Kevin Schaefer is currently the Director of Program Support for the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) project at the El Dorado County/Charter SELPAs. In this role, Mr. Schaefer works diligently to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities by providing high-quality leadership and support to the California Department of Education and Districts throughout the state that focuses on creating enabling least restrictive environments that honor the diversity of learners across general and special education settings.

Daniel: Have you ever experienced a misalignment of expectations because of your experience growing up mismatched with the experience of your students?In that moment, what do you do? I’d argue that some educators try to force their worldview on their students. They believe their way is the only right way. Their values are the correct values and what happens next is a school environment that is tense and students engage only from the margins. Another way is available. This way is not easy. It takes courage and bold self-reflection. It also takes humility and an investigation of our implicit biases. But if you are willing to take that route, you might just begin to see the validity of your students and family’s experiences. And when they sense that you see them as equals, as experts as well, that’s when the magic starts to happen. Today, my guest Kevin Schaefer explains how he took the courageous route of self-inquiry as a novice teacher. That’s where are conversation begins and we’ll also dig into important issues of systemic prejudice and how we might create safer environments for our LGBTQ students and staff. .

Daniel: Hey it’s Daniel and WELCOME to the BLBS podcast -- a show for Ruckus Makers -- those out-of-the-box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back after these messages from our show's sponsors.

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Daniel: Alright, Ruckus Makers. We're here with Kevin Schaefer is currently the Director of Program Support for the Supporting Inclusive Practices (SIP) project at the El Dorado County/Charter SELPAs. In this role, Mr. Schaefer works diligently to improve educational outcomes for students with disabilities by providing high-quality leadership and support to the California Department of Education and Districts throughout the state that focuses on creating enabling least restrictive environments that honor the diversity of learners across general and special education settings. Kevin, welcome to the show. Thank you, Daniel. Thank you so much for having me. Absolutely. So you come from a small Midwestern farm town and your first teaching experience didn't look like that, right? It didn't look like where you came from and you realize that you're having some challenges connecting with kids and that there was some implicit bias going on. Can we start with that story?

Kevin: Sure. As you've said, I grew up in a small farm town, Southern Illinois, and I was one of the lucky ones. I fit into the educational expectations of our community upon becoming a teacher. My first year of teaching was actually across the Mississippi in North St. Louis County, where my students, they sounded different. Their expectations of what an educational experience should look like was different. They looked different from me that it took about the first two years of my teaching career to really understand that we have to have a community connection to meet the needs of students and reflecting on my own implicit bias because they look different because they sound different that my expectations lowered for them. And because they were in a self contained class and the class was made up of 15 boys looking back it wasn't that they had a disability. It was that they didn't fit into that educational instructional toolbox. And therefore they were segregated at the middle school into a self contained setting.

Kevin: So when we look at our implicit biases and how that infiltrates our educational system and lowers the expectations and outcomes for students, then it's really an adult response to marginalize the student identities. And until we look at our educational system from a cultural perspective, we can put all of the policies and all of the practices in place, but we're still not going to make the progress that we need to make without looking at our implicit biases, our disproportionality in special education of boys, of color, of LGBTQ. It is really self-reflecting of the adults in our system that's going to move us in the direction that we need to go to create equitable outcomes for all students.

Daniel: Thanks, Kevin, we'll get to the, the system changes and ideas you have in a second, but I want to stay with the personal with you and just curious what did self-reflection look like?

Kevin: So that's a really good question, knowing that I wasn't connecting with my students and just having come out of my teacher prep program, I could create the best IEP. I could deliver instruction at an incredibly high level, but without that connection to students I keep going back to that connection piece that because I wasn't being as effective as I thought I should be or could be that after blaming the system or blaming the environment or blaming the conduct curriculum, I had to turn inward and figure out what am I doing, or what am I not doing that is causing this disconnect and students not making the progress that they had the potential for. And I think the piece that I had to really reflect on was that these boys in this class, knowing what I know now about special education and about disability, they weren't disabled the system, disabled them and caused that segregation. I think every day where are these students now? Were they able to overcome the barriers in the educational system to make it in the world to obtain a competitive, integrated employment, a paycheck, to support a family. I think as my career went on knowing my role in that, because of that self reflection and has influenced my role in our current work.

Daniel: I appreciate it that you're diving in there and I'm still gonna push you a little bit more. But the reason is the Ruckus Maker, that's listening to the show. I believe that they're a leader who wants to grow their skillset. I'm guessing that they are quite a reflective person like yourself, but I want to make it practical for them too. So you took that inward journey. You reflect that what you were doing or weren't and then you said things really started to change too, when you're able to build connection. So what were some of those practical things you did to actually build connection in the classroom?

Kevin: Really looking at the family engagement piece, that when we would reach out to families, it wasn't a situation where we were asking for their input, even if it was specific to their role in an IEP meeting, we were telling them what we thought they should know and how their child should be educated. Typically from a deficit perspective, focusing on that area of disability. And that's where we started really looking at the family, bringing the family in, in a way that is collaborative and a way that they're able to provide deep level input to help us educate their child. I think that was the biggest turnaround is eliciting the family input because the family knows their child better than any of us. And that child is only with us for two years in middle school and without that foundational family engagement piece and bringing the community into the school, then that connection would have never been made it because I thought that switch in my relationship, not just with the families, but how that also impacted my relationship with the students is really the start of that self reflection.

Daniel: I'm glad we got there because essentially you still are the expert, right? But you're saying, "Hey, you have expertise that is equal or greater than mine. Let's, co-create, let's collaborate on this to do what's best for your kid and I'm here to help facilitate that process." As opposed to me saying, "Here's what we're seeing. These are all the problems, deficits, like you said, and here's what we need to do. So quote unquote, fix the kid. It's a completely different model.

Kevin: Well, and going even deeper than that. We had to build trust with the parents because their experience with education was also typically a negative experience. So getting them to come into the school, have those conversations and to build that trust without that piece of it, the family engagement piece would have never been as effective.

Daniel: It's the layers in the system. It's not just that kid in front of you. It's a whole history with the family. Awesome stuff. You said something profound, Kevin, you said that they weren't disabled. The system was disabling them. Tell me what you mean by that.

Kevin: So we do a lot of work with universal design for learning and the idea there is that we don't look at students as disabled. We look at the environment, we look at the curriculum as disabled, and then we mitigate potential barriers in the environment and in the curriculum to allow all students to access the instruction. It's a shift, it's a component shift where Copernicus was looking at earth, being the center of the solar system. But Copernicus then discovered that the planets revolve around the sun. The focus changed and same thing with the students. The focus used to be on every student accessing information through text, well, things have changed. So now we don't just give students one way to access, but we look at the ways that the students access information and then break down those barriers in the environment and in the curriculum. So it's just a different focus on where the deficit

Daniel: Got it. Yeah. So it's all about perspective, which way you're looking at it. So I appreciate it. Thank you.

Kevin: The universal design piece because we do so much in that area, one of the terms is variability of learners honoring the variability of learners that come into our classrooms and it's predictable. We know that there's going to be variability and it's also context dependent. So we're really good in some areas we may need support in other areas. So when we looked at, as a project, as we look at variability of learners, we had to back that up. It didn't go deep enough just to understand that honoring the variability of learners that come into our classrooms and it's predictable honoring the variability of learners that come into our classrooms and it's predictable to all of our professional development went deeper into looking at an organization's culture and the implicit biases that limit students' progress and then we can talk about variability of learner and then we can talk about access and equity. And then we can talk about how to mitigate those barriers so that we create equity in the system.

Daniel: There is reflection there's the systemic bias or how the system might be disabling kids. Qny other ideas that you want to share with the Ruckus Maker listening in terms of how we might move past these inherit qualities in the education system?

Kevin: I think, um, especially where we are right now with, with the social unrest, it has forced us to look at and identify those invisible barriers in our system. The work has to begin with anti-racist LGBTQ looking at poverty, looking at all of those marginalized populations, and then doing that inner work to actually take action in recognizing what those invisible barriers are. And that's a lot of the work that I still struggle with is that it's almost, I feel sometimes almost blind in being able to identify by racist curriculum or racist structures or racist comments in some cases, because they're so subtle and systemic with LGBTQ, like, how do we, how do we support LGBTQ in over-representation and emotional disturbance, disability categories? Not because LGBTQ is a disability, but because the system has marginalized them to cause, or allow for bullying, allow for disconnect, allow for depression. And then we call it a disability looking, looking deeply at and recognizing, and identifying and taking action against those components of the system that are not good for kids, all kids, regardless of the intersectionality of their identities. Right.

Daniel: And I think you're starting to get at some of those Epiphanes you had. You were at a great conference, the time to thrive conference in San Diego, but what was that aha moment for you when you were attending?

Kevin: Well, it was truly one of those conferences that you rarely attend, that when you leave, you are a changed person, and being a gay educator, I went to this conference thinking I'm cool with all of this, I get it. But I've looked down the roster of breakout sessions and there was a breakout session on special education and 504s. So of course, that's the one that I went to and sitting in that breakout session, it felt like the curtains lifted for me. And that's the piece where I didn't get that. When you look at individual marginalized identities of students and the way that the adults respond to those marginalized identities, I didn't even ever make the connection that there would be a relationship between IEP and LGBTQ. And that's kind of the starting point for me to say, we also have to talk about race. We have to talk about sexual orientation. We have to talk about all of these other areas that we may not consider. And that's where the blinders come off by doing that self reflection. And what is my approach? What is my response to those identities that are so different from mine?

Daniel: If I'm hearing you correct too, like the curtain was lifted back and you're able to say, and I think one of the threads that I've heard through our conversation so far is that the system does something to kids marginalizes them or whatever and then some behaviors or ways they show begin To manifest that then categorizes them as having some kind of disability or whatever, and really it's the system that's causing it. And so, wow. Now you're seeing for the first time, how do we take this on as a system to pull that back, to fold into the community, all the different value that each individual student has and brings to our school, is that right?

Kevin: Yeah. Like recognizing the value and then celebrating that value, that difference enhances the classroom experience. So I think one of the other epiphanies that I've had over the past 15 years is that special education is one of those programs that continues the cycle of failure for so many of our kids. And that's a broad general statement, but when we are looking at education as a system, then we have the MTSS tiers and students move through those tiers. We get to that point of an SST meeting, a student study team meeting, where the team is making that decision on whether or not to move forward with assessment for special education.

Kevin: But in many cases, it's not that the student again, is the disabling factor in that conversation. It's has the student been provided high quality instruction and education so that they are able to access it, or do we just blame the student for failing and then move them into special education? When you look at special education and the students that are in special education, especially in subjective disability categories, like a specific learning disability, or it could be emotional disturbance where we make decisions. And we have to be careful that we're not blaming the kids for not being successful because they don't fit in that instructional toolbox that we talked about earlier. So when you look at the entire system, then you realize that in too many cases, that students who are placed in special education, aren't there because of a disability they're there because they don't fit into the educational system as designed. Okay.

Daniel: I'm enjoying our conversation. We're going to pause here for a moment to get a message from our sponsor. When we get back, let's go a little bit deeper into our honoring and celebrating LGBTQ students and staff.

Daniel: Today's show is brought to you by organized binder, organized binder, develops the skills and habits. All students need for success. During these uncertain times of distance learning and hybrid education settings, organized binder, equips educators with a resource to provide stable and consistent learning routines so that all students have an opportunity to succeed. Whether at home or in the classroom, learn more@organizedbinder.com,

Daniel: Better leaders, better schools is brought to you by teachers using teach FX to increase student engagement online and in the classroom during an ongoing pandemic. Hi, We're the third grade team from general Stanford elementary. And we're going to tell you about our experience with teach FX. It has been a really eyeopening experience for us this year. We know that students who are highly engaged in the classroom achieve a higher level of success. So we use Teach Fx to help us monitor and collect data. Teach FX has really helped us reach our professional goals to pinpoint students that maybe aren't used to talking as much as well as seeing our balance of wait time group, talk time, student, talk time, and then teacher talk time across the grade level and kind of discuss with each other, , what's working in your classroom versus what might be working in mine.

Daniel: To learn more about using TeachFX to support your teachers with feedback during COVID visit teachfx.com/blbs. that's teachfx.com/blbs. All right. And we're back with Kevin Schaefer. We just ended up talking about time to thrive conference and some of the epiphany that he had there. We want to continue the conversation about honoring and celebrating our students and staff that are LGBTQ. So how could we do that?

Kevin: I think providing a safe place, letting all of your students know that you are an educator that values and accepts all differences and ensuring that there are books and there are conversations that happen that allow for students who may be sitting in your class, who are struggling with their identity, their sexual orientation identity. There's somebody to talk to that they're not alone because they're trying to figure out who they are.

Kevin: They know that they're different, that they don't fit in the same way that their peers do. They're struggling with the potential response to that identity by the adults in their life, their teachers and more specifically their family. So when there's that disconnect between a student knows who they are through their sexual identity and their worry and concern and depression, that they won't be accepted is a key factor in this. So foundationally it's provide a safe place and then be a sounding board and let all of your students know that you are a sounding board regardless of their identity, because there's confusion. There's a lack of understanding of who they are. Students are because of their identities. But we have to put our students' wellbeing in front of our belief systems in some cases, if that makes sense.

Daniel: Yeah because we're prioritizing what the kid needs and like you said, it's all about creating an environment, provided safety, where they can thrive, despite what personally might be going on with me.

Kevin: The message that they're receiving are typically negative, just the terms that they hear. Other people talking she's referring to the LGBTQ community. So that's where the adult interaction has to happen. That we have to be able to identify what those terms are that are being used by our students and the adults in the system that are students here because they're listening and they hear those subtleties and they pick up on those subtleties and they internalize those subtle subtleties. When they are anxious or feel as though they're not in a safe environment, their ability to learn lessons and as their ability to learn because their anxiety is high, their cognition, their ability to cognate on the information that's being given to them lessons. And then that's where that gap is created. They fall farther and farther behind because their focus is on not being in a safe place, as opposed to being able to learn. And then that's where now we're talking about MTSS and the RTI process and referral for special education. We blame the student for not progressing as he or she should. Yeah. Yeah. And that's where the cycle of failure comes into play.

Daniel: I'm reading how to be anti-racist. And Kenny is talking about this one experience in a classroom. And some kid tells some joke that was a racist joke and the teacher's Snickers. Right. And in that moment the target of their joke and kids that look like that kid, right. Didn't feel safe. They said, this classroom, this is not a place for me and that's one way the system then just, their kid will withdraw the act out or whatever, and start to be pushed to the margins. This is where we see it in something just as simple as that. That's the whole idea around the environment Disabled. So creating safety is one thing for the kids. How do we approach the adults in the building and how might we change our approach to PD?

Kevin: I think the exploration of bias, unconscious bias, it has to be part of all of our conversations, all of our professional development that we focus so much of our professional development on the, the newest, the shiniest new curriculum or initiative. But we, again, don't address the foundational systemic, implicit bias and adult responses to the creation of an unsafe environment. Like it's so subtle. And because it's so subtle, it's hard to recognize. It's hard to call out. So in my mind, wherever we push out professional development, there has got to be a component of identity awareness and adult response. Am I going to respond to a particular student's identity? That's different from mine, from a place of fear or from a place of being an ally. And until we understand what those identities are, self reflect, and then we can change our responses to become an ally for those identities that are different from our own. I think there's too much emphasis placed on the thing in PD, as opposed to the inner work that needs to be done. And it's, it's difficult to change an adult's perspective, but consistent professional development that focuses on what these components of the system that fail our students has to be there.

Daniel: The thing is easy to buy the thing is easy to deliver and to talk about and to look inward can be scary.

Kevin: Yeah. It's interesting when we talk about implicit bias, when we talk about racism, when we talk about LGBTQ, from a perspective of self reflection, you either see people lean way in, or you just, you see people completely disconnect, it's one response or the other. And that really gives you data as the leader to say, we've got work to, do we have a lot of work to do because everyone's response is different. And when you say white privilege that even more people push back, like now it becomes almost an interpretation that that's a blaming because you're white. I look at my background as all of my identities are from a place of privilege and power. I'm white, I'm middle class. I male. The only access that I have through a marginalized lens is my homosexuality and that allows me to see the world from a completely different place.

Kevin: Even though I have all of these identities of power, I think it's hard for some to step away and disconnect from their place of privilege and power to really assess their role in the marginalization of students, because that's not why they got into education. And it's hard to see. It's hard to identify. So in my mind, that to be part of every discussion and every part of education, how do we hire people? What does our interview look like? How do we mentor people? How do we evaluate staff out that don't fit the culture that we want to promote in our organization? They don't organization.

Daniel: So Kevin, what message would you put on all school marquees across the globe, if you could do so for just a day?

Kevin: That's a really good question. I thought a lot about it. I kept going back to the words, service. I would put on every marquee, education as a service industry, we're here to serve you. You're building a school from the ground up. You're not limited by any resources. You're only limitations your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities? My top three, let's start with top three priorities, culture, relationship and expertise. Every time I've done strength finders, it's always been about relation for me. That's where I get my energy. And I think that's one of the reasons that so many people go into education is because they have that. They want to create that relationship and they want to make a difference in the world. And when you're in that environment where you relate to people, you are able to express your vulnerabilities. There's energy there. That's where power comes from. And that energy and power then connects us to our kids and our families. Kevin, thank you so much for being a part of the better leaders, better schools, podcast of all the things we talked about today, what's the one thing you want to Ruckus Maker to remember? I would say it's not about you and because it's not about you, then that allows you to step away from everything that you've been taught that doesn't positively impact our educational system. Just know that it's not about you, that it's about student learning and understanding that your actions are impactful positively or negatively for that student's post-secondary outcomes.

Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast from Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel F better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at @alienearbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more ruckus speakers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway. From the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at @alienearbud and using the hashtag #BLBS level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.

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Show Highlights

  • Create equitable outcomes by dismantling the educational instructional toolbox
  • Stop the cycle of failure for students with IEPs and 504S
  • Honoring the variability of learners in classrooms takes major self reflection and hard core PD
  • The epiphany of Time to Thrive conference
  • How we falsely blame students for not progressing as he or she should 
  • PD to address the adult response to components of the systems  that create unsafe learning environment
  • Practical steps to actually build connections with LGTBQ students and staff 
Kevin Schaefer: Radical self-inquiry and creating LGTBQ safe environments

“We do a lot of work with universal design for learning and the idea is that we don’t look at students as disabled. We look at the environment, we look at the curriculum as disabled, and then we mitigate potential barriers in the environment and in the curriculum to allow all students to access the instruction.”

Ken Schafer

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