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Every Student is an Opportunity and Other Pieces of Wisdom I Learned from Doug Fisher

Every Student is an Opportunity and Other Pieces of Wisdom I Learned from Doug Fisher

“When your formative years include people with disabilities, as an adult you make decisions to include people with disabilities.”

“Every student needs to hear, ‘We do not see you as a problem. We see you as an opportunity.’”

“Membership in the regular class is directly tied to reading...Kids are not retained because of math scores.”

“Focus on the solution, not the problem.”

Above are some of the words from Doug Fisher that I jotted down at the 2018 PEAK Parent Center Conference on Inclusive Education. For the second time, he left me with thoughts to keep moving forward on the path to what I knew to be right, words to push me through the next IEP meeting - for me to push others at the table to see possibilities over deficits.

The first time I heard Doug Fisher speak was the first time I attended PEAK’s Conference on Inclusive Education. It might have been in 2011 - my memory fails me. He described the day he became an inclusionist; it happened when he was a speech therapist working in an elementary school. As adults, we are often eager to overcome gaps in learning and to provide all necessary therapies. But just what are the consequences children can experience as a direct result of all these attempts? In the example that Doug shared, a child he pulled out of class for services missed a critical opportunity for socialization and celebration - a classmate’s birthday party. The child was devastated as he realized this when Doug escorted him back to class. Of course, Doug was not aware of the events planned in the classroom that day. But this story is not unique to just this school or celebrations like birthday parties. The system that had the greatest intentions to support this child had systematically segregated and excluded him. There are all sorts of opportunities kids miss when we pull them out of class. 

This first message from Doug compelled me to ponder the following questions: What was the message given to the child’s peers? More, what was the internal message given to the child? Did the other students in the class learn to believe that students with different needs belong in separate places? And, did the child himself begin to believe that he needed to change in order to belong - that he was not good enough as he was? Many of us can recall stories similar to Doug’s. What is to become of children when this message is repeated over a lifetime? 

I also wonder how this affects the collective development of our communities. 

The term “othering” (viewing or treating a person or group as different to ourselves) was recently offered in a Wes Moore YouTube video shared at a PEAK staff meeting. We take great risks when we allow children to be “othered” inside the walls of our schools - a place where they spend a majority of their time and the social constructs that adults create within this structure ultimately play out as children enter the adult world. What sort of world do we wish to create? I’ll repeat wisdom gleaned from Doug, “When your formative years include people with disabilities, as an adult you make decisions to include people with disabilities.”

Today, Doug Fisher is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. Doug works every day to advance inclusive practices in schools and communities. As one of the quotes above suggests, Doug recognizes the power of reading and literacy in the general education classroom as they are central in his messaging. He offers insight and solutions to parents and educators alike in his new books The Distance Learning Playbook for School Leaders, The Distance Learning Playbook for Parents, and The Distance Learning Playbook, Grades K-12.

Sharp, poignant, and witty are the words that come to mind when I think of Doug Fisher. His commitment to high expectations for ALL learners is unwavering. School administrators, educators, family members, and youth will all understand the importance of his message and be able to integrate his ideas into their own lives and roles. Join us at the 2021 Virtual Conference on Inclusive Education where Doug will provide answers to these questions:  What can we do differently to help students learn? What tools do we have? What can we do when students don’t appear to be learning?

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