Collaborate and Communicate for Inclusive Education, with Tim Villegas

Good Things in Life podcast episode 111 thumbnail with Tim Villegas
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Special education should not be synonymous with separate education. That’s the position of the MCIE’s Tim Villegas. Tim joined me for this week’s podcast to talk about the MCIE’s mission and their approach to inclusive education advocacy and curriculum support. 

The MCIE (which stands for Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, though their regional focus extends far beyond the state of Maryland) works with educators and school districts to help integrate meaningful inclusive education into the classroom. Moving from full segregation to authentic inclusion is not going to happen overnight. But although the pace of change can be slow, it’s not stagnant; incremental progress is progress. And when children with disabilities don’t have access to inclusive education programs, there is still a lot that advocates, parents, and teachers can do to help support their goals and dreams. 

Tim Villegas is a former special education teacher and current Director of Communications at MCIE. He’s also the founder of Think Inclusive and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast.

A top-down approach based on a commitment to communication and collaboration is the best investment a school can make in transitioning toward authentic inclusion long-term. Listen now to learn how it can be done. 

is this inclusive 14 questions free guide

Speaker 1 (00:00:05):

Welcome to The Good Things in Life podcast, committed to bringing world-class ideas, conversations, voices, and thought leaders to parents and educators. So kids with intellectual disabilities will have the support they need to build positive inclusive lives at the heart of community. Here’s your host sister, mom, researcher, writer, speaker, and perpetually curious, Genia Stephen.

Genia (00:00:41):

Tim Villegas, thank you so, so much for joining me on the podcast today. I’m so thrilled to have you here. I’ve been listening to your podcast for a couple of years now and just really, really respects the work that you do and the clarity that you bring to the work that you do. And I wonder if you would start by just introducing yourself to the listeners and telling us a bit about yourself. Thanks, Genia. Um, I really appreciate you asking me to be on, um, so a little bit about myself. Um, uh, I was an educator, uh, in public schools in, in, uh, California and Georgia for 16 years. Um, I, uh, started the blog thinking inclusive in 2012 ish. Um, because as a special education teacher, I struggled to find resources and information about inclusive education. And that was something that was really important to me.

Tim (00:01:44):

Um, I went to a teacher education program that emphasized inclusive education. It was Cal State Fullerton, uh, university. Um, and one of the things that surprised me was when I, when I got out of my teacher ed program and started working in public schools, that schools weren’t already inclusive. So, you know, I went to this program and they, um, they wanted, they, they showed us how to include students with significant disabilities and, and, uh, I think my first job was in a segregated self-contained classroom. Um, so, um, anyways, I, I, I guess I’m really supposed to be doing a bio. I paused my size, just jump right in. Um, but that is part of your, part of your history. And it’s part of my it’s part of my story. It’s a big part of my story. Um, and so, um, once I created the blog and, um, and then the podcast, I started to meet all of these really amazing people, uh, who were interested in and passionate about the same thing, um, and that led me to a life of advocacy and writing.

Tim (00:03:05):

And, um, and then now a transition out of public education into, uh, the communications world. So now I’m the Director of Communications for MCIE, which is a, an organization that partners with school districts, um, in Maryland, but also all over the United States, uh, in the world to, um, to equip them, to include students. Uh, all students, not just, um, not just students, um, you know, with certain disabilities, uh, but for a neighborhood schools to be the foundation of inclusive communities. So that’s what I’m doing now. Um, and we’re, you know, think inclusive is now part of MCIE and I get to do what I’ve done on the side for so long. I get to do this for my day job. So I feel very blessed and, and fulfilled and, and I get to talk with people like you. So I’m really excited about this.

Genia (00:04:03):

Awesome. Can you tell people what MCIE stands for?

Tim (00:04:07):

Sure. MCIE stands for the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. Uh, we are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, um, and we have been around since the late 80’s, early 90’s doing this work. And we’ve, we’ve recently rebranded to just the initials, um, because our work takes us, um, it isn’t just in Maryland. Um, so one of the things that you know, who, wherever you’re listening to this, um, whether you’re in Canada or in the United States, uh, we work with everybody. So we don’t just, you know, focus on, um, schools in Maryland. And part of the reason is because we’ve worked with Maryland for so long. I mean, it’s been three decades. Um, so most districts in Maryland have, um, have partners with us at some level. Uh, so really, uh, what we’ve tried to do is, uh, with the school transformation, um, documents and phases that we’ve been, uh, you know, working with school districts on, we really want to share that information and expand our reach to other States. And, um, you know, other other places in the world to, to share this information.

Genia (00:05:28):

Well, I mean, I think it’s great because while the evidence, the, you know, the research and the experience of truly inclusive schools has been available since the 80’sand the 90’s, it’s not been widely available. Um, and there’s always been in there remains in most areas, a very wide gap between best practice and reality. So it makes sense that the think tanks, um, like MCIE would be broadening their scope and helping people and in communities broader than the state of Maryland. Absolutely. Yeah. I, I wonder, so it’s started as a coalition. Um, I’m, like I mentioned now with the rebrand, it’s, it may be a little bit different, but I wonder if you can talk about the, why being a coalition matters, you know, like I’m imagining that that coalition initially brought together people from some diverse backgrounds or areas in order to, uh, coalesce a body of knowledge, to be able to make positive change in Maryland. And I, you may not know the history of that. I don’t know, but I’m, I’m curious.

Tim (00:06:37):

Well, you’re, you’re going to test me on my history, uh, bypass that question. I don’t know. No, uh, because it’s, it’s funny, you asked that because we, you know, as a, as a newcomer to the organization, um, I recently sat down with our CEO and said, okay, tell me everything, tell me the history of how this started. And so, um, now while I haven’t had committed everything to memory, um, essentially what it was is that after, um, uh, after the law that passed in 1975, um, which, you know, wasn’t IDEA, but it was the education, um, hint, I’m going to get this wrong, but it’s a handicap education for all act. In 1975, there was, you know, about 10 years where people were still trying to figure it out. Uh, kids were being moved,students were being moved from special schools back into their neighborhood schools.

Tim (00:07:45):

And, um, there was like, there is today a wide variety of outcomes, you know, so, you know, some schools did it really well, some schools didn’t. Um, and in some schools put their kids in bungalows, you know, in the, um, in the back of the school or on the field. And there wasn’t any sort of, um, systematic way that, that that was happening. And so the original founders of the coalition, um, were from a diverse group of people, uh, including social workers, educators, parents, uh, lawyers, um, psychologists. And after realizing that there hasn’t been as much progress as they wanted, um, they said, well, we have to do something about it. So in the state of Maryland, they created this, the non-profit, uh, and then started to meet regularly and teach parents and families how to advocate for greater inclusion for their, for their families, for their, for their children.

Tim (00:09:02):

And then also, uh, simultaneously teaching educators, how to include students. And so that really has been our mission since the very beginning is two fold. Number one, um, to equip educators on the work of inclusion. Um, and then also in and out of our mission, uh, has been a focus on advocacy. We, we no longer have advocacy services as a, uh, you know, uh, uh, it was up until I think about five years ago that we had, um, like an advocacy kind of department or division where we had, um, lawyers that would assist with advocacy. Uh, but that since that department has been dissolved and it’s, it’s, uh, we are now focusing mainly on, um, partnering with school districts and for such advocacy. Uh, yeah, that’s the idea, that’s the idea. Um, but as far as, um, you know, if, if a parent wants resources or a direction on how to, um, how to advocate for their child, you know, we certainly want to help. And, um, the idea is, is we’re ramping up, ramping up our communications and our marketing so that we can provide those resources. So those are all things that we want to provide. Uh, but you know, just in the last few years, we’re kind of getting those up and running, and that was part of, um, uh, you know, us creating this position, um, uh, you know, for, for communications to get the word out, to get the word out for educators and parents. So,

Genia (00:10:44):

Yeah, I think it’s so incredibly the communications piece is a conversation I have with a lot of people, not necessarily on the podcast actually, now that I reflect on that, but I talk about that all the time. I mean, part of the reason, uh, good things in life, this podcast, um, exists is for that exact reason is to, you know, get quality ideas and conversations happening. And I really try to do my best to reach families that are really, really early on in the journey, because it gets so much harder if you’re starting later on and it’s tough. To you know, we need lots and lots of people in organizations who share that commitment to trying to reach out and get in front of families and provide opportunities for conversations about inclusion really early on. And I was, you know, you’re talking about the early work of the organization.

Genia (00:11:43):

So, um, my sister went to school in for the first time in 1983, I think, and my parents had to buy a property in a community 45 minutes away. So they could pay property taxes, which pays our school taxes, which made her eligible to be able to go to a school that would, um, allow her to spend some time in general education. And it wasn’t until several years later that she was able to go to school with me, you know, in the same school as I did. And when I think back so on her educational experience, it’s she had some, I mean, this is true for every kid. Some years were better than others, none of her educational experiences would be what I would define as true inclusion. And I see pretty much the exact same thing happening, you know, for nearly 40 years later. Um, so I wonder if maybe we could start by when you and I are talking about what inclusion truly is. Maybe we should define that.

Tim (00:13:03):

Uh, that’s that’s um, that’s a great suggestion. So how I would define inclusion or inclusive education, um, would be that a school or district that doesn’t have the practice of, of having separate classrooms, um, and that students with disabilities or, uh, go to school in, or in classes, in their natural and natural proportions. And so what that means is that if a community has, you know, 10% or 15% of, uh, people, um, with that with an eye disability, then, uh, you wouldn’t have any more than 10 or 15%, uh, in a classroom with students with, uh, you know, identified needs like that. So, uh, which is, which is not how, um, most, I think, I think that’s fair to say most districts in the United States, and I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, but, um, my experience is that, uh, special education, uh, is a separate system.

Tim (00:14:19):

And so, um, special education often is phenomenous with a separate education. Uh, and, uh, so that’s one natural proportions. And then the other thing is, um, you know, you have to be there, but it doesn’t mean that you’re actually included. So a student with a disability can be in a general education class or regular class. Uh, but that doesn’t mean that they’re experiencing inclusion, which is about, uh, belonging participation and membership. And so if they are in a class, they feel like they belong, they’re part of that class, they’re a member of that class. Um, and they are meaningfully participating in that curriculum. Then I would say, then we have authentic inclusion. Um, and then beyond the class that there is, um, you know, if you have natural proportions, natural proportions, and you have students who are a members in a class, that also means that they’re members in the school community. So, um, every opportunity that is afforded to a typically developing student is also afforded to, um, anyone with unidentified, you know, a learning difference. So, um, that is, you know, what it boils down to is that when we talk about inclusive education, we’re talking about all students and we’re not leaving anyone out in that description.

Genia (00:15:56):

So there’s a question. So earlier you said, you know, when we’re talking about working on truly inclusive classrooms, we’re not, we’re talking about all kids, not just kids with disabilities. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to the, like what we know that kids with disabilities are in large part, not experiencing inclusion in schools, across North America and Europe and the UK. And, you know, we’ve got pockets of excellence, but a pretty low, um, general achievement in the area of inclusion. There’s been more and more conversation I, I’ve experienced in the last five or 10 years about really recognizing that many kids are not experiencing inclusion in classrooms, you know, outside of identified disabilities. And while the, um, while the definition that you just gave, with of course, applies to any student, regardless of whether they had a disability or not. I wonder if you could speak a little bit, just in your experience about what other kids who are not included are experiencing, like, where’s the, what does it look like? How can we, I’m trying to make, trying to think of a question that kind of brings it to life a little bit, um, you know, kids who may not feel included because of socioeconomic status or sexual identity or general gender identity, or because of race or ethnicity or language, or because you know, of any of the other reasons why kids don’t feel included and in schools.

Tim  (00:17:45):

Yeah. Um, well, I think that you have to have a culture of inclusion in a school. Um, so I I’ll give you an example, um, at a school that I worked at. Great. And, um, you know, in any example, you know, it’s not gonna be perfect, but we w in this, in this school, um, our assistant principal, um, has, uh, he still has a Tourette’s syndrome. Um, and so at the beginning of the school year, he would, um, we would have everyone in the auditorium come and he would give just a little bit of talk. Uh, he would talk about himself his life and what it was like for him to have Tourette’s syndrome. And he equated that with, you know, that we, as human beings all have something, um, that may be challenging, um, for us, uh, and that makes us different. But one of the things that was true when that was communicated to, to the student body, and then also to the staff, was that, you know, we’re going to do our best to accept and include everyone.

Tim (00:19:10):

Um, now that school is still had segregated, you know, special education classrooms, uh, and there are certainly other things that can be considered problematic, but I love that example of a top down approach to communication and communicating of acceptance and tolerance and inclusion. So, um, one of the things that I think is really important when you’re thinking about, well, how do I create a culture of inclusion is that that culture needs to be communicated from, um, the very top, the principal assistant principals, and then the teachers, and that filters down to the students in also to the family. So everyone in that school, everyone in that district, if you want to say, is, has the same message that you are loved, you are accepted, you belong here. Um, and that has nothing to do with whether or not you have a disability. You know, it’s just, um, we value you.

Tim (00:20:19):

We respect you as a, as a human being and we want you to be here. So, um, I think that, you know, beyond, you know, beyond the work that we’re trying to do at MCIE and, you know, my advocacy that I I’ve been doing, uh, with disability inclusion, inclusive education, I would hope that when we’re talking about inclusion with the big eye, right. Um, that, that is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about no matter who you are that you feel like you belong. Um, and for the most part, people understand that, I think. People get that idea, it’s when you start breaking it down, like, okay, well, does that actually mean, you know, the students that have significant behavioral challenges or does that mean, you know, the student with, you know, XYZ disability, um, at the very practical level, I think that’s where it breaks down because, because people don’t understand well, okay, how do I do that?

Tim (00:21:34):

How do I include a student? You know, that has, you know, how am I able to support? Because, um, you know, for the, for the most part, every educator that I’ve ever talked to, even the ones who do, you know, say they are, you know, um, not for, you know, full inclusion, uh, they still love kids and they want to, they want to do the best thing for kids. They just happen to think that the best thing isn’t for them to be in a regular classroom all day, every day. Um, but that’s the other thing that, that is so important. Cause you talked about communication, I think as inclusion advocates, um, we have not been, we, as in everyone, that’s not been very good about communicating what it actually means. You know? So when I say I, when I say inclusive education, um, is the right thing to do.

Tim (00:22:35):

I, I certainly don’t mean that everyone is in the same class, you know, all day, every day doing the same exact thing. Right. Cause when you say that, it’s like, well, Tim, you’re talking about inclusion being one size fits all. No, actually that’s, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Yeah. Um, but that’s because people, um, may not have an understanding of universal design for learning or how we, uh, put together a master schedule in a school. Uh, so for instance, um, you know, we’re working with the district in Illinois right now. And we have, um, scheduling sessions where we would, we’ll sit down, we’re not sit down where, you know, over zoom, but, uh, where we are figuring out, okay, here are all the students in second grade, here are all the students that have, um, an individualized education program. Uh, and here are all the students that have sensory needs.

Tim (00:23:42):

Uh, here are all the students who have some behaviour challenges and we are going to schedule them and put them in natural proportions. So we will literally take like little sticky notes and put them in different classrooms. Uh, and then after that, that is when we say, okay, what teachers are going to be in those classrooms. And then how is this schedule going to fit in with the, the rest of the school schedule? So after second grade and we’re going to do third grade and we’re going to do fourth grade and the same thing for middle school and high school. So that takes a lot of work that’s hours and hours of preparation. It’s not just about putting kids in classrooms and hoping for the best. There are um, there are times of collaboration, there are times of, uh, planning and the most successful districts that we’ve worked with.

Tim (00:24:45):

Um, you know, we, you know, we do it over the course of, um, you know, anywhere from three to five years. Uh, if we, if we do it, you know, all the way, um, for districts, you know, the first year is mostly planning. It’s mostly just meeting every month, uh, or every couple of weeks. And going over the schedule, going over, having a, creating a shared understanding of what inclusion actually is having these conversations. Right. Um, it’s so that when I say inclusive education or when I say natural proportions, or when I say, um, uh, collaboration, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Um, so, so much of that is it’s difficult to communicate, uh, when everyone is so used to really short sound bites and viral images and stuff like that. So, yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge, but it’s a, it’s something that is necessary and, uh, hope that we can contribute, um, to people’s understanding.

Genia (00:25:54):

Yeah. I, I love that you’re talking about the amount of time it takes. Um, I think that we’ve, I was going to say we’ve all seen, but maybe we haven’t all seen it. If you’re listening, you may not have seen this, but there are certainly lots of examples where schools have said, this is the right thing to do. We are all in. And then they just sort of dump kids in classes. The teachers don’t have support. Haven’t had time to have these conversations and to plan, like you’re saying, um, and it’s a disaster, um, of epic proportions and we’ve seen this, not just for kids with disabilities, right. But we’ve seen this with amalgamations, um, with two distinct communities and schools, amalgamate, and there’s, you know, significant cultural differences. We’ve seen it in lots of different iterations. So I’m thinking when I think of that, I think, yes, I’m 100% on board with the taking time to do things well, and then I’m thinking, um, yeah, but what, what if I’m that parent it’s like, no, I’m not, I’m not waiting another year.

Genia (00:27:15):

And so, um, you know, my, when I’m talking to school districts or I’m talking to parents and I’m often talking about, you can do an awful lot more when you’re thinking about one individual person, then you can, when you’re thinking about a cohort, cohorts take much longer. Um, so that might be, you know, part of the response, but if you’re a parent who’s advocating for, um, uh, you know, a truly inclusive experience, which, you know, means that the child is, is, you know, in the classroom and natural proportions during the same, uh, you know, addressing the same curriculum with their peers. And I would add, you know, with high expectations of, you know, learning potential in there as well. Um, because we’ve seen a lot of sort of token inclusion where people, people, everybody feels really good, but the child is really not growing very much. Cause there’s not really any teaching going on, you know, or not much learning going on. Um, so if you are, if you are the parent who is in, uh, is advocating for your child to be included in general education and really truly included in general education in a school that is not ready, they haven’t done the planning, they haven’t done the thinking. How does, what are your thoughts on that? Are we setting kids up?

Tim (00:28:36):

Um, that that’s a difficult, uh, that’s a difficult question to answer because I think it, when you take it down to the granular level where it’s, you’re talking about one kid, uh, one student, um, it really depends on that student and the situations, the situation for that student. Um, you know, uh, parents and families are not the only ones in this situation, either educators or in this situation. So you, you have educators who want inclusion and inclusive education to move forward in theirs, in their class school district. Right. They are also, um, they also feel powerless, right. Uh, and the reason I know is because I was one of those educators. Um, so even if, uh, I, eh, even if a family said, Hey, we went and they did. So, uh, even if a family came to me and said, look, um, I remember this one, I remember this one family.

Tim (00:29:56):

I had a conversation with, uh, with the mom on the phone, uh, given before the student came to me and she said, you know, uh, Mr. Villegas, I don’t want my student to get stuck. I don’t want him to be stuck in a special education classroom. Um, not being challenged and not, um, not progressing because I know his true potential. Um, and please tell me, he’s not going to get stuck. And I said, well, you know, I I’m gonna do my best. And so having that student and knowing that this family had a vision of inclusion, and fortunately I was already on board, cause I was I as an educator, I was constantly looking for where, what can I do? What else can I do? How can I push inclusion? How can I change my school? Uh, and there are educators out there because they contacted me and they say, what can we do?

Tim (00:31:08):

What can we do? You know? And so I think it’s, it’s a very similar tactic, um, because you already have the philosophy, right? So it’s not a mindset change that you yourself have to do. It’s, um, you know, number one, you got to find allies, you’ve got to find who are going to be the people that are inclusionists with me, who are the families in my circle. And then if you’re an educator who are the, who are the allies in my school, you know, is it a grade level partner? Is it a, another special education teacher? Is it a principal? Who can I talk to? And who can I try to make it move forward? Um, and then specifically for that student, what is just the next thing that I can do, um, to increase inclusion for my students or my child? Um, for me, because I, I’ve never been in this situation as a parent, but as an educator, um, um, I was constantly, you know, asking my administration, how can, how can we be more involved in the school community?

Tim (00:32:28):

How can we be more visible? Um, you know, where can we sit in the auditorium so that people will see us? Um, how can I rearrange my schedule? So that, um, as a special education teacher, I can go into general education classrooms with my students to provide co-teaching support, not just for the students in my segregated, special education class, but also for anyone else in that, you know, so those are opportunities that no one said, Tim, you have to do this. Uh, it was, you know, educators just, they, we get creative. And so as an educator, you have to do that. And as a parent, uh, you have to do that as well and figure out, you know, yet, how can I, as a parent be more visible in a school, is do I join, um, you know, a parent teacher association, uh, can I join any sort of committees or how can I be involved in the school community?

Tim (00:33:35):

You know, and some people, um, they’re not able to able to do that because of, you know, work or whatever. So how so you, you just have to figure out what’s the next best thing that I can do in my own context that’s going to move this forward. Um, are there any support groups that I can, you know, be involved with? Um, are there resources that I can send my, you know, my child’s teacher, there’s, there’s always something to do, even if you don’t feel like you’re making, uh, that much of a difference. Um, there are things to do. It’s just, even if it’s incremental. Um, and then beyond that, you know, there’s the policy stuff. So I don’t know exactly what it’s like in Canada, but, uh, we have, um, certain states have, uh, something called partners in policy making. Um, I know that, uh, Maryland certainly has one. Uh, I don’t think, I don’t think Georgia has one. Um, New Jersey has one, Minnesota has one, uh, where you kind of go through and learn how to advocate at the part at the, at the state policy level. So there’s, there’s a lot of things to do, but it can feel really lonely. Um, and if feel like you’re not making a difference, um, but you’re certainly not alone, right?

Speaker 1 (00:35:06):

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Genia (00:35:44):

I, um,

Genia (00:35:47):

I’m just making a quick note for myself here. Um, okay. So when you’re talking about incremental change, I’m thinking about a couple of things I’m thinking about how often I have conversations, where people, um, wonder if I’m going to judge them. If their loved one’s life is not perfectly, uh, inclusive and community-based, and, you know, and because I, I very firmly believe that all people belong at the heart of community and there are, you know, really, there’s not an exception to that principle, you know. But of course the reality of what people face and, and, you know, um, what’s possible today looks very different from that. And so I’m, you know, I’m definitely not judging where people are in the moment. So there’s that thought and just putting, putting that out there for people, um, what I’m going to say next is not because I’m not because I’m judging. People often talk about black and white, um, and the gray in the middle, and I’m not going to do that.

Genia (00:36:58):

Cause I, there’s just a little bit of a white supremacy ring to that, that I don’t like very much. So I’m going to talk about sort of being in the red and being in debt and incrementally, um, trying to get in the black. And that’s kind of what you’re talking about, right. Is moving from one extreme of being, you know, very, self-contained very segregated, no opportunities for inclusion, um, to being in the black where you really are at the heart of the school community. Um, and you you’re experiencing how you defined true inclusion. One of the things that, um, I appreciate is that, that those small efforts really do make a difference, even if you can’t see them. So it’s like tiny deposits against your credit card debt. You know, you start seeing, um, that you’re paying less and less interest. So there’s still a cost.


You’re still paying a cost because you’re firmly in that you’re firmly in the red and there’s a, a negative cost to that. But as you make these, um, small contributions, small changes, the cost starts to come down. And eventually you start to in fact, see some compound interest as you get into the black and you continue to make contributions. But one of the things that I think is tragic, but true, and I’m interested, please challenge me on this if you disagree. Is that while we have to make those, those small changes, it’s the only path to getting into the black, like you can’t, it just doesn’t magically happen. And I, and I’ve never seen perfect inclusion ever in the world except in micro kinds of things, right? Like a school, a classroom, um, or a class, a school or a district it’s always somewhat aspirational, you know, and if it’s perfect one day, it may not be perfect.

Genia (00:38:53):

The next, you know, and change is part of what change and responsiveness is part of what inclusion calls on us to do. But as we’re making those incremental deposits, there’s a point at which it may not make that big of a difference for the individual student. Their experience may still be one of primarily exclusion marginalization. Um, and so I guess, what am I saying? It makes a difference, but we, we may still find that, um, while we’re moving from that, you know, being deeply in the red to being deeply in the black, that there’s a period of time where that student’s experience is still largely negative.

Tim (00:39:38):

Oh yeah. I would say that, that goes, um, I would say that goes to other marginalized groups as well. So

Tim (00:39:50):


Tim (00:39:51):

So, um, so while we’re doing this work, uh, there, there may be, uh, pe, people who are very fortunate to be in a school system that is inclusive, um, and educators who, um, are a part of a inclusive school system, but that certainly is not the norm. And, um, and so yeah, th there’s gonna be, there’s gonna be some, some difficult situations for people who are not in an inclusive system. So it’s really more about how do we support people, families, and educators who are not in inclusive systems, um, which is the majority, right. So how do we support people, uh, when they want something to happen, but is likely to not happen.

Genia (00:40:51):

That was going to be my next question, why bother? You know, and I know for me, why bother, right? But I’m, I’m just thinking about the number of families that I talked to and educators who, um, you know, they’re very overwhelmed by the height of this mountain. And by the, by the lack of high probability that they will scale it in time.

Tim (00:41:24):

Um, yeah, it’s it it’s daunting. Um, I, I, I think we don’t give up though because we see glimmers. Um, and certainly some, some have, you know, some people have some people. And, uh, you know, I remember, uh, having a conversation with, uh, uh, he wasn’t a friend, it was more of an acquaintance, um, that, uh, I was, I was looking for career advice, you know, probably five or six years ago. Um, when I was really debating, do I want to keep doing this? Do I want to keep working in a system that is not inclusive, that aligned with my values? And, and I kept thinking like, well, if I just do this, if I just do that, um, then things will get better. And he said, look, Tim, you’re going to have to decide at some point, you’re going to have to decide to do something else.

Tim (00:42:30):

Um, I’m not telling you to go get another job. I’m not telling you that, you know, you, you have to do it right now, but like, I hear what you’re saying. I know where you’re coming from. Um, you’re gonna, something is gonna have to change for you. Um, and just to put it out there, something to think about. Um, and those seeds really grew in me to the point where I started really looking for another job, you know, because I knew that I don’t know how long I can be in this system. Um, now that’s, you know, for an educator, you know, you have to decide how long you can put up with that. But for a parent, uh, I know parents who have moved, you know, so they’re like, well, I we’re gonna make the decision. The very, uh, the, the, the, not the, not the very hard decision that we’re going to uproot our family, and move to another place that we know is inclusive.

Tim (00:43:36):

So I feel like they’re not exactly the same, but it’s more in the mindset that says, well, I can keep going where I am and see incremental change. And maybe we can move things forward, or I have to change the actual circumstances that I’m in, uh, to achieve the thing that I want or to get closer to it. So for me, it was leaving the public schools and joining an organization like MCIE. And then there was a lot of variables so that not everyone can do that obviously, but, um, you know, th there was movement towards that. Uh, and the same thing with certain families. Sometimes you just have to move and go, but I’m not telling you to move. I’m not saying that you have to. Um, but I think everyone has their, has to figure it out for themselves, you know, and what what’s going to help them, um, achieve their goals. Um, I think maybe the, the point of this is that we do want to figure out where we’re going, you know, we want

Genia (00:44:40):

To identify the top of the mountain.

Tim (00:44:43):

Exactly, exactly. Yeah.

Genia  (00:44:46):

I think, um, yeah, I, I agree. And I, I also think, um, the trajectory for the alternative sucks, right? So that’s a reason to keep trying to climb that mountain is because alternative is really, you know, it, it may look, it may look easier now. Um, but it, it really leads to, um, a place that is really, uh, lonely marginalized, um, and with little chance of exit, um, without people who care trying to find an exit. So, yeah. Um, so let’s talk advocacy strategies. Sure. I don’t have a specific question to him. All right. I’m ready. I’m ready. No, I mean, just, you know, you, how do we, how did parents or educators, like, what are some good solid principles, I guess, around advocacy? I will say that sometimes for families, one thing to do, if you are really just having a miserable experience and just coming up against, um, you know, roadblock after roadblock is to take a step back and look at your advocacy strategies and see if there’s maybe some allies in alternative advocacy strategies you can employ because sometimes shaking it up is enough to, to get some movement. But what are some of those good core advocacy strategies that people can look to?

Tim (00:46:15):

Well, I, I think the number one, and we we’ve really sort of touched on these, um, is, uh, to have a vision. So whether that is, uh, I mean, I would suggest to, to actually write it out. Um, and there’s, there’s a number of different places to, to find examples. Um, there you go. You can get that. Yeah, exactly. So there’s lots of different examples, but I think that’s your number one thing. Your number one thing is to create a vision. Uh, and what does it look like? Um, when you think I want my child to be included, what does that mean? What does that mean to you? Um, and that way, if you have a, if you’ve written it out, if you know exactly what that means, then when you are in a planning meeting for your child, you can communicate that to the staff because the staff doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, or they don’t know what they don’t know.

Tim (00:47:16):

Um, uh, and, um, uh, an example would be, uh, one of my students that the family, that the mom who called me and said, you know, please don’t please don’t. I want my, my son not to be stuck. Um, they had a transition meeting from preschool to kindergarten, and, uh, they invited me because I was the receiving teacher to the meeting. Um, and the, the family played a video of, of their son, uh, and just, you know, just a short story about his life up until that point and laid out a vision for what they want for their son. And it was so powerful because, you know, I mean the same thing could have been accomplished in a one sheet, which is fine, and that it’s perfectly appropriate and it’s very effective. Uh, but this particular family, uh, wanted it to have a different kind of impact. So they created the video and I thought that that’s such a great example of, of how to communicate to a team, uh, to buy into the vision, you know? Um, and yeah, I guess, you know, I’m, I’m biased because I was an educator for so long, but I love teachers, you know, I just, I love educators because, um, there’s only been, you know, the vast, vast majority of people in education. Um, they are educators because they love kids. They love families. Um, and so I’m S I’m sorry.


I might have like magic abilities too. I mean, every time I walk into school, I get just a little bit nervous and teachers are like, they’re doing the crowd control there, you know, helping kids with things that have nothing to do with education, they’re importing their teaching. I, my sister is a grade six teacher. I honestly, I can’t imagine. Can’t imagine I have so much respect for teachers.

Tim (00:49:30):

Yeah. So when, when you were able to communicate a vision to educators and to, uh, to teachers, and, um, that provides that hope, right. Um, they’re gonna understand where you’re coming from. Um, and also the, to be as collaborative as possible for as long as possible. I think that’s a, that’s something that I heard from Julie Costin that I really, that I really love. Uh, she talks about that and it’s, you know, the, the, the, uh, planning process, it is collaborative. And when it’s, when it’s not collaborative, is when things break down and when it’s not collaborative, that’s sometimes when you need to say, I need help, you know, I need someone else. So you step back and you say, okay, I may have to go legal route. I may have to bring in someone that’s a professional advocate to help facilitate this conversation, because I just don’t know enough information, or it’s too close to you, you know, you’re, you’re, you know, it’s your child, so you’re invested, and you’re not able to, you’re not able to, uh, to think about it in a, in a, in a way that, um, is without, um, all that investment in it, but yeah, exactly.

Tim (00:50:59):

Exactly. So, um, so yeah, the vision’s really important, uh, and then also knowing when you need to, to get extra help is also really important. Um, and we also talked about finding allies, so, uh, finding your people, um, I, I joke that, uh, I was, I was radicalized at a task conference. So I went to a task conference, um, in T I think it was 2011, um, not realizing how impactful it would be to be around people who thought like me and realized that there was a, there was a bigger problem. And so once I realized that there was a whole bunch of people that thought the same way I did, uh, that sent me over the edge, it was like, I’m never going back. I’m never going back to the mindset that, you know, that I can’t make a difference. So finding people, um, that, that want the same things as you, as far as inclusion, I think is really important.

Genia (00:52:09):

Yeah. Yeah. I, um, that document that, um, um, that I was talking about, , if people are looking for it is, uh, I think the title, if I remember exactly what I wrote was, um, you know, create your vision and find your people as being sort of the core foundation of, of being able to do advocacy work ongoing. Um, or not just advocacy work, but advocacy work that actually takes you in the right direction. So, yeah, I think that that’s great. And, uh, and I totally agree. Anything else to add Tim,

Tim (00:52:49):

Um, to, to anything?

Genia (00:52:51):

Yeah. Anything to anything? Yeah. Just any thoughts for parents or educators who are listening?

Tim (00:52:59):

Um, well, I just, I want to communicate to everyone that, that, uh, you certainly aren’t alone. Um, and one thing that I know now that I wish I knew when I was teaching is that, um, I had an idea that inclusive education was happening, you know, around the world, uh, and in schools. And I was able to seek glimpses, but now being a part of an organization that’s been doing the work for so long, um, the, you know, we, we have school districts that are, uh, that are including students, um, at 90% of the LRE. So you have students who are, um, whole-school systems that are including students, uh, you know, more than 80% of their day at the 90% level. Which is, you know, the, the most, uh, the, I think the average in the United States is around 65, 64, 65%. Um, and I don’t know what it’s like in Canada, uh, but that is, um, that is actually happening.

Tim (00:54:21):

And, uh, not just in Maryland, but like all over. And what I’m finding is that kind of 90% is a, um, is only a number, right. But it is, it is a sign that, that things are moving in the right direction. Uh, for some districts I’m thinking about, um, Westland Wilsonville School District in near Portland, Portland, Oregon, um, uh, Jennifer Spencer items is the, uh, one of the assistant superintendents there. Uh, we had her on the podcast, uh, I think it was in August, I think. Um, and she talked about hitting that 90%. So I think one of the things that I, I want people to understand is, you know, uh, inclusion, sometimes we’re gonna have to have, um, alternative plans for some students. So, but that doesn’t mean having creating programs and, um, special education classrooms. Um, but the goal is a hundred percent, right?

Tim (00:55:41):

The goal is no one is separated, no one is segregated. Um, but there’s going to be times where we’re going to have to figure something out for a student, because we just don’t know how to include them. Um, but one of the things that’s really important is that as we’re planning for, for students, we have to say, okay, this student may be receiving something different, but how are we, when are we going to bring them back? When are we going to have, uh, something, you know, w w when are we going to be, um, when will we have the answer? Right, exactly. Because, because right now, the way it is is they’re segregated typically at a very early age. And the assumption is they’re never coming back, you know? And I think that is, that is one of the things that is so frustrating is that districts create these programs and they think they’re so great because, you know, kids are learning and they’re moving along and, and certainly some are graduating.

Tim (00:56:51):

And so everyone thinks it’s just fine. You know, it’s fine things, you know, kids are moving along. They’re, they’re, you know, achieving IEP goals and objectives. Uh, they’re getting jobs and stuff like that. So, um, they feel like, well, we’re doing our job, uh, when it could be so much better if we just started from the very beginning. Um, so when you look at inclusive preschool placements that drives inclusion in K-12, which then drives when you look at post-secondary. Because now we have all of these college programs that are including, um, you know, learners with intellectual disabilities.

Tim (00:57:35):

So, um, I guess my main point, that was, that was a bit rambly. So I apologize. It was all good, but I guess my bigger point is, is that, you know, um, I wanna get away from this idea that inclusion is such a rigid thing. That means that everyone is in the same classroom all day, every day, a hundred percent of the time. That’s certainly maybe a goal, but it, as long as we’re moving toward it, as long as we’re having natural report sessions, as long as, you know, having high expectations, like you said, um, you know, as long as we’re focusing on belonging and membership and participation, those are all strong markers of inclusion. And, uh, the school districts that we’ve been working with have those markers it’s possible it’s happening right now. So what we want to do is we want to spread that and make sure that everyone knows that it’s possible and that, um, and that you can do it. Uh, but those are four I’m really talking to, you know, administrators, uh, school principals, superintendents, um, you know, cause they’re the ones who they have the power there though. The school boards, you know, those are the ones that can actually make change, um, educators in the class level and families it’s much more difficult.

Genia (00:58:59):

Cool. Tim, where can people learn more about you, your podcast MCIE?

Tim (00:59:08):

Sure. So, um, is the, um, organization’s website. You can also go to our blog, which is We have a podcast called the “think inclusive” podcast where I’ve interviewed a number of people over the years. Uh, and, uh, I believe that you’re scheduled, uh, pretty soon here. So we’re excited about that. Uh, you can find us on Twitter, um, Instagram, Facebook, we’re on all of the socials, LinkedIn. Uh, we have, uh, accounts for MCIE and think inclusive. Um, we just published a resource, uh, called, uh, the best inclusive education links. It’s a hundred links, it’s a PDF. So if you go to, uh, you’ll be able to sign up to download that PDF. It’s like 12 pages long or 10 pages long of, uh, just various links. Um, and I think those are the highlights, but, uh, you can always reach out to me personally. Um, I’m very easy to find. And, uh, if you ever want to talk, or if you ever want to just send an email and say, this is my situation, um, I’m certainly here to support anyone who wants to move inclu inclusive education forward.

Genia (01:00:34):

Thank you so much, Tim. I have really enjoyed our conversation. I feel like I kind of through some heavy stuff, heavy stuff at you, but, um, I just, uh, I really value the opportunity to speak with people who have as much, uh, experience, knowledge and wisdom as you do, and who are really prepared to grapple with the complexities of moving from where we are to where we want to be. So thank you. Thank you so much for, for this conversation. And I look forward to, um, our next conversation on your podcast.

Tim (01:01:10):

It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

Speaker 1 (01:01:18):

Thank you so much for joining Genia on the podcast. We hope you enjoyed today’s episode. See you next time.

Thanks for Listening!

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Special thanks to Tim Villegas for joining me this week. Until next time!

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Genia Stephen
Genia Stephen

Sister, mother, midwife, writer, speaker and perpetually curious. Dedicated to bringing you the voices, ideas and conversations of world class mentors and thought leaders in the field of disability.