There’s a point in a lesson, when you’re looking out at a group of tiny faces (or not so tiny faces, depending who you teach) and it becomes obvious that they’re just not getting it. But, you think, I wrote a good plan. I broke everything down three times over. I had all my materials prepped. We’ve covered all of the necessary background information in class.
They should be getting it, you think. You did everything right. You’re a good teacher.
I taught special education in a sub-separate classroom for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I’ve also worked as a paraprofessional in inclusion classrooms with students with learning disabilities, health disabilities, and mental health disabilities. I’ve planned lessons and units and activities. While I’m far from the most experienced teacher in the world (and far from the best, as well), I think I’ve gained a few insights along the way that I hope will shape how I see the world and how I approach practice as a social worker in the years to come.
So. You’re in the middle of the lesson and the kids aren’t getting it, or a few kids aren’t getting it, or one kid isn’t getting it, and maybe you decide I’m a good teacher, and if I follow my carefully thought-out plan, they will get it. This is ableism.
Ableism is the systemic devaluation, marginalization, and oppression of people with disabilities (Mackleprang & Salsgiver, 2015). The sort of ableism that I’m talking about here is cagey. It’s not explicit. If you asked me, when I was in the previously described scenario, whether I thought I was being ableist in deciding to continue with a lesson when I knew my students weren’t getting it, I would have been outraged. I would have argued that I loved my students, that I embraced their differences, and that I would never engage in any form of ableism.
But in the scenario above, I am deciding that I am superior in two ways.
First, I am assuming that the way I understand, conceive and learn things is the ‘correct’ way to do so. My plan for a lesson is always, at least in part, based on my understanding of how learning progresses and on ‘best practice’ for a generalized population. Often my students learn in very different ways than I do, though. Some of them need music. Some of them need to see it all written down. Some of them need pictures. These ways of learning are not more or less ‘correct’ than the way I learn, or the way ‘best practice’ assumes that students learn. When my lesson isn’t reaching them, it’s because there’s a mismatch between how I am teaching and how they learn. It’s my job to teach, and therefore it is my responsibility to address this mismatch.
The second way that I am deciding I am superior is that I am choosing to believe that my ability to understand what the students need is better than their ability to understand what they need. This sort of paternalism, of thinking I know best is a hallmark of ableism (Mackleprang & Salsgiver, 2015).
Maybe you’re thinking but it’s a teacher’s job to know better, to instruct. It’s not, though. A teacher doesn’t know a child better than they know themselves, and when it comes to working with students with disabilities, the students are the experts, regardless of their age. My students typically had challenges with communication — they couldn’t always tell me, hey, you’re explaining this wrong or I don’t get it. They couldn’t always tell me what they specifically needed in order to do well, or what would help them understand better, so it was my job to pay attention to what they were communicating in non-standard ways.
If I assume I know how to teach, then I am inevitably going to fail to teach well. But, if I approach each student and lesson with flexibility and the willingness to say I messed up or this isn’t working then all of us will learn more. Teaching isn’t a set path and plan that I should always follow, rather it’s a tool box. It’s my job to invite the student to rummage around the tool box with me until we find the tools that work for them. Not to push this metaphor too far, but my specialized training doesn’t give me permission to build anything I want, it just teaches me to use a wide variety of tools. Some of those tools have the capability to do harm, especially in my hands.
I’m not a social worker yet. I haven’t even had my first field placement, and I don’t have very much experience of the social work field at all. But I think there’s a lesson here for anyone who works in a ‘helping profession’ that places them in a position of authority in other people’s lives. This lesson is: it doesn’t matter how many letters you have after your name, or what you have studied, read, or experienced. You’re an expert only until you meet the next student, client, patient, and then you have to start from scratch. The worst teaching I have ever done is when I assume I know how to teach something. The best moments of teaching I have ever done have been guided by the students in my class — once they have shown me how they learn, then I can teach meaningfully. Each student is different. Each client is different. Each person is different.
When I start seeing clients, I think this will also hold: the best help I will ever offer will be guided by a person showing or telling me how they can be helped. I am not the expert, I will never be the expert — I’m just a person with a box of tools and a willingness to help.
Mackelprang, R. W., & Salsgiver, R. O. (2015). Disability: A Diversity Model Approach in Human Service Practice (3rd Revised edition). Lyceum Books.
Sarah Rose Goldfinch is a MSW student at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts. She received her undergraduate degree at Boston University, where she student special education with a concentration in severe disabilities. She worked as a teacher in a large urban district, in a classroom serving students with moderate-severe intellectual disabilities. She is pursuing social work in the hopes of providing intersectional mental health care to children who struggle to access traditional systems because of their disability status.