It was with a lot of luck that I entered the profession of teaching. I was not an education major as an undergraduate student back in the mid-1990s. My life was changed when I happened upon a Special Olympics event one weekend, 25 years ago.
There, I met a group of young adults who were the most authentic and joyful I had ever encountered. I knew immediately what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So, I went straight to graduate school to earn my degree in special education while working as a teacher’s assistant at a school for children with autism. I have been a teacher for students with cognitive disabilities from the moment I finished graduate school back in 1998.
I believe that within school, communities need to be connected. A large part of that belief comes from my experience that day with the Special Olympics participants. Before that day, I did not think very often about people with cognitive disabilities, or even about my peers who were teaching in special education classrooms. In part, this was because I didn’t have any opportunities to interact with the students in special education classrooms.
The landscape for special education has changed, for the better, since I was a student back in the 1980s, but there are still vast opportunities for improvement. Inclusion models still view education as a vehicle for general education students where, through inclusion, special education students can get a sampling of a classroom as it should be.
No one considers having general ed students experience special education classrooms to observe their peers who learn differently. When general education students are with special education students, it is to help. Therefore, they do not view their special education peers as actual peers.
This creates a situation in which special education students look up to general ed students as if they are automatically role models. What this system is doing is keeping students from truly connecting as peers.
When I think back to how my life was changed the day I witnessed that Special Olympics event, it makes me want to ensure that all students have a chance to meet all their peers, even those with different ability levels. I have been fortunate enough, as a state teacher of the year, to have a large platform for giving talks and trainings on truly connected schools. So, I have dedicated a lot of my time to talking about creating more connected schools—schools in which the culture is different.
Learning happens best when all stakeholders feel a part of something larger—a culture of learning in which each student is valued, respected, and seen. If a large portion of a school isn’t valued, respected, or seen, the school isn’t a true community, and the culture is not one of formation of all students. It is our duty as educators to make all students feel that they are part of the culture of learning that constitutes a school.
Kareem Neal is a self-contained special education teacher in Phoenix, AZ. He has taught students with cognitive delays for 23 years. He is the recipient of the 2019 Arizona Teacher of the Year award, and was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Northern Arizona University for his contributions to special education in Arizona. He is also a 2019-2021 Understood Teacher Fellow.
Kareem’s passion is connecting all students in schools, springing from his awareness that students with learning differences did not truly feel like members of their school communities. This led him to evaluate his own educational journey and how students in black communities often did not feel like education spaces were for them. He is now a restorative justice trainer for the Phoenix Union High School District. He focuses on building community through eliminating bias that comes from lack of connection with people who are different from each other. This work has led him to winning the Arizona Education Association’s Diversity Grant and the Maryvale Revitalization Committee’s Educator Excellence Award, and being named vice president of the Phoenix Union High School District’s Black Alliance.
Kareem’s academic journey was filled with adults who let him know that he was capable, which he attributes to being a lifetime learner. Too many students aren’t afforded that same opportunity, and Kareem is working tirelessly to change that.