Professional Learning Communities: Keeping the Door Open.

I’m coming back to the PLC concept, championed by Richard and Rebecca Dufour, which I have to say is really difficult to dispute. In my opinion, any practice which brings us closer to integrated communities in our schools is a great one. If you already disagree, bear with me; my experience with the professional learning community centers around cooperation within limited grades of teachers and service providers where cooperation with general education was secondary. Many of you will have very different experiences than this, or will be even happy to point out to me that my limited experiences were not true PLC experiences. Touche. That said, I cannot overstate the great value of these focused school communities in my teaching career. PLCs ground us in our roles as professionals while giving us the freedom to challenge ourselves, measure our goals, and explore new territory. One of the PLC fundamentals, the shift from asking “What was taught” to “What was learned”, was a natural one for us, as we worked toward better informed teaching and learning.

But, what about general educators? Where do they fit into to the exceptional children education picture? Well, part of my claim that PLCs are fantastic hinges on the great potential for cooperation and integration with general education.

With special education, specifically with students whose complex needs are considered severe and profound, there are often reservations when anyone mentions cooperation, not to mention integration with regular education. And, this is exactly what the PLC model asks us to do. It is an intuitive expectation: if you are meant to teach an extension or derivation of the general education standards, then you can be expected to cooperate with general education professionals in the development of your curriculum. While this is true, many special educators might point out that when a student with severe and profound complex needs is placed in their “least restrictive environment” (a legal term used to describe an environment in which a student is able to make the most progress with the least amount of obstacles to that progress), especially in the years following primary school, the skills and academic content that this student needs for progress is too far removed from their general education peers.

There is an article by Dr. Tom Many and Julie Schmidt published in TEPSA News on special education and general education professionals prospering when working together in PLCs. Many and his colleagues conclude that “ensuring all students learn is not ‘regular ed, nor special ed…it’s just ed. Instead of grouping kids by labels, the proper question is [What does the child need, and who on our staff is best trained and able to meet this need?]’ Insisting that regular and special educators work together on collaborative teams is a great place to start answering that question.”

I appreciate that when these professionals come to the conclusion that “essential outcomes are for all”, they don’t buck the whole system, but instead look into increasing opportunities and getting rid of parallel learning experiences. This lets practitioners move out of theory and has potential for wide implementation. Of course, we in the field of complex needs know about the limitations of a statement like “essential outcomes are for all”: the level rigor necessary for someone with complex needs to rarely can be generalized to a group, and what Many and Schmidt called “spiraling the curriculum” might take the learners with the most complex needs years when they are talking about weeks or months.

How then do we strive for essential outcomes for all? We can do this by going back to our diversity and differentiation training, which tells us that while separate but equal is not equal, equality also does not equal sameness. We strive for all students to aim for the same essential outcomes, to have the opportunity to achieve those outcomes, but possibly through very different means, with a variety of support levels, and at very different paces. But maybe most importantly, we allow room to meet our students where they are, and to fall short of progress that is deemed “typical” in the name of making progress that is meaningful.

If we remain open to new avenues for achievement that integrated PLCs could support, even if it means risking failure and perhaps ending up right where we started, Dr. Many and his colleagues assure us that it is worth our efforts. The easy thing to do would be to close the classroom door and close our eyes to the fact that many students in “special education” would benefit from a more integrated education experience.

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