to best accommodate students of all abilities in their classroom. Teaching is not a solo job so it is imperative that classroom teachers, special education teachers, paraprofessionals and staff actively collaborate to best meet the needs of students and ensure that they learn.
My husband and I often watch the show The Good Doctor. One of the main characters portrays a doctor with a dual diagnosis of autism and savant syndrome. His mentor, a fellow doctor, goes to bat for him early on when trying to help him land a job at the hospital: “We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are, that they do have a shot. We hire Shaun and we make this hospital better for it. We hire Shaun and we are better people for it.”
So what can we do?
- Collaborate with the individualized education program team (special education teacher, para, parents, etc.)
- Get to know students well to identify their strengths
- Plan ahead so there is time to create lesson differentiation for all students in the classroom
- Encourage and remind all students to work hard, be patient and encourage one another during activities
- Instill in students the importance of teamwork and grace
All students should know that their limitations do not define them, that they do indeed have a shot. They should know this long before they enter the workforce. School should be a place for students to spread their wings and be given every opportunity to be successful.
ABOUT ELIZABETH VANCE
Elizabeth Vance is a science teacher at Cope Middle School in Bossier City, Louisiana, who credits her once-in-a-lifetime experience of flying with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds with sparking her interest in STEM education. Being chosen for the flight was a result of having been awarded the Outstanding Middle School Science Teacher award from the Louisiana Science Teachers Association. Elizabeth holds a bachelor’s degree in wildlife conservation and a teaching certificate in secondary science education from Louisiana Tech University. A military dependent as a child, Elizabeth feels a special connection to the large military community in her school district.
CYBER.ORG is a cybersecurity workforce development organization that targets K-12 students with cyber career awareness, curricular resources and teacher professional development. For the Defense STEM Education Consortium, CYBER.ORG will pilot its cyber curriculum across K-12 schools serving two major installations of the Air Force Strike Command: Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. Schools will receive professional development, lesson plans, site visits by subject matter experts and technology equipment to support implementation of the curricula. For more information, visit cyber.org.