Accommodations for My Students Made Me a Better Teacher
When people talk of classroom “accommodations” they generally examine them from the perspective of the student with the disability. Services like note-taking, extra-time on tests, assignment due date adjustments, use of recording devices, seating arrangements and the like often appear on letters classroom teachers receive from the coordinator for disability services. I received many such notices during my teaching career.
While the accommodations were for the benefit of my students with disabilities, they made me a better teacher. Much better. I stretched my pedagogical comfort zone. My teaching became more empathic and focused. And, in the end all of my students benefited—not just those with diagnosed disabilities. I vividly recall three teaching and learning instances that reinforced the value of accommodations. I am forever grateful to these students. They taught me a great deal.
Lesson #1. One day as I was leaving my campus office I noticed a young man. He appeared to be standing in a corner beside a classroom door. I then saw him back up a step and move forward directly into the wall. He did it again. I said hello and asked if he needed assistance. It was then that I discovered he was blind (I had not seen his cane). He turned toward me and with a slight smile said he was just trying to get into the classroom door but had gotten “lost.” My heart melted. I helped him to the room. He said thank you. I had an empathetic experience. How could I be a part of this brief encounter and not be changed? My respect for the challenge this young man—and others like him—faced, along with the courage he had, moved me to want to learn more and to do what I could to assist in their educational aspirations.
Lesson #1.1. The following semester Tim enrolled in my history class. One day we had a power outage and the room went blank. As students gasped, he said from the back of the room with a wry sense of humor, “Welcome to my world.” Indeed. He always had a sense of humor no matter what he faced.
Lesson #2. I depend on visuals when I teach a class or speak to an audience. I take pride in putting time and effort into finding the right image to create the appropriate setting and message. One day as I was going through my slide deck in class, I looked over to my right. There in the front row was Joe, a blind student with a service dog beside him. It hit me like cold water. No matter how beautiful my images, they would do Joe no good at all. I stopped, turned to my sighted students, and asked them to describe graphically the images before them. Make them come alive! This helped Joe see the images in his mind’s eye.
Lesson #2.1. My sighted students benefited from my change in methodology. Verbal descriptions forced them to articulate what they saw. They could not just sit passively and observe the images. They had to take a more active part in their educational process and, thus, helped Joe with his. Community building one interaction at a time.
Lesson #3. Krista brought me to another level of the teacher-student relationship. She brought both visual and hearing impairments to our class. The first thing she did was to reach out and visit me in my office before the semester started. I had already received the accommodation notice. Her proactive visit, though, set a positive and interactive tone for our teacher-student relationship. Even though she had a note-taker in class, I learned quickly that her hearing impairment created challenges I did not anticipate. While she had some hearing, Krista had to wear hearing aids. And that created clarity issues when I played video for the class. What we discovered through trial and error was that if I placed her microphone (the one I wore that was connected to her device) close to the classroom wall mounted speaker, clarity improved dramatically for her. The joke became that I would jump on chairs for Krista—as every time a video came on, I got up on a chair and held the mic close to the speaker. The accommodation worked.
Lesson #3.1. Yes, I had to wear a microphone. Yes, I choose to jump up on chairs. And, yes, the class as a whole became part of Krista’s educational journey. For more on this story, she my podcast.
Accommodations help the identified students. And they go far beyond that. Each accommodation becomes a step in the choreography of the classroom, in the educational dance. Being a teacher is more than knowing one’s content and “covering” the material. Teachers (real teachers) do what they can to connect with each student and build a community of learners who connect with one another. Tim, Joe, and Krista became my teachers.
Steve Piscitelli retired from Florida State College at Jacksonville where he held the rank of Professor of History and Student Success. He released his eleventh book, Stories about Teaching, Learning, and Resilience: No Need to be an Island on January 1, 2017. When he is not on the road speaking, he produces a monthly podcast channel and writes a weekly blog. For more information, visit www.stevepiscitelli.com.