Fitting In

I teach preschool students with autism and severe communication delays. It’s likely that my students will face some challenges fitting in during their life. As their teacher and advocate, it can be hard for me to fit in, too.

The standardized, accountability model that persists in education today doesn’t celebrate the creative approaches and accommodations that I use to help my students learn. Often, I’m left feeling like I don’t belong when I sit in professional development experiences designed for school-aged students or regular education students. There are a multitude of rubrics and accountability measures that don’t reflect the ways my young, non-standardized students learn. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have ways to measure their learning!

As an experienced National Board Certified teacher, I can operate within this conflicting system to defend the practices that support student learning. I take what I can from these trainings and diligently apply new ideas in my classroom. When the ideas aren’t right for my students, I’m ok with that, too. I have the professional knowledge to sort the good stuff from the bad stuff. But I am concerned about the way this accountability system creates thinking barriers for early career special education preschool teachers who might try too hard to fit in. To those teachers I say: Stand out and be ok with it.

I’m ok with modifying content at trainings that are not specifically geared for special education preschool. Recently, I’ve been attending a workshop about Project Based Learning [PBL]. I think that PBL completely applies to preschool students, but certainly needs adaptations for my students who lack verbal skills to create their own inquiry questions, verbally present their learning, or willingly participate during group learning experiences. Since I’m required to attend the workshop with other preschool teachers, I’m working hard to think about assistive technology and communication devices that will increase my students’ abilities to participate. I think PBL provides a challenge for my students to work on areas where they aren’t naturally skilled; and it provides me challenging opportunities to be creative as their teacher. Yet, the presenter actually pressured me to drop out and attend another training! (She said that my students may not have the skills to create the questions that drive the learning). I respect her concerns, but I don’t think they relate to my students’ ability to learn through project-based experiences. (I know they can do that!!!) I think she might be worried about how I will measure their learning using PBL rubrics because my students don’t “fit” into these models. It all makes me wonder: Would the instructor be so concerned about my students if the age-of-accountability were more flexible?

Further, I don’t fit in with the standardized accountability measures being used to evaluate our preschool program this year. Preschool programs in Arizona that receive Quality First funding are assessed with the Early Childhood Rating Scale [ECERS-R], a rubric designed to measure the quality of early childhood environments. For the first time this year, preschool special education programs are also being assessed with this rubric if they are located on a site that receives Quality First funding. My site receives these dollars because we have a regular education program for non-disabled students. Quality First provides scholarships for students who attend that program, but those funds do not benefit my program. Disregarding these facts, Quality First assessors plan to come and evaluate my program with the rigid, standardized rubric designed for neurotypical (non-autistic) students. If our site does not achieve the minimum score, the whole site will lose funding. Talk about high stakes! If we don’t pass, the regular education preschool classroom will close, and my students will lose access to non-disabled peers! Somehow, someway, someday (when the assessors come), I have to find ways to fit in—or lose it all.

Many coaches have assured me that my program “fits” the minimum criteria of a 3 on most ECERS-R rubric components. Still, this whole idea bothers me. For some components, achieving the highest score of 7 is not possible without hurting my students. But I think that achieving a 7 should be possible for all types of classrooms. I will be scored lower on components such as not having enough artwork on the walls, using too much assistive technology (screen time on my SmartBoard), not having scissors readily available for my students, and not speaking to them in complex high level sentences that require critical thinking. This rubric completely disregards the fact that my students need less visual distractions, learn through technology, require supervision with dangerous materials like scissors, and benefit from short-spoken phrases that they understand. If I want to score a 7 on some aspects of this rubric, I would have to eliminate some accommodations and supports that provide my students a free, appropriate public education [FAPE]. It seems contradictory and discriminatory to me.

As an experienced preschool special education teacher, I know this rubric does not completely “fit” my students. I won’t do anything that causes them harm, detracts from their learning, or denies FAPE. However, it will be disappointing to receive lower scores for the quality (SAFE!) learning environment I have created for their needs. I worry that less experienced preschool special education teachers might not be able to discriminate between quality, appropriate practices in the rubric and unsafe, discriminatory practices that deny students accommodations. Will the ECERS-R rubric force them to “fit” into something that harms kids? Is this rubric driving good practices in preschool special education classrooms?

Bottom line: I sincerely believe that it is my responsibility to get something out of everything. When I go to training that doesn’t quite seem to “fit” my teaching or the needs of my students, I work really hard to engage with the content and make connections that improve my practice. Similarly, I have worked hard to “fit” into the ECERS-R rubric components that meet the needs of my students. But for those elements of accountability that don’t fit, I seek to boldly stand out. And I hope that other teachers use their voice to do the same. We must forge a path where creativity and accommodations break through rigid accountability that stifles learning for young students with disabilities.

Someday, my unconventional students will break through barriers to solve big world problems with unusual solutions that don’t “fit” the standardized model being forced upon them. For that reason, I hope they boldly seek to stand out.


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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