Vy Nguyen is a Rochelle Lee teacher awardee and special education teacher at Brentano Math and Science Academy in Logan Square. Recently, she shared her insights about the importance of including students with diverse needs in the general education classroom.
The Inclusion Model
Growing up, Vy volunteered with children with physical and cognitive disabilities through a rehabilitation center where her mom worked. However, when Vy entered college, she studied pre-med with the intent of becoming a doctor, not a teacher. Around that time, Vy was visited by her younger cousin with Down Syndrome. Vy had frequently babysat her cousin when she was younger, but Vy had not seen her in years. Vy recalls, “she remembered exactly who I was. Even though she was only four when she moved, she remembered my name and what we did together. And I thought, maybe I need to go this route.” Vy switched her major and received a degree in Special Education from Michigan State.
After student teaching, Vy worked with City Year to become more familiar with the systems of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Vy then became a full-time special education teacher working with students with diverse needs. She learned the protocols and guidelines to be compliant with special education law. She also realized that certain school practices for her students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) were outdated. “It was time for me [to leave]. The school had functioned so many years without change. We weren’t implementing best practices.” Vy strongly believed they needed to integrate students receiving special education services more into the general education classroom, a model called inclusion.
In the inclusion model, a learning behavior specialist like Vy provides students with accommodations and modifications so that they can be in the least restrictive classroom environment. Special education pedagogy impacts many students nationwide. Approximately 13% of students in the US receive special education services. Vy explains that students with diverse needs should be with their peers in the general education classroom whenever possible. “If students can be included, why not? Why should they not be in a classroom with their peers?”
Inclusion over Isolation
Vy points out that inclusion exists on a continuum and that each student’s needs are different, she also believes in the incredible effect it can have on all students’ social and emotional growth. “[students] benefit from either being a support [for peers], or looking up to a role model. [Students with IEPs] have the feeling that they belong. They can be present and they can be accepted and know that they are equal to their peers. It’s an emotionally beneficial thing that a student can gain from that experience, and at the same time it creates a really good environment for teachers and promoting collaboration and community.”
Vy remembers her own experience as a student receiving English as a Second Language (ESL) services. “I remember being pulled out for ESL services and not really understanding why. My English language learner services were in a tiny office, maybe even a storage closet with a small round table. I kind of felt really awkward about it, because I didn’t understand the language. And I didn’t actually know what was happening to me. I was kind of scared to go to school.”
As a teacher, Vy sees some of these same isolating practices occurring with certain student populations. Vy remembers thinking, “Why haven’t there been changes? Why are these same practices of pulling kids out of the classroom all day long still in existence? Society should have progressed within the last 20 years. That’s something I hold onto.” Vy now works with students almost entirely in an inclusion setting at Brentano.
Improving Practices to Meet Students’ Needs
Keeping up with improved practices is an important part of an educator’s job, especially when working with students with diverse needs. Teachers need to be continuously learning in order to care for each of their student’s academic needs, while still giving students the opportunity to interact and grow with their peers in an environment that feels welcoming and inclusionary. The Rochelle Lee Teacher Award (RLTA) offers free professional development to teacher with a variety of workshops so that teachers can continue to hone their craft by choosing sessions most relevant to their work.
The RLTA community is one of collaboration, resource sharing, and above all a commitment to continuously evolving their practice. Students who receive special education services deserve strong teachers and advocates like Vy Nguyen. With improved practices, Vy and other teachers can make the general education classroom more accessible for all students.