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I’m tired of watching my students with disabilities get pushed out of school

Teacher burnout cannot be an excuse to exclude children with challenging behaviors.

Lately, amid reported teacher shortages, I see TikToks, blog posts, and forum discussions detailing the reality of teacher burnout and the impossibility of being an educator, social worker, nurse, and librarian all in one. Anyone who has worked in education knows too well this sad truth. There are real problems with how we treat teachers within our schools. 

But this past year, I’ve seen another issue arise here in West Philadelphia. I’ve heard repeatedly from administrators that difficult students, often those with disabilities, are hurting teacher retention and should therefore be placed in alternative programs. While I am supportive of efforts to retain high-quality teachers and make our jobs realistic and maintainable, this feels like an excuse to exclude the students that schools have never really wanted to serve. 

We have a long history of excluding students with disabilities from our schools and communities. But we cannot allow teacher burnout to justify discrimination. There is a process for supporting students with disabilities who have challenging behaviors. There are individualized educational plans and behavior interventions. And there are teachers, like me, who have grown their experience and knowledge in this field specifically to take on this work. When we take the right steps to support challenging students, their behaviors improve. In five years in special education, I have always found this to be true. 

We are educators. And we should be expected to educate all of the students in our classrooms. This means we can’t cherry-pick our students. We don’t get to teach only the kids with no trauma who sit perfectly still at their desks, already know how to read, and can control their anger. We can’t turn our backs on our most challenging students because their behaviors are hard. 

I’ve watched as “difficult” students have been pushed out of school again and again by systems that don’t understand them or their needs. I’ve watched students go from sitting in the hall to sitting in detention, to sitting at home or on a street corner when they lose their will to persevere in schools that are not designed to support them, but instead oppress them. I’ve watched as their desire to learn is slowly drained away by a daily barrage of corrections and compliance. “Hood down.” “Phone away.” “Uniform on.” “Three minutes late to class, that’s detention.” “Skip detention, that’s suspension.” There’s rarely a “Good morning,” “Are you OK?,” or “What are your needs today?” 

When we suspend a student again and again for non-violent offenses, when we nudge a student already half out the door that final inch across the threshold, it feels like we are playing with that student’s life. I can handle being under-appreciated, checking kids’ foreheads for temperatures, and helping my students digest traumas they’ve experienced, but I cannot stomach this continued desire to punish difference and insistence on pushing kids to the curb.

I have read statistics-filled studies detailing how suspensions, expulsions, and exclusion not only don’t change student behavior, they actually increase the likelihood of students dropping out. But lately, those statistics have become personal. Today, they have a name, a face, and a worried mother on the other end of another phone call telling her that her son is out of control. Today, all I can think about is how these practices are harming a student I’ll call Josh.

Josh, who is in eighth grade, has a disability, an IEP, and trauma. He also has challenging behaviors. Josh wants to be at the school he has attended since elementary school, with his friends, where he is familiar and feels safe. Josh’s mom wants him at the school he has attended since elementary school, where for years she trusted he was getting a high-quality education. But the school, through its actions, has made it clear that it does not want him.

The school’s biggest response to Josh, rather than follow his behavior plan, rather than increase his support, rather than ensure he is educated by qualified special educators or provided a socially and emotionally safe space to learn, is to suspend him. Constantly. He gets suspended for skipping class, cursing, insubordination, disruption, disrespect, and disobedience. In the six months I’ve worked at his charter school, I have tried to support Josh in the face of his write-ups, referrals, suspensions, and mandatory parent conferences. It has felt like standing before a waterfall with a spoon. 

Maybe, in the five years I’ve taught in city schools, I have had one too many — and to be clear, one is too many — students shot and killed. Maybe I have seen one too many students drop out, finally taking the hint and listening to the message they’ve heard for years: School is not for you. School is for kids who can behave. School is for kids who sit right and raise their hands and never shout out. The truth is, at this point in my career, the stakes feel too high to kick kids out because they curse or don’t listen or are difficult to “handle.” 

The students who act like Josh, who hang out in the hallway and won’t take down their hoods and don’t follow rules but keep showing up to school anyway, they are the same students whose eyes fill with light when you praise them, even a little bit. They are the ones who try to push you away but appreciate you more every time you won’t leave. They want to show you how high they can jump or that they grew a quarter of an inch. They take pictures of their A’s and text them to their moms. Though they hide their smiles under sweatshirt hoods and quick walk-aways, you see their hunger a million times a day if you look close enough or even at all. Their every action is pleading: Please, someone, tell me I am goodGood at anything. Good in any way. But they are told in a hundred ways, subtly and explicitly, that they don’t belong. 

We watch these students traverse our halls, slump into our rooms, and, with their behaviors, yell out, as loud as they can, I’m on fire. I’m on fire. Too often as teachers, administrators, and communities, we look away from these individuals. We stand in judgment because, well, we would never act that way. We mistake our duty to community to mean we must protect others from witnessing their struggle and we tell these kids, “Stop interrupting. The others are trying to learn.” But challenging students are members of our community, too. And they are just as deserving of our protections. They need us to stand behind them with the same conviction we apply to our arguments for why they don’t belong. 

I often think of the quote by Nelson Mandela, “Let us build communities in which our children and youth, especially our most troubled, can belong.” Because these students don’t disappear just because we remove them from our classrooms or send them to other schools. They are in our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. They are our neighbors and our kids’ peers, or sometimes they are our kids. And what we teach the other students, the ones who have our loyalty when we determine their peace must be unimpeachable, is that this is how to approach difference, disability, and those who struggle. We shun them. We push them out of sight. 

We must be able to punish them into looking and learning like what we define as the norm. So, a two-day suspension, and then three or four more, until we give up on discipline and consequences in the name of compliance and get to, “This school is not the ‘right’ place for you. We can’t support you. We don’t know how to help you. No, we never really tried, but it doesn’t matter because we don’t like looking at fires here.”

Colleen Gibbons-Brown is a special educator who has taught middle and high school students for the past five years. She has taught in public and charter schools across Baltimore and Philadelphia school districts.