Differentiated Teaching: Avoiding Personal Bias in Teaching

VIPTeach Fellow Jennifer Rice on accepting reality and learning from her children.

I have taught in the field of education for more than twenty years.  During that time, I have heard many things about how difficult the field of special education is to teach.  They are perceived as the worst of the worst.  They have behaviors to overcome, they have a slower learning pace, they “can’t do” many tasks of their peers.  Special Educators run from the profession in growing numbers.  The average tenure of a special education teacher is three to five years.  In addition, there is a shortage and lack of quality teachers in the field of special education. I have lasted in the field more than twenty years because I have followed a few rules of thumb. 

  1. All special education students are not created equally.  Yes, I mean equally.  Although all students in special education have a disability, not all students with that disability learn the same way. Each student has a distinct need and personality.   Each student has SOMETHING lovable about them.  Each student learns through different means.  
  2. Work from the premise that they can learn. Every student has learning potential.  However we have not tapped many of our most difficult students’ minds because we have not found the key to open the lock. 
  3. When teaching middle school, a daily reminder that the anger, frustration, and blocks my student felt was not something that could be overcome in a year.  The frustration in learning happened over a long period of feeling like a failure.  
  4. I listened. I listened to the parents. I listened to teachers. I listened to the principals.  I listened to fellow educators and professors.  Then, I did something even more important:  I listened to my students. 
  5. Allow the student to be a kid.  Kids need grace and room to grow.  Kids need reminders to follow some basic rules and guidelines.  Kids need love, care, and nurturing.  Kids need a swift kick in the pants, tough love, and strictness.  Kids need to know you will be there for them no matter what. 

I have also had to accept some harsh realities about myself and my methods. 

  1. The biggest and most important is:  Not everyone will love me.  Some may not even like me. 
  2. Not all students or parents will love what I am doing for the student I am teaching. I am not a “yes” person, and will share with parents and the student my true feelings about why I choose my path, that does not always match parent expectation.  
  3. Not all administrators will think I am a good teacher for what I am doing for the student. I do not always “follow the rules” of a specific curriculum or school policy as each student is unique and may need alternative instruction.  
  4. Not all colleagues will appreciate the accommodations or modifications I am making for students. 
  5. Sometimes, methods don’t work.  I don’t get frustrated, I just keep trying. But, it is not easy. 

Special Education isn’t scary, but it requires effort.

The most unwanted student in a school building is the one with behaviors. Whether the behaviors are not being able to sit still, throwing things, yelling at peers and adults, or curling up and crying, emotions make us uncomfortable in a classroom setting.  How much more could we accomplish if we did not have those students in our classrooms? 

Every student benefits from differentiated teaching.  It has become a buzzword in our industry of education. Differentiation means many things, however. To some, it is simply giving fewer problems.  To others, giving a choice of several types of activities is differentiation.  None of these are wrong.  The definition of differentiating is modifying instruction to meet individual needs. This sounds daunting.  When taken by the letter of the law, it is. Who has time to plan 30 lessons (or more these days) for 30 individual students for five subject areas?  It is impossible, right?!  If you look at it like that, yes.  It is nearly impossible to have a life outside of lesson plans if that is what you are trying to do.  So, teachers have learned to put students into learning groups.  Groups help to defray some of the time spent on lesson plans for 30 students and five subject areas. We use flexible grouping so the students are not “locked” into one group. So, the list goes on and on differentiating content, process, products, and even the learning environment.  We use portfolios and ongoing assessments to monitor learning for students.  That is just for our regular education students.  Then, we have those students who do not keep pace with their peers.  They struggle to read, or they cannot access the same math level because they have not mastered the steps or steps earlier in the lesson, especially as they grow older.  We now have to choose how to spend time educating them.  Combine those needs with behaviors?  “No, thank you. I will take anything but the student who has behaviors.” That is the common response. 

This is where personal biases come in.  Imagine, for just a moment, a classroom where everyone is equal.  Is that in your mind?  What did you picture?  Quickly think of three words you would use to describe that place you imagined. 

Was your classroom full of university students or elementary students? Were you a student or a teacher? Did you picture a classroom full of learners who could all learn easily? Did you picture eager learners with smiling faces?  Did you picture one grade level or many grade levels? What about cultures, did you imagine many cultures within your classroom, or was it mostly one culture or one color?  Did your students have clothing like you wear? Was their clothing appropriate for the weather? 

The word equal conjures up so many definitions.  What you pictured in your head for the brief moment before the questions began is your bias. The words you wrote are part of your belief system. My personal experiences (and biases)  led me to picture a classroom full of energetic, happy learners. There was learning going on and I was the teacher. Students were at desks, on the floor, and standing at a counter.  However, all were working and happy to do so.  

I am a special education teacher and this is not the norm in my classroom.  I also have three boys with special needs.   This was not the picture for them, either. Although I teach special education, my biases do not lead me to envision my classroom as my bias when I picture equality. Neither do my biases come from my experiences as a mother of three boys with special needs. Instead, my biases come from when I was a student.  My personal biases come from a much earlier time than my teaching career.  My version of equality is a picture of my sixth grade classroom, where the teacher made learning fun and rewarding. She understood equal did not mean the same. However, we did not have special education in our classroom.  All the students with special needs went to another classroom to learn. 

The words I chose do not depict or define the struggles of my students.  Rather, they epitomize my own experiences of learning in the classroom. My bias is that learning is fun.  My bias is that learning is rewarding.  My bias is that learning is a happy place.  

When I asked my son, who has Autism, to do the same exercise it was vastly different.  He said equal means people are getting all the same services.  He did not think an equal classroom is a good thing.  This is because not everyone needs the same specialized services.  He said very few need to be in SPED, but for those who do, equal classrooms do not work.  They have to be given their own set of guidelines. Although we are similar in socioeconomic status, culturally similar, and live in the same household, his experiences in school are vastly different from those of mine. His knowledge of equality is much different which makes his biases different.  

According to my youngest son, equality in the classroom meant equal class size OR a university classroom with students who have a similar ability level. He has ADHD and is on a 504.  He has two older brothers who needed differentiation. His understanding of equality is different because he has experienced things when there was not equality in the classroom. 

I have learned to overcome my biases, in part, through my students but also through my own children. They have taught me a different view of differentiation.  What they have taught me has changed my style of teaching for the better.  

Using my children as examples, I will show how different differentiation can look for special needs students. First, each of my children are delightful human beings.  They have to be, they are my children (wink,wink).  However, they are not perfect, nor are they always lovable.  

My oldest was diagnosed with Autism at the age of 17, three weeks before his 18th birthday.  Therefore, he had no IEP growing up.  He was a quiet student.  He did not show much emotion until he melted down. Differentiation for him was to watch his affect.  It was slight, but visible when watched for. The teachers he did best with were the teachers who took the time to understand him as a learner. Though everyone does this a little differently, the best experiences he had in the classroom were teachers who got to know his “quirks” and did not try to change them. Those teachers who got to know his unique personality traits were able to have fewer meltdowns and were more successful in getting him to work. He did not need much else, as he was able to learn independently as long as he was comfortable. Teachers who allowed him to “miss” classroom instruction for his mental health saw better grades than those who felt that the “missed instructional time” was more important than him calming himself. Quite the opposite, he would quietly shut down in the classroom and learn nothing. 

My middle child was diagnosed with explosive anger disorder (Emotional Disturbance) at the age of 9.  Differentiation for him meant reading his moods.  However, unlike my oldest, my middle child would rage, throw things, and disrupt classes.  Differentiation for him meant he needed a quiet place to go when he was upset.  During his time learning to cope in the classroom, he could not wait to go to his quiet place, so the room had to be cleared for him.  For him, the differentiation needed to come from watching cues in his breathing and mannerisms.  His “quirks” were much more pronounced than those of his brother. One piece of differentiation we learned from him was that peers were much quicker to pick up on his cues than his teachers.  Although there is a bias not to use other students, there are times, it is not only appropriate, but can help manage behaviors in a classroom.  Though students need to be kept safe, there is not any logical reason that a peer mentor be assigned to watch and give the teacher a cue that he needed help. In addition, the ability to leave and return to the classroom became necessary. Differentiation for that became core people in the building being on call if he left the classroom. In that way, there was no chance of an unknown teacher to approach him and risk even more anger.  Unfortunately, this was not discovered for him in a very timely fashion and he was suspended many times for his anger.  As he got older, it was necessary to make things “rules” that were non-negotiable, then give him choices for other things so he knew that going into the hall would require an adult intervention.  As long as it was a safe person, he responded with much less violence.  

My youngest child has had much more academic differentiation.  He can learn, but needs things delivered in short chunks and/or using song and videos.  This is so true now with the YouTube world and vloggers it does not look very different from those lessons for other students.  However, he also needs a check in at the beginning of the class.  Teachers who stand at the door and check in with him see a much different student than those who are behind the desk or not paying attention to students when they enter the classroom.  

Though not easy, each of these needs of my children can be met with simple and direct approaches.  It may take some time on the front end to differentiate, but your time spent before classes will be returned to you tenfold.  Below is a synopsis in bullet point from what we learned about differentiation at my house. 

Behavioral Differentiation.

  1. Ask parents for clues or tips about serving the student in the classroom.  Many biases are that parents of students with Behavior Disorders “don’t care.”  This is NOT true for 99% of parents.  They know the student better than anyone else (yes even if they are a drug addict…when they are lucid, they know their child). 
    1. By the way, you do not have to like the parent for this to be effective.  We made plenty of teachers upset with us, but the ones who listened were able to have more calm classrooms.
    2. I had a parent who was a drug addict.  She hated me when she was on drugs.  However, off drugs, she had the best insight of her child even as an addict. She cared, she just could not kick her habit. 
  2. Talking with the parent and asking advice also allows you insight into their home lives. A quick five-minute conversation with a parent will help you know what their home life is like.  
    1. Another tip is to talk with both parents if it is a two-parent household. If there are two families, this is also great to know. 
    2. Talk to every caregiver you can on the front end, it will give you a lot of information to help you differentiate. 
  3. Not all students with behavior disorders have overt behaviors.  Some of the most concerning behaviors are more covert.  Watch for quirky behaviors from students who are quiet.  If it is different from the norm, touch base with them. 
    1. One of the best ways to do this is to use your time before classes to be out in the hallway or just inside your door.  Although this is not a popular opinion on my part as we do not get enough “rest” as teachers, it can mean the difference between a calm classroom and a student blow up. 
    2. In addition to vetting behaviors, the teachers who greet each student coming into the classroom have much higher levels of respect from their students. They become much more willing to share things with those teachers who spend a little more time with them. 
    3. Trust is built from teachers staying in the doorway and greeting students. The students see teachers as more approachable. 
    4. One caveat of this is to NOT talk with other teachers at this time. This is the time for students.  
  4. Respect your student’s intelligence.  Many students with behavior disorders are smart.  The minute you make assumptions about what they know or don’t know, they will write you off as an untrustworthy adult.   My rule of thumb is to ask, not assume. 
  5. Listen to their requests. No matter how outrageous, listen.  After listening, be honest.  Tell the student what you can and cannot do as a teacher and as a person. True respect goes a long way to counter behaviors.
    1. I always differentiated my personal opinions from the rules of the school.  I never couched or hid my own philosophy from the rules of the school.  This way, if another teacher had different “rules,” I could genuinely talk to the student about why my class was different from that of another teacher. 
    2. If you make a statement in class that you will do something, do it.  If you don’t, the trust you once had will be shaken.  Many students with behaviors are used to “lies” and “cover ups” by adults when it comes to their behaviors.  They have been let down many times because of their behaviors. 
  6. Give students with behavior issues leeway, but do not allow them to break the rules of your classroom or the school.  Differentiation does not mean rule-breaking.  Though it would appear that “giving in” every once in a while might make things easy in the short term, in the long term, you will have a long road ahead of you.  Students with behavior disorders can also be manipulators. Once you give in once, the behaviors will increase if you do not allow the same behavior a second time.  
    1. Being consistent not only with your interaction with the individual student, but also in your interactions with your class is important to achieving a calm classroom. 
    2. Do not “call out” student behaviors in a classroom unless you are willing to hear it in return. Students with behavior concerns will test your limits and your patience with “you did it, so I can do it” behaviors. 
    3. Do not argue with students in front of the class. You have already lost if this has happened. They have the upper hand if you are arguing.  

What biases do you have with students who have behavior problems? 

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Jennifer Rice is a passionate and dedicated educator, researcher, and student of educating others. Jennifer has a B.S.Degree in Behavior Disorders and Intellectual Disabilities. She continued her education to include a Masters in Administration and a second Masters in Autism. Her passion for learning had led to her participation in curriculum committees in math, Language Arts, Social Studies, and Science. Although her degree is in special education, she has also taught in the regular education classroom. Jennifer’s passion and dedication for educating all individuals led her to be nominated to the Superintendent’s Advisory Counsel for her District of Columbia Public Schools, one od the largest in the state of Missouri. Jennifer took a break from brick and mortar schools to focus on the needs of her three boys. Two of the three have high functioning autism, the other struggles with ADHD. She did not stop learning, but instead took the opportunity to learn and grow in the field of advocacy in special education. In addition, she began teaching ELL online. Jennifer was honored to be one of the first one hundred teachers to teach online in rural classrooms in China. Because of her passion, she traveled to Chinas Xinjiang Province to meet her students and Chinese lead teacher. While there she was able to participate in a question and answer session with teachers and principals from rural China.