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Why I Loved Special Ed
Irving Torres

I was tired of waiting on the lunch line in the humid cafeteria of my elementary school. The smell of pizza roaming around made my stomach growl with hunger and desperation. As I waited, I saw some kids bullying the special ed students. Kids were smacking their heads and calling them retarded. I watched, feeling an eagerness to defend them, but I didn’t have the courage. I never would have expected that I’d soon go from being a bystander to being part of the targeted group.

The following year, when I was 11, I was placed in special education because my school claimed I had learning disabilities. I didn’t agree and thought I’d been unfairly labeled. But the school’s decision was final.

As the first day of 6th grade approached, I was really depressed. I was worried about joining a group that was treated so badly. However, the minute I stepped into my new classroom, I noticed a welcoming vibe.

The teacher, Ms. Ackert, was a skinny 20-something with light skin, green eyes, and wavy blonde hair. Neither race nor disability was a barrier for her, and she approached the students without disgust in her face. I respected her for that, and quickly became as attached to her as the rest of the students were.

A Learning Loop

Ms. Ackert ended up being my teacher for three years, through 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. I learned more in those three years than I thought possible. I attribute that to Ms. Ackert’s skill as a teacher, but also to the fact that I was fortunate to have a continued relationship with one teacher who really knew me. This process of a teacher working with students for multiple years is called “looping.”

If you get a good teacher, looping is a great way to make school more interesting, especially in our teen years when we need someone we trust to guide us down the right path. I think that if we extended this “looping” idea to middle school and high school, there would be fewer kids dropping out. There are a few schools in New York that do this, but not enough. In my middle school, only the special ed kids got to stick with the same teacher, which benefited us.

There were several things that Ms. Ackert did during our three years together that made her such an effective teacher. First, she was always an advocate for us. The other kids in the lunchroom were always making fun of us, calling us retarded and slow. My teacher made fun of the bullies, saying “They act more retarded than us.”

On My Side

She personally advocated for me, too. One year, I found a writing program I wanted to join, but because I was in special ed I didn’t meet the academic requirements. When Ms. Ackert found out, she was red with rage.

She told me to make a poster board that displayed all my writing. She wanted me to present it to the principal, and to tell him I deserved to join the program. I did, and in the end he was impressed with my work and actually recommended me for an even better writing program.

My good work backfired on me, though. In 7th grade I noticed that, little by little, they were pulling me away from special ed classes. I did not pay it much mind until one day my mom received a letter saying it was time for me to leave special ed. Although I had gone into special ed with a heavy heart, now I didn’t want to go back to general education classes. I felt at home in special ed, mostly because of Ms. Ackert.

image by Ismaili Torres

She Knew Me

I felt like I was learning way more than I had in general ed. Since Ms. Ackert and I had known each other for over a year already, every time she spoke to me during class or asked me a question, she geared the question or assignment specifically to me, which made the work more interesting.

In this way, I think looping benefits both the teacher and the students. In a report published by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called “Looping Through the Years,” educators noted that one benefit to looping was “a greater knowledge of students’ strengths and weaknesses, allowing for increased opportunities for teachers to tailor curriculum to individual needs.” Basically, the teacher learns what techniques work with specific students. And because the students already know the teacher, they feel comfortable enough to speak their minds when they have a question.

I spoke with the principal and told him that I needed special ed. Thankfully, he let me stay for another year. It couldn’t last forever, though. By the end of 8th grade, I really was on my way back to general ed. It was very hard, but I knew that at some point I had to move on.

A Lasting Bond

I’d say leaving a teacher is the most negative part of looping. Students can feel lost, like they’ve been thrown out into the wilderness. Ms. Ackert tried to make the transition easier by giving me her phone number and telling me to call her when I needed advice, or help with homework. When we said goodbye, I felt like I was closing an important chapter of my life, kind of like when you move out of your parents’ house.

An article in Education World also noted that students can have difficulty “adjusting to large school environments” after being used to small tight-knit classes and I agree. High school was very different and confusing. I had to go to different teachers in different classrooms, and I was with different students each period. It took a while to find friendship with other students in such a place, but eventually I did. (Not so much with teachers, though.)

Now, even though I’m a senior in high school, my old classmates and I still go visit Ms. Ackert. She has pictures of all her former students taped on the wall, including me. That shows that she really cares for the students.

Through the years Ms. Ackert has watched me grow up, both on the outside and as a person. I have watched her grow as well. When she was my teacher six years ago she was engaged, and I remember she told me once, “Irving, I will never have a child—you guys are my kids.” Now, six years later, she has a 3-year-old kid and a husband.

Both of us have come a long way, but one thing is the same: She is still the same great teacher I met on that unforgettable September morning.

Editor’s Note: “Declassification,” the decision that a student with disabilities no longer needs special education services, is rare. In New York City in 2004, less than 6% of high school age students with disabilities who exited the system did so because they were “declassified,” according to a 2005 report by Advocates for Children.

A version of this story appeared in Student Voices: What Makes a Great Teacher?, a collaboration between Youth Communication, the College Board, and the National Writing Project.

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