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Partnership in Professionalism

A few years ago, I was introduced to a new paradigm for working with people both personally and professionally.  The Partnership Principles of Instructional Coaching (Knight, 2007) changed the way I approach every situation and every conversation.  Jim Knight is the one who developed the Partnership Principles, and he has his own blog (http://jimknightoncoaching.squarespace.com).  However, this blog post is about what the partnership principles are, the way these principles have had a distinct and valuable effect on my life, and why I think they are valuable as an approach to working with educators across a wide continuum of practices.

The seven partnership principles are these:  Equality, Choice, Voice, Dialogue, Praxis, Reflection, and Reciprocity.  For me, the principles of equality, choice, and voice communicate to someone that s/he is valued.  My colleague may have different knowledge and skills than I have, but we are equals because we both have something to offer.  When people partner together with the foundational concept of equality, cooperation (not competition) prevails.  Voice is an essential element for communicating value to another person.  By listening, really listening, to someone, I send a clear message that the person is important, worth of my time, and s/he has thoughts and ideas worth considering.  Choice promotes value, when I am able to honestly offer options and be content (not offended) if the other person does not choose to do something the way I think it should be done.  Dialogue provides the collaborative exchange of ideas where people can think and learn together.  Praxis, doing the work, flows naturally out of dialogue.  Praxis merges theory and practice in action; it is not only doing the work, but also how mindfulness, research and frames for thinking and practice shape activity.  When people reflect on their practice in order to tune, shape, or transform, growth occurs.  Reflection provides the opportunity for people to examine their work critically to determine what went well, what did not go well, and what accounts for the difference.  In some ways, the principle of reciprocity ties up this partnership package. It suggests that I enter every situation and conversation with the expectation that I will learn as much as I teach, that I will receive as much or more than I have to offer.  The seven partnership principles sound simple enough, but I think they are more like the slogan for the Othello board game:  “a minute to learn and a lifetime to master”.

I walked away from the first Instructional Coaching Institute I attended with all seven principles nicely memorized and ready to implement, or so I thought.  People who know me might describe me as highly motivated, so it is no surprise that I wanted to take these principles out for a spin to see how they worked.  That was exactly eight years ago, and I am still working hard to master these principles.  Almost every day, I have the opportunity to practice and improve the way I implement these principles.  Like many of life’s most important lessons, the ones with the most meaning often require multiple attempts before they become part of one’s behavior.  Additionally, life lessons often appear from multiple experiences. The most important effect these principles have had on my life exists in tandem with the lessons I learned from Professor Turnbull in his special education law and policy classes:  every person has value.  Most people would agree with that statement, but for me, the partnership approach means that every person has equal value.  The big change in my life has been to find ways to communicate value to every person with whom I work and converse.

In the first coaching institute, Jim had the institute participants practice the language of ongoing regard (Kegan & Lahey, 2002).  This exercise began the transformation process for me.  The language of ongoing regard is direct, specific and non-attributive feedback.  This type of feedback infuses the recipient with affirmation and value.  As I employ the partnership principles, Equality, Voice and Choice form the conceptual framework for approaching a situation or conversation; Dialogue, Praxis and Reflection provide the means for getting the job done; and Reciprocity acts as currency, because I love to learn.  When I wrap all the principles in the language of ongoing regard, I find that my work, my relationships, and my professional life satisfy me more and frustrate me less.  I experience less friction and more positive outcomes.  I truly benefit from seeing others succeed and from partnering with others.  Little by little over the last eight years, the partnership principles ve become more about affirming others and less and less about my own performance or agenda.

In the last decade, working as an instructional coach, and working on the Tele-Coaching project, and supervising student teachers, I have become convinced that applying the partnership principles across all relationships in education fosters positive, productive results.   Think of all the relationships that exist for the purpose of educating students; from superintendents to paraprofessionals, librarians to custodians, every person plays an important part in creating the learning environment for students.  What a difference it would make if a superintendent considered the custodian as an equal and communicated value to him/her by giving him/her voice and  choice.  That may sound a bit extreme, but who knows more about the every day practice of keeping a building site operating well than the one doing the work?  Partnership principles suggests that the voice of the accountant who knows the cost of the ammonia for cleaning, the custodian who cleans, and the teacher who knows how clean the classrooms hold equal value.  Each perspective offers insight in how to improve the outcomes, or even what the outcomes should be.

The same is true of paraprofessionals who work closely with the same students every day.   If paraprofessionals were invited to the table of collaboration from the posture of equality, given voice and choice, permitted to engage in dialogue, praxis and reflection, perhaps reciprocity would prevail and students would benefit.  How often has the productivity of professional learning communities (PLC) been derailed by competition or one-upmanship or a focus on dissimilar personalities? I suggest that the partnership principles create a productive process for PLCs, co-teaching relationships, principal-teacher relationships, — all for the success of the students.  Educators have a profound responsibility to create learning environments where all students can be successful and reach their potential.  By choosing the partnership approach, professionals take a step in a positive direction.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. (2002). How we talk can change the way we work: Seven languages for transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Knight, J. (2007). Instructional Coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction (p. 239). Sage Publications.

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Marti Elford has many years of experience as a classroom teacher.  She worked as an Instructional Coach on the GEAR-Up project in Topeka, KS.  Through Instructional Coaching, Marti developed a growing interest in Special Education.  Marti recently completed a doctorate at the University of Kansas in the Department of Special Education.  She worked with Dr. Earle Knowlton on research using wireless technology and simulation technology to provide immediate feedback to pre-service and in-service teachers.  Marti is currently the Lead Coach on an Instructional Coaching Initiative research project and she directs the research and operation of the TeachLivE KU virtual learning lab.

A Financial Investment…Coaching Teachers

I was asked to guest blog on Hawk Hopes. My initial thought was, gosh, I’m not sure I’m really a blogger. Then, I felt the need to learn; expanding myself into something new…you know, live on in the educator’s spirit of being a “life-long learner.” So, here I am!

In my 11 years in the field of education, I have learned many things.  As I started my career in a more administrative role, I quickly learned that I wanted the hands on experience with the kids before I get into paper pushing. I was fresh out of graduate school, with an early childhood special education degree. The position I was offered (and accepted) was in a private Catholic school as an overseer of the paras (all FOUR) in a school of 600 students. Molding the public school IEPs to fit into the Catholic school’s curriculum and assisting teachers in modification of curriculum were just a few of the task list items that fit into my job description. The next year, I began the journey in public school life and thus opening my career in the field of early childhood special education. Little did I know, this would be the quite a ride! In my experience, the majority of educators start in a classroom, and end in a classroom. They may add on leadership roles within the school, but their passion remains in the classroom—I thought I was that person…until I discovered there was a world between administration and classroom teaching. I found the instructional coaching and department mentoring position in my district and THAT was my new goal: To mentor, support and coach teachers! Don’t get me wrong, I loved teaching my students and their parents. So very many joys came from my time in the classroom, every day. But, I saw something different for me. This new goal was about touching more lives than just in my classroom-it was a ripple effect. And really? I get to “teach” teachers without a life consuming PhD?? Yes, Please!!!

My time in the classroom delivered some validity with the other educators as I stepped into their classrooms. I believe the other piece of my success was meeting teachers where they were. I didn’t use one prescribed method to reach each individual, nor did I plaster myself, my beliefs or the information about evidence based practices to force a change. Change is gradual, and you have to establish and continue building trust as part of a buy-in from your stakeholders before you can start the process. That meant personal, face to face visits to classrooms to see where each person was, and to collect data on our departmental strengths, areas of need and see who could assist who. I enjoyed thinking out of the box, relying on collaboration with team members (parents, teachers, specialists, principals, etc.), and helping facilitate more meaningful learning for both adults and students. There is something very empowering about infusing your work and experience into someone else’s work. It makes all the extra hours (you know, because teacher DO, in fact work outside of 8-4), more worth the while and effort.

Researching to keep up with the latest and greatest, as well as finding research to validate that some of the old tried and true is still best practice, was such an entertaining challenge. Developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) is such a HUGE concept, as each classroom we teach in has a spectrum of developmentally appropriate—some students come in reading, while others are still working to sort letters from numbers (typically developing or not). Both skills are on the DAP spectrum, but you would teach each in a different way-the expectations are different.  The students’ personalities and experiences, as well as developmental levels assist in guiding our style of and content in our lessons, classroom arrangement, classroom management and organization. Sometimes, we get stuck. The best of the best get stuck, and it’s okay. When you are so close to the source, at times, it’s difficult to step far enough away to see what other options might be. The advantage of having a district that provided an instructional coach/department mentor, was having someone to call for help.  Someone to provide different ideas, an ear to chew, data to collect and present, a supportive hand, someone to model something different, or just to reiterate that what you are doing is right—keep it up, you CAN do this! Even when it’s hard, results WILL come.

During my time in this instructional coaching and department mentoring position, I enjoyed creating lesson plans and curriculum, observing others at work, offering my insight as an outsider, pointing people in the direction of a colleague, or making connections between people (e.g., across schools, within schools, and within their own classrooms) that weren’t there before. Being an instructional coach has been the most challenging, yet satisfying career choice I have made. I felt like I was making a difference.  I could see the physical and emotional change in the department as we worked together.

I feel there is a great need for more instructional coaches/department mentors throughout the educational field. The position can provide invaluable support to educators (new and seasoned) to help them feel heard and validated. Additionally, it can provide (or enhance) individualized and ongoing staff development onsite, often times where it is needed the most. The accountability level for the educator goes up, and in my experience, the educators felt a deeper sense of commitment to change with a support person who was able to be present. A department mentor or instructional coach can provide a sense of cohesion within departments, as well as through the district. The hands on experience I was able to give the educators I worked with was so much more meaningful than an e-mail sent with little or no follow up.

I understand that in today’s “zero and declining” budget, there just isn’t enough funding to support a position like this in every district. I do feel, however, that the money spent was justified, and well spent to better the department, and in turn, the district, as a whole. Additionally, it provided an invaluable experience to educators new to the field. Demanding day to day responsibilities, paired with learning district “ways” and policies can be very overwhelming. The position I held enabled me to assist (and learn more myself) educators with a hands on approach. The response to the individualized attention the position allowed me to provide was overwhelmingly positive, and I am still utilized as a resource to some of the educators I was fortunate enough to coach. When teachers feel supported, validated and “heard,” there isn’t much that cannot be accomplished.

Lisa and kids

Lisa Payne is a 2002 graduate of the M.S. Ed program in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas. She specialized in Early Childhood Special Education and earned a B.S. from Fort Hays State University in Speech and Language Pathology. She resigned from her position in June 2013 to stay at home with her two young sons and daughter.

Autism and Effective Practice

Recently I was asked to do a Hawk Hopes Lecture entitled Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and Effective Practice: A Model for Selecting and Implementing Evidenced Based Practice (EBP).  This lecture was based on a framework developed by Dr. Rich Simpson and myself for inclusion in Cook, Tankersley, & Landrum’s Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disorders (see Simpson, & Crutchfield, 2013) This is a topic that I identify with deeply. Prior to seeking my doctorate at the University of Kansas, I was a classroom teacher for five years.  During this time I worked primarily with adolescents on the Autism Spectrum and I was consistently motivated to learn all that I could about strategies and interventions that promoted positive outcomes for these students. This desire to have answers to the complex challenges faced by students with ASD, their families, and the school systems and communities in which they participated is what ultimately lead to my application to the doctoral program at KU.  This blog post will serve as a space to elaborate on the topics discussed in the lecture and as a summary to the book chapter referenced above

The challenges faced by practitioners in school settings who wish to implement effective programming for students with ASD had been well documented, and it is of general consensus that effective practice identification and implementation are at the center of the discussion surrounding ASDs (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, &Kincaid, 2003; Simpson, 2005) However, the general lack of agreement within the field as to which methods are in fact considered EBP, what methods and interventions work best for which students with autism, and an overall lack of guidelines for practitioners who wish to implement these interventions has lead to a lack of daily programming with a foundation in evidenced based practice (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kincaid, 2003; Simpson, McKee, Teeter, & Beytien 2007). Recent prevalence increases (1 in 88 births and 1 in 55 males; Center for Disease Control 2012b) have further complicated efforts in developing effective practice as the numbers of students receiving services for an ASD have risen consistently over the past decade.

These increases and unique challenges have created a desperate need amongst school- based practitioners to understand, use, and evaluate strategies that are effective in mitigating the impact of autism. Most professionals agree that students with autism can only develop needed skills through the consistent implementation of effective strategies (Simpson, McKee, Teeter, & Beytien 2007). The following framework (see Figure 1) attempts to advance the selection, implementation and evaluation of EBP judged to be best suited for individual students.

This model is based pillars of effective practice that include such foundational principles as: well-trained and supportive staff, structured environments, and individualized supports and curricula. While these basic elements may seem intuitive, it is important to note that while these supports are not likely to bring about real change in student outcomes simply by being present; it is likely that interventions and strategies implemented without these elements will be less than fully successful. Building on that foundation the model recommends a three-component approach including, identifying strategies that are grounded in systematic investigation, identifying interventions based on the students specific characteristics and needs, and coming to conclusions through dynamic collaboration with all stakeholders.

The first element of our model demonstrates a commitment to scientific methods, and recognition that some methods and approaches are superior to others in relation to their ability to produce meaningful and scientifically validated outcomes for these students (National Autism Center, 2009; Simpson, 2005).  Similarly, the second element recognizes that students with ASD often demonstrate unique learning challenges and characteristics that result in unique manifestations of skills and deficits American Psychiatric Association, 2000; Bregman, & Higdon, 2012; Simpson, 2005). Considering each student’s characteristics and tailoring interventions and teaching methods to individual students is likely to result in the selection of interventions that are a best suited for specific students. Finally the model recommends participating with a wide range of professionals and family members to assemble a broad perspective relative to selecting and implementing interventions and teaching methods. Such a collaborative process assures that decisions are made as a collective group and not by single individuals. Ultimately, practitioners are encouraged to ask the following three questions of all participating stakeholders: What proof supports purportedly effective interventions? How will a selected intervention be evaluated? and To what extent does an intervention fit an individual learner’s unique needs?.

While this model may reflect similar decision making frameworks for exceptional learners, it is a tool that I wish I would have had as a practitioner working with these students and their families on a daily basis. The challenges associated with providing high quality educational programs for students with ASD are enormous, but models such as the one briefly described above promote wide-scale adoption and application of EBP and give those involved the best chance of overcoming these obstacles.


Figure 1:

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American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.).

Bregman, J. D., & Higdon, C. (2012). Definitions and clinical characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. Educating Students with 

     Autism. Routledge

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012b). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorders: Autism and developmental

disabilities monitoring network, 14 cites, United States, 2008. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, March 30, 2012.

Iovannone, R., Dunlap, G., Huber, H., & Kincaid, D. (2003). Effective educational practices for students with autism spectrum

disorders. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 18(3), 150-165

National Autism Center (2009). National standards report. Randolph, MA: Author.

Simpson, R. L. (2005). Evidence-based practices and students with autism spectrum disorders. Focus on Autism and Other 

     Developmental Disabilities,20(3), 140-149.

Simpson, R., & Crutchfield, S. (2013). Effective Educational Practices for Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders:

Issues, Recommendations, and Trends. Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disabilities26, 197-220.

Simpson, R. L., McKee, M., Teeter, D., Beytien, A. (2007). Evidenced-based practices for children and youth with autism spectrum

disorders: Stakeholders issues and perspectives. Exceptionality. 15(4), 203-217



It was a warm spring day, and coincidentally, the proudest of my young life in academia.  The end of my 2nd year as a doctoral student at KU was closing in, and, along with two friends, I had recently completed a research study without the direct involvement of my advisor, Don Deshler.  Our study was a success; the participants in Group 1 scored significantly higher on our dependent measure than the participants in Group 2.  The widget worked!  After what seemed like weeks of writing, my team and I finished the manuscript and were ready to submit for publication.  The paper was glorious.  The lit review was filled with the latest and most important citations in the field, the method was crystal clear (like the ones the APA manual cites as exemplars), the results were immaculate (I didn’t write that part, but still…), and the discussion and conclusion broke new ground in the field.  In short, it was a masterstroke.  Before submission, I wanted Don to take a look at it, mainly to help catch silly APA mistakes, and to show him how awesome I was.  I emailed the paper to him with a note:


 This is the manuscript we wrote from the recently completed study.  I am very excited about this – I am sure it will be accepted, but it would be great if you can give it a final once over to make sure I didn’t miss anything silly. 

 Thanks as always,


 PS – How cool that KU won the Orange Bowl and Basketball National Championship last year!!!  I am sure both teams will have numerous championships in the coming years.  Rock Chalk!

Upon reflection (with five years of space to reflect), what happened next is comical.  At the time, it felt like I was the worst doctoral student at KU, and more than likely, the country.


 I am glad you sent me your paper.  This is not at all ready for publication.  You’ve missed several key references that are glaring omissions.  After reading it, I am not at all convinced that your study is warranted, or justified.  The method section is very confusing.  Did you use the APA manual to structure this section?  I think you should go back and review the following sections in the manual: Actually, go ahead and review the whole thing.  I can tell [name redacted] wrote the results and it looks good.  The discussion section does little more than repeat the results, and needs to be rewritten.  You also have some claims in the conclusion that are not even close to being supported by your data.  I’d be happy to look at your revision.  I made a few comments throughout. 


Don (soul crusher)

 OK fine, I added the soul crusher part.  But it was true.  I went from being 100% sure that I had hit a grand slam home run to recognizing what I thought was my best work was actually a weak grounder to the first baseman – one of those dribblers where the ball doesn’t even get to the bag and you get tagged out of pity halfway down the line.  I don’t know if you’ve ever been so sure of something only to find out that you were wrong, but it doesn’t feel good.  In fact, it feels terrible. Turns out, there is a huge difference between writing a paper for class and writing for publication… And I found out the hard way.

As I finished Don’s email, I went from shock, to anger, to denial, back to anger, and then settled on an interesting blend of anger/shock/denial.  There would be no acceptance.  He was wrong – he misread it.  He probably skimmed it – I mean, there were comments and track changes on literally every sentence so I guess he read it kinda closely – but he obviously didn’t get it.  I won’t tell you exactly what I did next, but it involved Johnny’s Tavern (the seedy one on the other side of the river) and a taxi ride home.

A couple days later I returned to Don’s feedback.  I read it carefully.  No.  It can’t be… He was right.  The literature review was weak, and did not make a compelling argument.  I forgot to cite Mary Brownell in a paper on teacher education.  How do you forget to cite Brownell in a paper on teacher education???  The method section couldn’t explain how to get out of a wet paper bag.  The result section was still pretty good.  And the discussion section, instead of breaking new ground, had actually, somehow, set the field back 5 years.  Dammit.  He was right.  

At that juncture, there were two choices: Give up on the paper, or rewrite it.  I chose the latter.  It was the hardest thing I ever had to do in the program (up until then anyway).  Have you ever had to essentially throw a manuscript away to start over?  I have.  It’s not fun – but I did it.  Clawing my way off of the mat offered no guarantee of success either – Don was sure to find issues with the paper the 2nd time, say nothing of what the reviewers and editor would discover.  I needed to be resilient yet had no idea how to do it.

So how did I gather the nerve to put myself out there again?  Because Steve Awesome, a student I used to teach with a learning disability, never gave up even though he had more reason to quit than anyone I’d ever met.  Steve was a high school student who couldn’t remember any new content for more than a few minutes, read grade appropriate texts, or pass a test to save his life.  That said, that kid showed up for school every day, worked hard to learn various strategies to improve his memory, worked with a tutor on his reading, and built skills through a vocational program.  Steve didn’t go on to college or become an astronaut, but he does own his own business fixing cars, and probably makes more money in a month than I do in a year.  That kid could have dropped out of school on any random day from 8th grade all the way through 12th grade – but he didn’t.  I’m not sure he ever received any positive academic-related feedback in school (other than in his vocational program).  He kept trying.  He had to.  Who am I to quit when kids like that are out there?  I won’t let Steve down.

We are in the business of getting shot down only to find strength to learn from failure and emerge stronger on the other side.  If you’re not resilient, you are going to have a very hard time in this line of work – it doesn’t matter where your courage to endure comes from as long as you keep moving forward.  I used Don’s feedback to make the paper stronger.  I went into one of those zones where you can’t remember exactly what happened or how you wrote consecutively for 24 hours without eating anything, but you know you were fully engaged while coming up with ideas that never occurred to you before.  When the manuscript was finished, I knew it wasn’t perfect, but stood a puncher’s chance.  I sent it to Don again.  I wasn’t nervous.  OK fine… I was a train wreck.  Here’s what I said:

Dear Don,

 Thanks again for looking at the paper.  I really appreciate it.  It was pretty cool how you made a comment or edit on literally every sentence.  Never seen that before.  I made the changes you suggested, plus some other stuff.  When you get a chance, it would be good to get your thoughts before I submit. 



 P.S.  Kansas just lost to Northern Iowa.  In basketball.  Do you think Roy Williams will come back? 

 His reply:


 Nice job making the changes.  I’m really proud of how you stuck with this.  I don’t think they’ll publish it, but go ahead and take a chance anyway. 

 Kansas will be back strong in football and basketball next year – don’t you worry.  National Champs in both.


 After some last minute tinkering and review with my friends, we submitted it.  Here’s the decision letter from the editor:

Dear Mr. Kennedy:

 Manuscript ID TESE-10-0009 entitled “Using Enhanced Podcasts to Augment Limited Instructional Time in Teacher Preparation” which you submitted to Teacher Education and Special Education, has been reviewed.  

 The reviewer(s) have recommended publication, but also suggest some minor revisions to your manuscript.  Therefore, I invite you to respond to the reviewer(s)’ comments and revise your manuscript.

No.  Way.  Later, Don claimed he knew all along it would be accepted, he was just preparing me for the worst… just in case.  After making the minor revisions, the paper was accepted, and became the first in a line of several articles using the widget to improve teacher candidate knowledge (citation is below).  Since then I’ve had seven manuscripts, three grant proposals, and four conference proposals rejected (not that I’m counting).  Some of the rejections were spectacular – one editor once sent me an email to reject the paper 24 hours after I submitted it.  I’m pretty sure that is a record.  It never gets easier.  It always sucks.  Earlier this week I got an article and CEC proposal rejected on the same day – and, because the universe has a sense of humor, Kansas lost to a side dish in football (Rice University).  But I learn from every rejection and become a stronger researcher, writer, and colleague.  Sure I have my share of rejections, but I also have over 20 publications, a grant funded by IES, and 40-something conference presentations.  My goal is to double my productivity in the next few years leading up to tenure – that means I’ll also double the rejections.  No problem – Steve won’t quit, neither will I.

We are special educators.  Our job is to help students, parents/families, teachers, administrators, other stakeholders, and our peers at Universities make essential improvements to secure better outcomes across the lifespan.  The challenges we face as doctoral students, early career faculty members, and more seasoned researchers pale in comparison to what students with disabilities and their families face every day.  Getting crushed by a reviewer or advisor once in a while isn’t even in the same conversation as what the students we serve often face.  If you need the strength to be resilient and courageous, when putting your work out for review, think of the kids we serve – you’ll be just fine.  Oh, and get good advice from your mentor too – they usually know what they’re talking about (in academics anyway, but don’t tell Don I said that).

One day not too long ago, one of my doctoral students sent me a paper she was sure was ready for publication and wanted me to take a last look.  If you want to know what I told her, go back and read that first email Don sent me – just change the names.  And no, I didn’t do it to take revenge on an unsuspecting victim.  I couldn’t help but smile as I momentarily crushed her hopes and dreams.  I beamed proudly when she too found the resilience to make the needed edits, and later secure her first peer-reviewed publication.  One day she’ll tell her version of this story to her doctoral students, and I hope you will too.

Kennedy, M. J., Hart, J. E., & Kellems, R. O. (2011).  Using enhanced podcasts to augment limited instructional time in teacher preparation.  Teacher Education and Special Education, 34, 87-105. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0888406410376203

Michael Kennedy is a 2011 graduate of the Ph.D. program in the Department of Special Education at the University of Kansas.  He is currently an Assistant Professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.


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“Presume Competence”

For four centuries, educators, and philosophers have encouraged teachers to begin instruction with student strengths and an understanding of students’ individual differences (see Dewey, 1938; Herbart, 1892; Pestalozzi, 1797).  In this age of accountability, however, we begin with the end goal (state assessment data) in mind.  The question today, though, is the same as the question in the age of Socrates, Locke, Dewey, Vygotsky, and so many others:  What is the purpose of education?  Is the purpose of education to build a well-informed democratic citizenry?  Is the purpose of education to prepare people to be members of a society?  Is the purpose of education to train for jobs that sustain the community?  The answers to these questions are elusive because the purpose of education is, in my opinion, dependent on the strengths and interests of the individual.

Our classrooms are filled with children from diverse ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.  Their strengths, abilities, and interests are equally diverse.  Yet, we continue to hold each one accountable for the exact same skills and levels of proficiency; in predetermined areas of importance, without any regard for the critical individuality they each bring.  Students with differing abilities serve as prime examples of missed opportunities to promote strengths-based education.

Access.  Participation.  Supports.  These are the three pillars on which the foundation of including children with differing abilities in the general education learning environment has been built.  However, I consistently interact with teachers, professionals, families, and students who view inclusion as the act of placing students with differing abilities in the same room as typical students.  Voila!  We are “doing” inclusion.  Do not mind the fact that we have put all the children with Individualized Education Programs at one table with an instructional aide.  Do not worry about the lack of interactions amongst the students or about the lack of academic and behavioral expectations for the students with differing abilities.  Inclusion is only achieved by having high expectations for each student in the class, by “presuming competence” in each student.  I was fortunate enough to have Dan Habib, creator of “Including Samuel,” Skype in to an introduction to special education course I co-taught during my doctoral program.  When the pre-service general education teachers asked Mr. Habib what he wished teachers understood before having his son Samuel in their class, Mr. Habib responded, without hesitation, “Presume competence.”  This statement stuck with me.

I contend that inclusion is not something we do; it is not something we can create.  It is a belief that every child has strengths to contribute to the classroom community and we, as teachers, possess the power to bring those strengths forward.  By changing our lens from a focus on deficits and remediation to an emphasis on strength and individual contribution, we bring forth the tenets of inclusion in a way that is meaningful for each child.

What does it mean to be meaningfully included in school, in community, in life? Owen Flanagan in The really hard problem: Meaning in a material world, writes:

Meaningful human lives involve being moral, having true friends, and having opportunities to express our talents, to find meaningful work, to create and live among beautiful things, and to live cooperatively in social environments where we trust each other. If we have all these things, then we live meaningfully by any reasonable standard. If we have only some of them, we live less meaningfully, and if we lack all these things, especially the first two, our life is meaningless.

Flanagan is a philosopher, not an educator, and his criteria for meaningful human lives strike me as a measurement for meaningful inclusion of students with differing abilities.  As humans, we are much more alike than different, regardless of diagnosed conditions, atypical development, or different cognitive abilities.  We are each unique with strengths, weaknesses, preferences, and social desires.  Inclusion allows for those individual characteristics to contribute to the greater good of the classroom’s social and learning environment.

I know what you are thinking.  You are thinking these feel good sentiments do not translate into teaching and learning outcomes for each student.  You are thinking there are very real competencies for which each child is accountable and that strengths and uniqueness will not be enough to demonstrate those competencies.  You are thinking that in philosophy this makes sense but it just will not work in practice within the context of schools.  You may even be thinking, “She has never met MY students!”  While I understand the resistance and the deeply entrenched deficit-focused model within which we work, I implore you to consider the possibilities.  It is not as though we are experiencing tremendous success in achieving learning outcomes with our current strategies.  What if strengths-based approaches to teaching and learning are effective in promoting what students know and can do?

Recently, I was invited to talk about inclusive practices and special education with Music Education students.  During this guest lecture I introduced them to this idea; I said to the 16 very talented musicians, “The person who has a disability in this room is me because I cannot carry a tune in a bucket.”  They laughed and assured me that I could, I just needed proper instruction.  In a room full of pre-service music educators, my lack of musicality served as an example of differing abilities.  No one would consider my tone deafness a disability but it is certainly a weakness that would require targeted instruction to remediate and even then, I believe, my potential is extremely limited.  Fortunately, I have other strengths.  And so do you.  As does every student in your classroom.  Find them.  Celebrate them.  Develop them.  “Presume competence.”


Jen Newton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in Inclusive Early Childhood Education at James Madison University and a 2011 graduate of the doctoral program in Special Education at the University of Kansas.

Partnering with Military Families

Military families face many of the everyday challenges that civilian families experience.  Hectic careers collide with child rearing, family time, rest, recreation, and community involvement.  The stress of deployment and frequent moves compound those everyday challenges.  Military families’ children can face learning challenges that come from inconsistencies in education standards across states and the complications of dual military family careers.  Families can also encounter the strains of recovery from physical injuries, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder due to combat.  While all these experiences can bolster children’s resilience and comfort with change, along the way, parents and children need support.

 One Family’s Deployment Story

A family friend and his wife were a dual military career family and only fifteen months after they married he was deployed to Iraq.  When he left the comfort of home his first son was nearly two months old.  During the deployment phase, their young family experienced many of the major stresses of life.  They celebrated the birth of a child, mourned the loss of both grandfathers, and purchased of a new home.  Then, Hurricane Katrina damaged the new home, and the new mother lost her job.  Although they received support from family and friends, it was a difficult time for their family even after my friend’s deployment overseas had ended.

The Impact of Deployment

This family experienced the effects of war that we civilians read about.  There were bouts of depression, anxiety, withdrawal symptoms and behavioral concerns. Imagine the emotional strains of helping a child work through violent outbursts taken out on siblings or family pets.  Consider daily life with adults dealing with emotional distress.  A depressed parent might stop eating or lose interest in communicating, even with his or her children.  Consider the toll on family life when parents’ anxieties prevent them from being in crowds, make them fearful of loud noises, and result in nightmares.  Coping mechanisms can take many forms.  Children may stop expressing their emotions or even talking; parents may lose themselves in video games, hobbies, and other obsessive behaviors.

Many military families have similar stories about the effects of deployment on their families.  If these are typical military family stories, then picture the stress a military family may encounter when the children in the family have special needs and abilities.  Consider fitting multiple hospital trips into already packed days.  Moving schools means learning how to navigate special education services in yet another state.  Each move may mean additional evaluations.  Some military families contend with the fear of losing rank or a promotion due to their requests for frequent leaves.

Managing Day-to-Day Life

In addition to sharing hardships, other friends have revealed their strategies for managing day-to-day life.  Families were eager to describe how they helped their children cope with deployment.  Their lists included reading children’s books, video recordings that the deployed parent made before leaving, video recordings of the deployed parent reading bedtime stories, and Skype phone calls.  One parent disclosed that her daughter has extreme anxiety when she sees an army uniform.  Uniforms are a signal that her mother is leaving for extended periods.  To prevent the anxiety, the mother changes clothes when she gets on base.  Other mothers talked about just pushing through until the end of a deployment.  They rely on their tenacity to manage the family’s stresses and complete their missions at home while waiting for their spouses to return.

Needs of Military Families

The military has some resources available to help with these needs.  However, some families do not access available military resources.  Instead, they rely on family.  Others cite the stigma associated with accessing military support services.  Still others worry about being passed over for promotion.  As I listen to the stories, I am amazed at each family’s coping strategies, resilience, and strength.  Military families need educators to walk beside them on their journeys, connect them with resources, and direct them toward appropriate programs that meet their unique family needs.

Today, lengthy and multiple deployments pose many challenges for U.S. military children, families, educators, and community members (Park, 2011).  Out of the 1.2 million school-aged military children, only 86,000 attend Department of Defense military schools (Park, 2011).  That means that public schools are educating over a million children of military families.  Local schools need information about military families.  Teachers and other practitioners who work daily with children need to understand more about the practices that would support the social-emotional, mental health, and academic needs of military children.

Early childhood research is particularly important because approximately half a million military children are under the age of five.  This is a critical age for child development.  “Failure of the school community and family to identify and help military children cope with emotional needs in the school setting can lead to conflict and risk of poor educational outcomes” (Fitzsimmons & Krause-Parello, 2009). Early educators may need additional professional development in order to be comfortable in supporting families through all phases of deployment.  My passion is to research the preparation of early childhood educators to support military families in a culturally responsive and strength based manner.

One Family’s Post-Deployment Needs

Eight years after deployment my friend has two sons and a daughter all under the age of eight.  One son is entering second grade, the other started kindergarten this year, and his youngest daughter just learned to walk.  As the first month of school begins today my friend’s wife is transitioning into the single parent role because my friend is away for a month long military training.  Tonight one son was struggling to finish his homework (2+hours), one son couldn’t stop talking about school, and their baby girl interrupted our call with a cry for Daddy several times.  As the cell phone disconnected, I wondered if the teachers knew they were a military family.  Had they had training to work with military families?  Do the boys’ teachers understand the importance of emotional literacy development and social emotional support? What would my friend’s wife need most in the next month from the boys’ teachers?

Top Ten Insights for Teachers Working with Military Families

10.  Have “Great Expectations,” they will strive to meet them.

9.  Use their strengths to support them in achieving their fullest potential.

8.  Provide some extra encouragement and motivation.

7.  Help them understand every child is at a different level and accept who they are  no matter the type of disability they may or may not have.

6.  Give them multiple activities to express their knowledge other than written  assignments.

5.  Take time to get to know each child’s unique gifts and needs.

4.  Ask a military service member for insights into the military culture.

3.  Ask the family about their goals for their children and family.

2.  Value and encourage the family’s participation in school activities.

1.  View the family with a “strength based” lens and guide them in using those strengths to accomplish great things together.

Why Should We Partner with Military Families?

With every challenge, each military family taps new strengths and generates unique ideas for overcoming those obstacles.  Imagine how military families could help educators become more culturally responsive in their work with military children and families.  Imagine if we focused on the military families’ strengths to help the family: improve family and child outcomes, build resilience, and achieve their long term goals with a sense of fulfillment (Bennett, Deluca, & Bruns, 1997; Bennett, Lee, & Lueke, 1998; Trivette, Dunst, Boyd, & Hamby, 1996; McWilliam, Toci, & Harbin, 1998; Soodak et al., 2002).  Imagine if we knew what educators needed in order to better serve military families.  By engaging in conversations with each other we can learn how to better work together.  As one military general stated, “This is a matter of national security.  Soldiers should not have to worry about the education and mental health of their children while serving on the battlefront.”


Bennett, T., Deluca, D., & Bruns, D. (1997). Putting inclusion into practice:       Perspectives of teachers and parents. Exceptional Children, 64(1), 115-131.

Bennett, T., Lee, H., & Lueke, B. (1998). Expectations and concerns: What mothers and fathers say about inclusion. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 33(2), 108-122.

Fitzsimons, V. M., & Krause-Parello, C. A. (2009). Military children: When parents are deployed overseas. The Journal of School Nursing, 25(1), 40-47.

Park, N. (2011). Military children and families: Strengths and challenges during   peace and war. American Psychologist, 66(1), 65.

Soodak, L. C., Erwin, E. J., Winton, P., Brotherson, M. J., Turnbull, A. P., Hanson, M. J., & Brault, L. M. (2002). Implementing inclusive early childhood education: A call for professional empowerment. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 22(2), 91-102.

Trivette, C. M., Dunst, C. J., Boyd, K., & Hamby, D. W. (1996). Family-oriented program models, helpgiving practices, and parental control appraisals.     Exceptional Children.

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Audra Classen, MS.Ed., is a doctoral candidate in the Early Childhood Unified program at the University of Kansas and works as a Graduate Research Assistant on an IES curriculum development project, CSS+, as well as a Graduate Teaching Assistant completing student teacher supervisor for pre-service educators.  Audra was a practicing ECSE teacher for years in Kansas working primarily in district early childhood special education classrooms with 3 to 5 year old children. Her interests and expertise lies in supporting young children’s emotional literacy development, developing social emotional curriculum and interventions, teaching practitioners to utilize emotional literacy assessment techniques, and developing culturally responsive services for military families and their young children.  She desires to continue to prepare early educators, general educators, and para educators to differentiate and individualize supports for children of all abilities.

Context Matters

I was recently asked to comment on special education and disability research in the 21st century for a presentation for KUPD, the student special education association at KU, and I’ve elaborated on those comments in this blog.  In thinking through the key issues that those of us interested in special education and disability (researchers, professionals, policy makers, families, and individuals with disabilities) must consider as we continue to move further and further into the 21st century, the idea that “context matters” keeps rattling around in my head.

Context is a complicated concept because it is so all encompassing.  In fact, our recent definition essentially says it is everything that impacts an individual’s life and functioning (Shogren, Luckasson, & Schalock, 2013).  Context includes our personal characteristics (for me, having brown hair, being short, and having a disability, amongst others) and the environments we live, learn, work, and play within (that is, the people in my life, the communities I affiliate with, the educational opportunities I’ve had and continue to have), as well as the interactions between my personal characteristics and environmental experiences and my reactions to these interactions.  For example, for a long period of during my undergraduate education I was highly anxious in any class because of an early negative and very public reaction of a professor to my need for accommodations related to note and test-taking.

Obviously, then, context is highly personal.  But, it impacts the work that any of us are doing at the individual, community, or societal level to impact outcomes for students with disabilities. The anxiety I brought into my undergraduate classes influenced the way that I accessed the information and the degree to which I was successful in my courses, despite most of my professors having no understanding of this, unless they somehow became aware of these contextual factors.  The professor, whose public comments impacted me so significantly, was also  shaped by his context and experiences that impacted his beliefs about disability-related accommodations in his classes.  Context matters on both sides of the table.

But, a valid question is, “so what?” Of course the factors that shape our life and functioning matter.  This is common sense, and something that most people would probably agree with at face value.  The real question is, “What do we do about this?” and perhaps more importantly, “If we try to do something about this, does it have a potential for making an impact?”  Obviously, I would argue “yes,” is has the potential to make an impact if we are systematic and diligent in working to understand the specific ways in which context matters and how we can better assess and use information about context in the design, development, and implementation of supports for individuals with disabilities across the life-span, something I think will, and needs, to characterize 21st century research and practice.

As researchers and as practitioners, I believe, if we are self-reflective, we will acknowledge that we have failed to fully consider contextual factors in much of our work.  We may explore a limited number of factors in a given research design (e.g., the impact of gender or disability label on outcomes), but not the additional interactive effects of teacher or administrator attitudes or peer relationships on a student’s success in the classroom. As practitioners, we struggle to find the time, resources or energy to think beyond our classrooms and to understand broader contextual factors.  Frameworks have existed for decades, however, such as Brofenbrenner’s ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2005), for organizing the diverse systems that have the potential to influence functioning.  But, we have struggled to implement these frameworks in our work, perhaps because of the added complexity, but perhaps also because there has never been a systematic process to try to figure out how to determine the individual or environmental factors that matter, particularly when what matters may be specific to each individual.  And, practices, such as person-centered planning that do attempt to develop a comprehensive, strengths-based perspective of the individual and their vision for the future work very well in some cases, but not in others, perhaps because of contextual factors that shape the success of the process, including structural factors such as a lack of resources or supports for teachers or families to implement these processes.  However, person-centered planning has also not been characterized by a clear process for identifying specific contextual factors that might influence the visioning process or the planning and implementation of needed supports.

For me, I think moving beyond simple acceptance of the fact that context matters, and seeking ways to develop a greater understanding of the how’s and why’s of contextual influences, is a key direction for 21st century research and practice.  This must start with a clear definition of context, which has not been, until recently, available in the field of disability and special education.   Next, we have to ask ourselves, what elements of context likely matter most in the specific work that we do?  Then, we need to explore how we can define, assess, and account for these factors in research, policy, and practice. Only then can we begin to use this knowledge to design truly person-centered, individualized supports and services that have the potential to lead to the valued outcomes of disability policy.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (Ed.). (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shogren, K. A., Luckasson, R., & Schalock, R. L. (2013). The definition of context and its application in the field of intellectual disability. Manuscript submitted for publication.


Karrie A. Shogren, Ph.D. has been on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and will be joining the faculty at the University of Kansas in the Fall of 2014.  She received her Ph.D. in special education from the University of Kansas in 2006, and undergraduate and master’s degrees from The Ohio State University and the University of Dayton, respectively, in psychology.  Dr. Shogren’s research focuses on self-determination and systems of support for students with disabilities and she has a specific interest in the multiple, nested contextual factors that impact student outcomes. Dr.Shogren has published over 50 articles in peer-reviewed journals, is the author or co-author of 5 books, and is one of the co-authors of Intellectual Disability: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Support, the 11th Edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ seminal definition of intellectual disability (formerly mental retardation). Dr. Shogren has received grant funding from several sources, including the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).  Dr. Shogren was recently appointed co-Editor of Inclusion (with Michael L. Wehmeyer, Ph.D.), a new e-journal published by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and is an Associate Editor for Remedial and Special Education and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Good Citizenry 101

My son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome  (AS) when he was five and a half.  Typically, children that young are not diagnosed with  AS. AS is said to be a high-functioning form of autism where the keys to diagnosis are: (a) short self-stimulatory behaviors rapidly repeated, like flapping, spinning, and rocking; (b) social awkwardness that includes difficulty reading social cues, understanding voice tone, and interpreting facial expressions; and (c) late development of speech.  The symptoms of AS were pretty obvious to the team that worked with him, as it was to us, his parents.

We wanted to get some sort of diagnosis so we could explain to teachers and family.  We also wanted to be able to share with them researched strategies proven to be effective for young children.  When a diagnosis of AS was given we made a decision to never use the “A” word at our house when discussing him. Our 14-year-old daughter has an idea of what labeling might do since she has read some research material I used while getting my master’s degree in special education.

Most of our friends and family are on board and “get” my son. They have read books and articles to be supportive.  Additionally, we see these same supportive friends and family implementing techniques my husband and I use daily.  However, not everyone in our life has come to terms with the AS diagnosis. One family member thinks that we should not let him bounce around the house stimming, although it helps him calm down and helps him organize his thoughts and feelings.  Another family member suggests he is only acting that way around me.

Since receiving the AS diagnosis seven years ago things have settled down. Tantrums are rare and he has made a couple of very good friends. They are not his age, but he is happy.

I teach special education.  I live special education at home with every statement I make to my children. Everything is designed to teach empathy and encourage good citizenship. My husband Jeff and I work together and would not change a thing about either of our children. Both of our children are seen as kind-hearted, thoughtful, and helpful. Since my son does seem to be so “normal” on the surface, people are shocked when something happens.

Such a surprise occurred two years ago at our citywide BBQ contest, where thousands of people come. My kids go every year and hang out in a tent with us.  My daughter will walk around with her cousins.  However, my son is stuck either to my husband and me like glue, or plays his DS in the corner of the tent.  After five and a half hours of being in the tent on this BBQ day, I knew it was time to take him home. I’d like to say it was my stellar mommy skills kicking in, trying to avert a tantrum.  However,  I suspect I decided to take him home due to the huge tears he was able to produce (he is able to spew tears if he thinks of something sad- real or imagined) proving he was ready to go home. All was well, the backpack was loaded with his electronic devices and games, the kisses and hugs were given good bye, and we were on our way.

The exit with a bit of a drop-off was about twenty yards past our tent.  You would think that tragedy struck from the blood-curdling scream my son made when he fell down at this drop-off. We attracted about a hundred people from the scream. The police walked over to check on us. One man was certain my son needed an ambulance. A nurse stopped by to check on us. She asked if he was ok, I started to tell her, “He’s ok, he just has A…..” She stopped me and said she understood.  Immediately the nurse started getting people to go away asking them not to hover and stare.  I will forever remember her not allowing me to say that to her.  She did not need an explanation and my son did not need an excuse for his behavior.

I am holding my son in my lap in such a way to administer pressure to his torso, a technique that helps him feel more comfortable when he is upset, sad, or scared.  Meanwhile, I am insisting to everyone that he is fine.  I asked the man, who suggested my son needed an ambulance, to go away since he was just staring at us with his group of friends.  Similarly, to the people passing by I replied, “his knee is only scraped”.  To the police, “there is no need for police intervention”.  At this point I had tears running down my face.  How do you explain any of “this” to a group of strangers?  How do you say “this” is part of his thing?  “This” is part of his hyper-sensitivity to pain (along with light and sound).  “This” is part of who he is but most of the time he is smiling and happy. How do you explain those things to a bunch of people who are whispering and pointing?

Several minutes have gone by, my daughter has run back to our tent to retrieve a cousin, band aids, Neosporin, wipes, and a tissue (for me).  My niece is wiping off his knee and he is still screaming.  People are still staring.  The nurse had tried to get on her bus to go back to her car, but came back when another round of people came to gawk.

My constant coos of “you’re fine” did not help.  There is no getting a child with perseveration issues like this to just stop of his own accord.  I calmly suggested to him that he needed to stop screaming because the police thought I was hurting him or his leg had fallen off.  Since neither had happened, he needed to not scream quite so loudly. Surprisingly, that angle worked.

Once he was bandaged (three small band aids). We gathered our things and hobbled home. We only live a couple of blocks away. He was even able to run across the bigger street (he gets nervous in the road and needs to get across quickly).

On the way home, after my children and I had settled down, I thought it might be a good time to discuss with my son how the screaming led all the strangers to believe that his leg had fallen off.  He said he would try not to freak out like that again.  I thought it important to address the incident again in the morning.

“I know you were tired. I know you wanted to come home. Can we think of some things that we could do to not freak out when you get hurt?”

He replied, “I am not good at not freaking out when it hurts super bad and it is bleeding. You know if that does happen again I will start crying again.”

I answered, “But, can you try not to scream?”

Nodding his head yes, “I will try not to scream.”

This was not a tragedy, but I laid awake that night for hours trying to think of ways I could have avoided that huge melt-down and crowd-gathering event.  One, I could have stayed with him at home.  Two, I could have hired a sitter (though the whole town was at the BBQ). Three, I could have taken him home earlier.  Four, I could have not cried in public.  I realized the tears were an outward demonstration of several feelings.  First, I was embarrassed that I, all knowing self-proclaimed wonder-mom, had lost control.  Second, in the 5 minutes my son and I were crying (his a bit louder than mine) I mourned the inability to get strangers to accept my child was different (to their standards).  Finally, there was some anger or frustration that people pointed, whispered, and stared.  I did not understand this as I had taught my own children it was inappropriate to point, whisper, and stare in “Good Citizenry 101”, apparently the nurse took the class too!


About Heather G. Wolf

I’m a second year doctoral student at the University of Kansas.  I am studying technology interventions in the special education department in addition to my part-time job as a special educator and my full-time job as a mother.

Heroic Teachers Provide Hope

Teachers have been in the news again this school year. However, this time, the stories are not about standardized test scores, teacher preparation programs, or accountability measures. This time, teachers are in the news as something they would never call themselves: Heroes.

 Tragedy Strikes

In the fall, a gunman brought unspeakable tragedy to our community in nearby Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School. This shooting joins Columbine and Virginia Tech as the deadliest school shootings in the last 13 years. If you are like me, these shootings have captured your attention for a brief, albeit intense, period of time, before sadly fading to the background of daily distraction. Thus, I was shocked to learn that during the four months following the Newtown tragedy, 11 other shootings have taken place on school or university campuses. Human cruelty can leave us terrified of one another and feeling disconnected and hopeless about the state of our society. Yet human cruelty is only one part of these stories…there is hope thankfully in something else we must learn to see.

Words of Wisdom

When searching for comfort in the hours and days following the Newtown shooting, the following quote from Fred “Mr.” Rogers was sent to me by a kind soul:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world. … If you look for the helpers, you will know there is hope.

In the last few months, teachers have been helpers in ways that they could not have imagined. And yet to be the helper, is to face a choice: Should I help? Can I help? Or as many have asked–How can I help? Teachers found themselves to truly be the first responders during the shooting by removing children from harm, talking to them calmly and with compassion, and shielding them with their very lives.

Facing a Choice

We too are faced with a choice. In this case not what we would do, but rather how we will think about the tragedy. Mr Rogers’ mother was right–there were so many helpers we can look to!  So, I choose to remember the helpers instead of the inflictor. I choose to remember Kaitlin Roig, who told her students over and over that she loved them. Sharing later that, “I wanted them to know that someone loved them and I wanted that to be one of the last things they heard, not the gunfire in the hallway.” In the most extraordinary of circumstances, the helper–the teacher–chose love as her message. How can we not draw a full measure of hope from this selfless act?

Little Choices Lead to Larger Ones

How would any of us act during any of the horrible situations faced recently? May we never know! Yet I cannot help but believe, hope really, that heroism lies in the little things too. The practiced art of teacher devotion made in a thousand little acts:

Arriving early to school to unlock the gym, providing extra instruction, serving hot breakfast to hungry kids. Burning the midnight oil creating assignments (and then grading them!), worrying over a student, or planning to each day meet the various needs of each child. Holding the door for the next person and holding the hand of a colleague who has lost someone. Leading an afterschool club or creating a new one or attending a student’s game after school. Learning how to use social media to stay in touch with students whose learning in such ways is far out pacing their own. Organizing a gathering of colleagues after work to provide mutual support, blow off steam, and laugh about nothing at all. Thinking you have lost your patience with a student, and then finding just a little bit more. Teaching something 10 different ways, and when that doesn’t work, exploring another (and another!). Researching new accommodations and finding ways to enhance learning to reach each child. And so in the little things we choose to do, we are practicing the larger ones.

Tragedy Again, Choice Again

As I close, I am reminded that only a week ago tragedy struck again. This time in Oklahoma, and specifically at the Plaza in Moore, OK. Cruelty this time was manifest in a tornado, and the tragic loss of life including students at a nearby school. Yet once again, among the tragedy, we see the helpers. We find stories of teachers honoring us all through their heroic choices.

As a new parent, I see that for 13 years, teachers will shape the development of my son. I see teachers with a staggering amount of responsibility to safeguard those we love the most. To create a learning environment that is free of bullying and cruelty, enriching and engaging for learning, and (we pray) physically safe for our children. I know that in the months ahead we will likely return to questions about high stakes tests, traditional vs. alternative certification, and teacher accountability. Policy will naturally focus on issues of gun safety, bullying, and mental illness. But I also hope we return to the image of teachers from my childhood. Not the “those who can…” image portrayed in film and television, or played up in the media, but the image of teachers as difference makers, nurturers, leaders, helpers and heroes.  That is who I want spending precious time with my son. I think that is what we all want.

We have a lot that can be fixed in education, of that there is little doubt. But I hope that teachers hold their head a little higher across the country, as what it means to be a teacher is once again, a wonderful thing. Teachers have chosen to be helpers. That is who they are, that is what we need, and that is what gives me hope.

Micheal Fagella-Luby, Ph.D.

Dr. Faggella-Luby is an Associate Professor of Special Education in the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut (UConn). He is also a research scientist at the Center for Behavioral Education and Research (CBER) and an associate research scholar at the Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability (CPED).

Dr. Faggella-Luby teaches courses related to preparing educators to evaluate, select, plan, and implement research-based methods and instructional materials for teaching students with and without disabilities who are at risk for failure. His scholarly interests focus on learning disabilities, literacy, reading education, special education, diverse learning needs, instructional design, secondary education, and school reform. He has written publications related to cognitive learning strategies, response-to-intervention (RtI)/scientifically research-based instruction (SRBI), self-determination, literacy, and urban school reform. Dr. Faggella-Luby’s primary research interest focuses on embedding instruction in learning strategies into subject-area courses to improve reading comprehension for all levels of learners.

He received the 2006 Outstanding Researcher Award from the Council for Learning Disabilities and the 2007 Annual Dissertation Award from CEC’s Division of Learning Disabilities for his dissertation study Embedded Learning Strategy Instruction: Story-Structure Pedagogy in Secondary Classes for Diverse Learners. Before joining the faculty at University of Connecticut, Dr. Faggella-Luby was a doctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning under the direction of Drs. Donald Deshler and Jean Schumaker. He earned his doctorate from the Special Education Department at the University of Kansas. Dr. Faggella-Luby is a former high school administrator and teacher of both English and Chemistry.

Size Matters and Stealing Can Be Good

Long ago, my Granddaddy said that the best things said are said with precision and brevity. His learning objects often were Shakespearean: “He who steals my purse steals trash…” (Othello), and “Neither a borrower nor lender be…” (Hamlet).  Today our compulsion to communicate with words and video, and the technology and social demands driving it, favor clarity and brevity if we hope to be effective teachers and leaders. Even scholars use social media to augment conclusions from findings published in scientific journals, generally paragons of neither brevity nor clarity, to get word of their work out.  Today’s proliferation of tweets, twits, twerps, and blogs demonstrates our cognitive preference for clear and rapid sensemaking of what we read, see, and hear (see Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006a, 2006b).

I’ve always been a less-is-more kind of guy. Keep it simple but, if detailed complexities are required, knock yourself out.  Consider Columbia sociology professor Gil Eyal’s (2013) 44-page article advancing the idea that, for several decades, highly contextualized knowledge socially transmitted among numerous professional and lay groups helped form an enormous treatment culture around autism. Arguing a point of view about complex issues often justifies a few thousand words.

Presumably Eyal needed all of his words but most of us don’t.  Granddaddy said one precise word is worth 100 amorphous ones. Years later, in an editorial for Education Week, then Boston University education dean Edward Delattre wrote: “Words and phrases used repeatedly without reasoned consideration are inert; powerless to capture reality; doomed to obscure truth, complexity, and subtlety; and therefore destined to mislead those who take them as substitutes for thinking” (Delattre, 1997, p. 36). Little precision and lots of parroting characterize much of the literature produced these days. Our conversations are worse: lots of acronyms, lots of banalities (hearing, “in terms of” makes my skin crawl), and lots of insular “club” phrases (“He’s a Tier 2 kid, he definitely needs to be IEP’d.”) isolate rather than unify us across our professional communities because people outside our exclusive clubs probably don’t understand what the hell we’re saying.

This is unfortunate in two ways.  First, the reader’s effort is for naught since s/he takes little away from the brief connection s/he has had with you the writer.  Worse, you have not given the reader an opportunity to steal from you (see Brown & Duguid, 1996).  Learning theorist John Seely Brown and his colleagues advanced constructivist theory with their work in “situated cognition” (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1985, p. 32), wherein they regard learning in the absence of useful application and enactment contexts as suspended in molasses. British mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead, called knowledge imparted without regard to context “dead knowledge…(and) inert ideas” (1929, preface), and “scraps of information never connected or utilised” (Whitehead, 1929, p. 64).

In contrast, Brown and colleagues view learning as highly contextualized around the learner’s engagement in his or her own problem-solving and his or her intuitive urge to “steal” what s/he needs to know in order to solve the problem or perform the task. We teach and write expecting learners and readers to absorb the world as we view it but, instead, they assimilate the information as imparted, and either dismiss it or accommodate it to the specific contextual demands they face.  We don’t typically know what those demands and accommodations are.  Granddaddy would say that, to assume we do or can, is arrogant, egotistic, and perhaps even narcissistic.  Instead, our responsibility as writers and teachers is to be precise and succinct, allowing learners to do what they do because, then, they are free to steal what they need from us without fear of lock-up in the jail of wordy obscurity.


Brown, J.S., & Duguid, P. (1996). Stolen knowledge. In H. McLellen (Ed.). Situated learning perspectives (pp. 47-56). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Education Researcher, 18, 32-41.
Delattre, E. (1997, January 22). Psitticism and dead language, Education Week, p. 36.
Eyal, G. (2013). For a sociology of expertise: The social origins of the autism epidemic.  American Journal of Sociology, 118, 863-907.
Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. (2006a). Making sense of sensemaking I: Alternative perspectives. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(4), 70–73.
Klein, G., Moon, B. and Hoffman, R.F. (2006b). Making sense of sensemaking II: A macrocognitive model. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 21(5), 88–92.
Whitehead, A. N. (1929). The aims of education and other essays. NY: Macmillan.


Earle Knowlton is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education, specializing in human-computer interaction as it pertains to teacher quality and development. He is also Principal Investigator for the Social Tele-Coaching Project, a 3-year research grant funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, that is examining the viability and potency of remote, covert coaching of students with emotional and behavior disorders who are learning the general education curriculum in general education classrooms.

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