“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” ― Stephen R. Covey
As I interviewed Maggie Masimore, a quote from Stephen Covey kept repeating in my head. It exemplifies her beliefs – the way she views special education and education as a whole. Maggie has spent a professional lifetime fighting for the abilities of special learners. First, as the Director of Special Education for the Metro Nashville Public Schools and then 14 years as a consultant to school districts. Her views are innovative in a way that tells us that there is nothing common about common sense.
Rod Berger: Maggie, I’m really excited to be speaking with you. As we were saying off air, we want to be able to communicate more globally about autism special needs and the ways we can impact not only children but also families and school environments.
As a former director of special education for more than 10 years with Metro Nashville Public Schools, I can imagine that you’ve seen a lot during your career. Especially with regard to practice, policies, and the conversations surrounding special education. As you reflect back on your career and in addressing the general understanding that the public has about services provided, can you describe the holes that we need to fill to give a better and more comprehensive service for all students?
Maggie Masimore: That’s a really good question. Sometimes I feel like we’ve made tremendous progress. When I look back to when I started my career–I came out of college in 1973 right before IDEA was passed–a state law was in place in Tennessee but it was very different, and certainly we were just getting to know it.
When I started in the classroom, I had kids who were coming out of institutions and many of them had autism or related disorders. What I knew then about teaching kids with autism and kids with disabilities in general was so small. It was like one-half of a volume of a whole set of encyclopedias. Every year, we grow more and more.
What I’m still concerned about today is the number of places where that progress, those changes, and how we work with kids with autism really aren’t reflected. We still see teachers who are doing the same things I did 40 years ago in the classroom and thinking that’s best practice. I think we still have a long way to go because people in our community still have a lot of misunderstandings about what is involved with autism, what people with autism are like. They also have stereotypical views of people with autism.
You can’t look at kids or other people with autism in one small way. Autism encompasses a huge description.
RB: Maggie, let’s talk a little bit about the community. What role does the community play in raising awareness? Do you think that our understanding, even from the medical field and in providing services clinically and academically, has been growing? We have been developing a much better understanding but yet, from what you’re saying, it sounds like we are outpacing. Is this a good thing? Is the general belief system around autism preventing us from bringing updates that we now know must be practiced on a day-to-day basis whether that’s from a funding perspective or a practice perspective within a school community?
MM: Yes. I see that there are a number of factors involved. One thing certainly is in teacher preparation. I think our general ed and special ed teachers are not coming out of college with the skills they need to really work well as a team and with all of the kids and diversity we have today. They’re graduating with some technical skills, but then being able to apply those skills in real and functional ways in a school in a team-based collaborative way is really missing.
I think there’s that piece of it. I think the other piece has to do with funding and also the mindset of people in the schools. There’s still a real division between special ed and general ed and a lot of misunderstanding about the idea that kids with special needs shouldn’t be in the regular classrooms if they can’t meet some of the prerequisite skills. That’s what we thought 40-plus years ago. We now know kids can learn a lot in a regular classroom and can benefit with the right support from being around other kids.
What schools are lacking in is the ability to pull together cohesive support around the individual child and around a teacher or teachers.
RB: What’s interesting when you say that is obviously schools being more aware to be able to put into practice updated elements that are not 40 years old. Yet we keep hearing the term “unbundling” by which I’m fascinated. It’s sort of the unbundling of IDEA. Let’s look at everything; let’s unpack it. Let’s figure out what we have exactly and what we need to bring these components together.
How do we explain that to people who are trying to wrap their minds around all of these different elements like what you’re talking about in a way that makes it simpler, if that’s possible?
MM: Oh, wow. That’s a good question. I think one of the things we have to do is really look at our whole community. Are we preparing kids with special needs just to be alone with other people with special needs, or is our goal really to have them prepared to work and live and be in a community. When we are preparing kids for the future that they will face, not having them integrated with other people will really prevent their succeeding in a community.
I’m not sure if I’m answering your question–
RB: I think we’re talking about the complexities that in one sense we’re saying, “Let’s bring these components together because we now understand more about the way children learn and that it’s not about separating.” I know that you participated and shared your voice in an upcoming book with Mark Claypool and John McLaughlin. In your contribution, you said, “Let’s forget the separate categories of general education and special education and just have education for all children and all the appropriate supports and services and technology needed.”
I think the crux of this understanding is that it’s not about separate but equal but it’s understanding the complexities and how they then fit almost like a puzzle. Am I hearing you correctly in that regard?
MM: Absolutely. For a long time, I have looked at it from a perspective of even racial integration and looking at moving through that when we had “separate but equal” but it really wasn’t. Now we’re looking at that same kind of division with kids with disabilities. Separate has not been equal. You can’t teach kids to move along and make progress in isolation. You have to have kids in the environments they’re going to be working and living in.
I feel very strongly about that. When you have in a school general ed and special ed and people are responsible for different parts of that, I think it’s too easy to think with those blinders on; this is my part, that is your part. Instead, the best part of the unbundling to me would be to teach people and have them really collaborate from all different directions. It really should be a collaborative team effort.
That goes for all kids because I’d venture to say that there’s not a kid who goes through school from preschool through graduation without experiencing some bumps on the road, where they need different levels of support. We are not always able to give that to our general ed kids because they’re not special ed or they’re not Title I or they’re not ELL kids.
RB: We love our categories, don’t we? Isn’t that interesting?
MM: Lots of categories. It’s our categories that keep us in those boxes and prevent us from being able to function in the world. But if you look at how adults function in the world, we’re not in those little boxes at work. To the extent that people with severe disabilities are very often still left out of the workplace, but adults live and work with other adults who have lots of diversity, either in race, ethnicity, religion, gender and all kinds of talents and challenges.
When we’re taught from day one to accept all of those differences and to support kids from their strengths and not build on those challenges, that’s another piece of IDEA that needs to be unbundled. It is a piece that focuses intently on the child’s deficits, the child’s challenges. It’s all about what the child can’t do. But as adults, we don’t build from what we can’t do. We build through our strengths, and then we learn to compensate for those challenges that we all have.
RB: Great irony, isn’t it?
MM: It is.
RB: That once we become adults, it all of a sudden becomes a little bit more convenient for us.
MM: Yes, it is. How do we help our children? One of the things that I think we have to do is to take a bigger look at our goals for our kids. IDEA has a provision, for many good reasons, to look at a child on an annual basis. But to look at a child on that annual basis, you also have to have the big picture in mind. Getting back to that, where do you want to be at the end of these 12 to 18 years?
RB: Not to mention that doesn’t take into account the rapid growth of a young person regardless of ability, right? Doing yearly reviews is sort of interesting. I have young kids and if I waited every year to look at them, I’d miss seeing something brand new that happens when I blink
MM: Absolutely. We’ve long had this idea particularly with kids with disabilities and kids with autism. For example, if they haven’t made progress in their language development, by the time they’re in high school, people start peeling back services because they’re just not going to be able to talk, so we got to teach them other stuff.
We now know that kids can learn to talk and use language way into their years. I have a stepdaughter who has autism. She didn’t speak her own name until she was 18 years old. She had no functional language; she made up words for things. Suddenly at 18 years of age, something clicked for her and she now speaks in full sentences. She can use figures of speech. She understands things she never understood before. We get excited because she uses four-letter words appropriately to express emotions. The fact that at 18 years of age she could say, “I’m angry,” instead of having a big meltdown was an accomplishment.
We tend to categorize kids. Thank God my stepdaughter was not categorized as not making progress. Her speech therapist, occupational therapist and teachers continued to work with her well into her transition years. Now we have this young woman who can carry on a conversation on the phone, which is amazing.
I think when we start putting kids in boxes, putting education in boxes and putting teachers in boxes, we don’t get good results.
RB: Yeah. I appreciate your sharing that incredible personal story. Let’s close with this, Maggie. You ended your term with Metro Nashville Public Schools in 2002. Let’s say that we put you back in that seat and you are sitting with your team on day one and you are talking with them about what has been done about unbundling during the past 14 or 15 years.
What are a couple of things that you might say in an opening salvo to them as a group not only to invigorate them but also to put the task at hand with regard to unbundling this – that we’re looking at in education and the broad strokes that we have to deal with?
MM: I think one of the first places I would want to start would be with really working to build better understanding and listening abilities among all school personnel, all families and advocates in the community. One of the things that I saw happening back when I was still in the director’s chair – I still see it now from parent networks that belong to teacher conversations and advocacy work I do – is people still don’t know how to listen and understand. Until you listen and hear someone else’s story and really keep the focus on what I can learn instead of how am I going to tell this person he’s wrong, and what can I do to change his mind?
The first thing I would want to do would be to empower my team to really learn to think, listen and seek understanding of the parents, of the child, of the general ed teacher who’s struggling with these kids, and then move forward. Secondly, I would stress that my team needs to learn to collaborate and really concentrate on the whole child. I can help us look at this part of it; I can ask what do team members bring to the party and what do parents bring to the party?
The best practices people also need to be at the table because then you’ve got to blend all of that with what the child can do, where the challenges are, and how to help the child move forward in that long-term direction we want our kids to move in.
RB: Yes. It’s really interesting. When you say that, it makes me think about if we can stop categorizing to some degree. I mean, my goodness, we’re talking about spectrum. There is another great irony in the discussion. That is, if you don’t classify, you don’t have to ask questions. Instead, you have to inquire. You have to include other voices, including parents and it’s not that everybody fits in one box. We’re also talking about a spectrum of services, of approaches, right? You need to apply that methodology or thought process across the board.
It’s been a great pleasure to get to know you, Maggie. I look forward to reading the book by Mark Claypool and John McLaughlin to which you contributed. I wish you continued success. I really appreciate your including a personal story about your stepdaughter that speaks to your passion, your work and your career legacy.
Thanks so much, Maggie.
MM: Thank you.
RB: Once again, I’m Dr. Berger.
About Maggie Masimore
After 30 years in the education of children and youth, Maggie Horsnell Masimore has been an independent education consultant for the past 14 years. She previously worked in the Metro Nashville Public Schools in a variety of positions, including the Director of Special Education. A primary focus during her tenure with Metro Schools was to build collaborative relationships with parents, advocates, related agencies, universities and the school district.
Maggie has served on several non-profit boards and community task force groups, including the Board of Directors of The Arc Davidson County and the Nashville Mayor’s Advisory Council on Exceptional Education. She has spent her career helping to build better services and supports for people with disabilities in education, employment and the community. Maggie can be reached by email.