Open mouth. Insert foot. That’s what I did in the fall of 2015. Let me explain.
You may have seen video of me addressing the Campaign for America’s Future in October of that year. I was receiving an award for my advocacy on behalf of children, public schools, and working families. In my speech, I talked about my frustration with those who believe there’s a single fix for every challenge in education. I related an encounter with one such person, and I said I should have used the opportunity to give him the rundown of everything today’s public schools do.
I attempted to give the full litany of our responsibilities playfully in my speech. I had in mind those commercials we’ve all seen for prescription drugs in which a lengthy list of possible side effects is stated at warp speed, while smiling people go on a hike or enjoy a candlelight dinner.
Epic fail. In my attempt to be clever and funny, I stepped on a word in one phrase, and I created another phrase that I believed was funny, but was insulting. I apologize.
It started out well enough: “We serve kids a hot meal. We put Band-Aids on boo-boos.” I sped up my delivery for effect, speaking much more quickly than I normally do. And that’s when I went into a skid.
“We diversify our curriculum of instruction to meet the personal and individual needs of all our students – the blind, the hearing impaired, the physically challenged, the gifted and talented, the chronically [tardy] and the medically annoying.”
I meant to say “the chronically tardy,” but that’s not what came out. I was making the point that we adapt daily lesson plans and schedules to meet the needs of students who, often through no fault of their own, are never on time. Tardiness can be a huge factor in poor academic performance.
Sometimes, students are tardy because of physical or mobility issues; other times, tardiness is a symptom of deeper issues at home. You know how embarrassed and out of place you feel when you walk in late to an important meeting? Well, imagine how a child feels when she is consistently late for school, her “job.” As educators, we have to devise ways to keep chronically tardy students on track, or else they will fall hopelessly behind and feel marginalized.
As to the second phrase, I did say “medically annoying.” Let me be clear: I was not referring to students who are ill or medically fragile. I was referring to the student who’s full of excuses for not being prepared. But, of course, no matter what my intent, this entirely inappropriate, clumsy choice of words reflected on our students who are ill or medically fragile. I certainly do not see any student’s health needs as annoying. I, and the many dedicated educators I know across this nation, view meeting those needs as part of our sacred duty to care for the whole child.
I continue to cringe at the pain and anger I caused the community of people with special needs and their families and advocates. After that speech, I reached out to and convened heartfelt discussions with many leaders in the disability community to apologize, to listen, to learn. I know there are many with whom I was not able to personally connect, and I know that for some, my apologies back then—and even today—may not heal the hurt.
My hope is that my careless moment in 2015 will not tarnish my life’s work as a mother, educator, and leader who has fought time and again to ensure that all children, especially those with cognitive or physical special needs, are provided every opportunity to receive a high quality education in an environment full of respect and love.
But words mean only so much. That’s why I remain committed to bringing about much needed support and improvements for students with disabilities. This is the work I helped lead during my tenure as NEA’s president, and well before then, as an educator and former “Teacher of the Year” and leader in my home state of Utah.
I’ve spent decades partnering with educators, parents, and other advocates to demand that Congress fulfill its 45-year-old promise to fully fund the federal government’s share of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) so that our students have the staff and resources every school district desperately needs. Meeting this challenge and protecting the civil rights, dignity, and equality of all people with disabilities is even more important now, because the pandemic has made it harder for children with disabilities to receive the educational support they deserve.
We must increase funding to train and prepare special education professionals and to create inclusive curricula. I am especially proud of NEA’s many efforts on this front, including creating virtual trainings and resources focused on special education, to fill a void identified by educators.
Just as critical as what we do to support students and educators is our responsibility to expand Medicaid so that struggling families don’t have to choose between caring for a sick child or paying the rent.
I realize that my words from five years ago have taken on a life of their own. YouTube and all social media platforms grant immortality to everything we say and do, so what I said on that October evening just might live forever. I know that I’ll always be responsible for those words, and I remain dedicated to setting things right through the work I do on behalf of all students.