SPED Talks: Knowing When to Move on from Tim Villegas, Founder of Think Inclusive

SPED Talks is an essay series dedicated to--like TED talks--sharing “ideas worth spreading” in the Special Education community. The topics, experiences, and points of view are all different, but the prompt for our writers--education professionals from all walks of life--is always the same: “What do you wish people understood about Special Education?”

Recently I took a job at another school down the road from the one that I taught at for the last seven years. It was a hard decision because the school faculty and administrators were my family and support system for a long time, but it wasn’t a decision I made lightly. thinkinclusiveHere is how I made that difficult decision and what factors impacted my journey in taking a leap of faith.

I recently invested in a new venture called Think Inclusive—an education website dedicated to inclusive thinking for schools and communities. Through Think Inclusive, I had many conversations with people in the disability community; as a result, my perspective grew and widened and I was able to bring that new perspective into my career and at my school — I learned how important inclusion was in the classroom. This began to affect my teaching practice as I strived to incorporate the philosophy of inclusion that was still being molded in my heart and my head.

I became more vocal about my students attending general education classroom segments. I invited classrooms into our special education classroom to do joint lessons where we served both typical students and students with complex learning needs. I served as the special student services chair for our school’s PTA and was involved with planning our “Diversity Week” activities. I even made a plea to the entire school to take a hard look at how inclusive practices are done.

Turning Point

All of these things were fabulous and I am happy I was able to share them with my school community. But, through no fault of their own, the wonderful and kind staff at my school were interested in other things. Not many people shared my passion for inclusive education at the school, let alone at the district level. What I realized is that no matter what you’re passionate about, whether it is science, math, art, music or another aspect of education reform, no one is going to care about it as much as you do.

As I reflected on my teaching practices and how I would like to see our education system evolve, I knew I needed to step out into a new situation. This new situation would require the same amount of energy and creativity that spurred me on to become a change agent at my school. This meant that if a new opportunity came by, I would need to seriously consider it.

Some of my colleagues already told me that I looked like I needed a change, but I was not ready to hear that. I felt my duty was to serve the students and the families entrusted to me. But I also realized that my wanting a change was nothing personal against my kiddos or even my fellow staff members. I think in order to stay on top of your profession and to feel like you are making a difference, you constantly need to keep growing. The hard realization for me was that I stopped growing. That feeling made me a less effective teacher and the dissatisfaction I felt in knowing I wasn’t getting better was difficult to come to terms with.

Burnout Prevention

If you are feeling like you are on the verge of burnout here are a few suggestions on how to harness that negative energy to make positive change. First, find a support system. It is so important to be in contact with people who feel the same way about education as you do. For me, it was finding like-minded bloggers who were talking about the same issues in the same way. I used Facebook and Twitter to search for hashtags that were relevant to my cause. After joining the conversation on social media, it was easier to feel like I was part of a larger community that shared the same ideas.

Second, you need to stop being afraid of change. I was comfortable in my school and classroom even though I knew I was getting burnt out. After having some honest conversations with my family, I was able to make the decision to move on from my position to something new. I was afraid of change and when I got over that fear, it was for the best.

Finally, find a mentor. It doesn't need to be someone at your school or even an educator. Just someone who is a little older and wiser who can check in on you once and awhile. You can even find one in a faith community, if you are so inclined. Having someone to talk to is essential in the reflection process and will help you become a better educator.

Have you stopped growing as an educator? Have you stopped learning new things? Have you lost interest in refining your craft? Even if it means taking a class or joining a professional learning network, you may have to do something to change your situation. I am fortunate to have a chance to take what I have learned and apply that to another school and classroom. As clear as it seems now that it needed to happen, it was a decision mired in uncertainty and self-doubt. All I had to do was reflect and make that leap.

SPED talks Tim Villegas

Tim Villegas is the Founder and Curator-At-Large for Think Inclusive, an education website dedicated to inclusive schools and communities for all. Follow him on Twitter @think_inclusive or on Facebook.

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