I am 24 years old, a hard worker, and an instant friend to most people I meet. I love music, art, food, cars, Pitbulls, and nature. I’m tall with long hair, a well-kept beard, and a wardrobe full of black band T-shirts and skinny jeans plus two silver rings – one a very cool dragon.
I am also on the autism spectrum. I’m a young adult with Asperger’s trying to make it in a world that is sometimes less than welcoming to neurodivergent individuals. I am doing pretty well.
Without question, I owe much of the success I’ve had in overcoming many of autism’s challenges to the special education teachers and paraeducators who guided me all through school — never once giving up on me. That’s why we should not give up on them by paying them less than they deserve or increasing the number of kids in their classrooms. Currently, paraeducators (paras) in Seattle earn $19 an hour, just $4 above minimum wage and $3 less than I make driving a delivery truck. That seems crazy to me and it should to you, too.
Keep class size limits
Limiting class size allows teachers and their aides to give kids with disabilities the one-on-one attention they need. I fear that enlarging special education classrooms will subject kids to a kind of chaos that will not only scare them, but will make it difficult to learn and grow. Both of these issues – pay and class size – were central concerns in the Seattle teachers’ strike last September. During the 2023 session of the state Legislature that ended last month, they kept fighting for kids. I stand with them.
Their dedication makes a difference
I used to be ashamed of my autism. Today, however, I am proud of who I am and of being part of a group of people who are thriving despite a way of thinking and being that sets us apart. Looking back, I believe the compassion, patience, dedication, and skill of the teachers, specialists, and aides in my self-contained special needs classrooms – and available to me in different ways as I transitioned to mainstream classes in middle and high school – were critical to my transition from low- to high-functioning autism.
One special teacher can change a life
The trajectory of my education and my life changed with one very special teacher: Angela Burke. After a particularly hard year with a less experienced teacher, Mrs. Burke saw my strengths and my potential. She advocated for moving me into mainstream classes, with support. I started to shine. I believe this is the most important thing we pay special education teachers and paraeducators to do: to see potential in students with disabilities and help them expand beyond what they see in themselves. I am grateful to Mrs. Burke for treating my autism as a single factor in who I am, not the whole, and not a burden.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Mrs. Burke, a 25-year special education veteran, who now works in the Edmonds School District. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Me: Should special education students be integrated into mainstream classrooms?
Ms. Burke: I think that is kind of the million-dollar question. It’s important to recognize the spectrum of what kids need. I have worked in a self-contained environment and I know that it’s a really critical service area that we still need. Some kids need the time and the space to be met where they are and have a safe environment created where they can learn and grow at their own pace. And then be pushed where they’re ready. I also recognize there’s a movement to do a lot of in-class inclusion. For some kids that works. But for some kids, I feel like it falls short.
Me: How have paras helped you and should they receive better pay?
Ms. Burke: I definitely think they should. I couldn’t do my job without them. I can’t be an octopus and be everywhere and be everything to everyone. They’re very necessary. They inform our practices in a lot of ways and can see what’s working, how kids are growing, and what we might need to switch our focus to. They’re critical. I really couldn’t do a good job without supportive paraeducators.
Me: Is keeping class sizes small important?
Ms. Burke: Yes, small and manageable. To give kids with special needs what they need to succeed in a mainstream class, sometimes it takes a smaller class size. Sometimes that means a class of their own, with some targeted mainstreaming. You’re spreading teachers thinner and thinner whenever you add any kids to a general education class. If you add four or six special ed kids to that class, it can make a big difference in how much a teacher can do well with a group, how in-depth you can go individually, and how thorough you can be in getting through the material. It does make a big impact. It is a big deal.
Special education teachers and paras change lives. They should be valued, well-paid, and work with class sizes that allow kids to make progress.
If teachers near me strike again this fall or in years to come, I will walk with them. Because they walk for me.