One way to describe our years of teaching before the Engage Program is the scene from the Disney classic film “Mary Poppins”. Before Mary moves in and fixes the family, the Navy Captain next door shoots off his cannon every hour. The housekeepers and Mrs. Banks run around like crazy trying to prevent everything from falling and breaking. This is what it felt like for us with our classes of special needs students. As head teachers, it felt like we were propping students up and putting temporary patches on situations that were not going to be repaired until we helped students grow and change at their core. All too often we would debrief at the end of a school day and have more questions than answers of how to create genuine connections for the students in our classes. We always knew they were capable of more authentic engagement with the class, but we never had any clear structure or specific guidance for teaching them all together. Sure, we could teach them all sorts of things when we were alone with them, but generalizing these abilities to more complicated groups was a continuous struggle.
One on one teaching is not realistic for most human beings in the world. It is definitely not the model in most schools or families. There are very few job situations that are in isolation, as well. With Engage, we set out to bridge the gap between one on one teaching: where our students with special needs were seeing success and where teachers had lots of information and support with the realities of daily life: School-jobs-families-life happens with other people.
Engage is the product of thoughtful experimentation, calculated practice, and some luck. We decided to let the Captain’s cannon fire and instead of buffering our students from the genuine results of the blast, we let the vases fall and the piano roll around the room, so to speak. We kept them safe above all. We helped them know the boundaries of right and wrong. And then, we let them discover just how capable they can be. The results were amazing. A non-verbal learner communicated which song he wanted to hear. A shy learner came out of the corner to lead the school musical. A boisterous learner discovered he could shelve his agenda in favor of the group’s idea. A distracted learner focused on his part of the project out of pride for the group’s outcome. Learners of all sorts understood they belonged to the group.
We had done it! We had created authentic group participation! Each learner and instructor was valued as a genuine part of the group. But for us, helping our classes was only the beginning. How can we help all those struggling teachers, parents, and group leaders who tirelessly straighten the picture frames and potted plants each time the cannon blasts in their group?
The Engage Program was born.
Pam Smith, M.Ed. Engage Program Co-Creator