Universal Design for Learning and What Teachers Need

Two friends stitched on a quilt on a quilt display at the Oregon Trail Museum in Montpelier, Idaho.

I had lunch with a dear friend this week. We’ve known each other since junior high and have shared experiences ranging from editing our student high-school literary magazine, to attempting to sleep under the stars at church youth camp in what turned out to be a night of downpour and lightning, to helping our own children navigate school in spite of barriers and special circumstances.

Our careers have taken roundabout pathways, and we have both found our passion in teaching—especially in research-based, effective pedagogy.

Over lunch we started talking about Universal Design for Learning. I love this topic and wasn’t surprised to find that my friend had made it the topic of her master’s thesis!

What is Universal Design for Learning?

It’s easiest to understand if you think first about Universal Design for architecture. Remember the days before wheelchair ramps were readily available? Doors were not automatic. It was difficult for anyone with physical limitations to get where they needed to be.

The Americans with Disabilities Act changed things for the better. Older buildings had to be retrofitted with wheelchair access, automatic doors, etc. But sometimes that meant adding a wheelchair ramp on the back side of the building! Not very inviting to someone in a wheelchair.

Newer buildings are built with Universal Design—an idea that includes everyone and gives everyone equal access to a building and its amenities. Architects and interior designers plan from the start so that anyone, no matter their age or physical limitations, can equitably use a building. Ramps, where needed, are incorporated into main, front walkways. Doors are automatic. Sinks and paper towels are also automatic.

Once put in place, these accommodations have added benefits beyond social justice and inclusion. For example, automated doors and sinks limit the spread of germs.

Universal Design for Learning is also inclusive. As the architect of my lesson plans, I can predict in advance what types of needs I will be trying to meet in my classroom. I know before I ever see my rolls that in a class of 35 students, I am likely to have about 4 students with an IEP, about 5 students with a 504 plan, 1-2 English language learners (that number would be higher in other schools where I have worked), and 1-2 students with food allergies (which is important, because I teach foods units). I will have kinesthetic learners, learners who don’t want to work with peers, and learners who need creative challenges, among others.

Because I can predict the types of students I will have in my classroom, I can plan beforehand to meet all their needs. I can offer accommodations to all students that help them feel safe, respected, and honored in my classroom. Students who don’t need or want accommodations don’t have to use them, but for those who need them, they never have to ask. These accommodations affect both the classroom environment and my lesson planning.

Flexible seating is one small step in classroom environment for Universal Design. Personalized Learning with lots of choice is important in lesson planning. Activities with a variety of ways both to access information and to demonstrate learning include all students.

Thinking in terms of Universal Design sounds at first like it makes my job more complicated, but in the long run, it saves me a lot of time and stress. My students are happier because they feel understood. They are more likely to be on task and engaged and less likely to exhibit behavioral problems.    

I loved having lunch with my friend this week, not only because it’s great to catch up, but also because of the way we can provide positive support for each other as teachers. This is a valuable friendship to me.

I’ve noticed something over the last year when I’m on social media. Almost every time I’m scrolling through a feed, I see articles with titles like, “Teachers are Leaving Schools in Large Numbers,” and “Teacher Shortage Crisis Deepens.” Some of the titles hint at toxic positivity in schools or point to the things that are exhausting teachers.

And guess what?! I don’t need someone to point out the flaws in education. I think most teachers can figure out on their own what is sending them home each night exhausted. We know why we went into teaching. We know why we love it. We know when it’s hard. And it is hard.

Seeing article after article about why teachers are leaving can have a detrimental effect on teachers and the teaching profession. It sends this message to teachers: “Oh, people are getting out? Maybe I should look at getting out too.” That’s not a productive message to send.

There are a few things that keep me going as a teacher. One is having the opportunity to collaborate with other strong teachers. When we get together and share solutions, I feel like I can go back to my classroom better equipped to do what I need to do.

Another thing that keeps me going is the kids. I can see when I’m doing good for them, and it makes me happy. A few times every year, I get thank-you notes with sincere and specific messages. Sometimes they come from students and sometimes they come from parents. I keep those notes and refer to them when I need a boost.

I’m fortunate to have supportive administrators and good friends in education. I believe in what I do.

No doubt legislators could do more to support teachers and keep them in the classroom. Increase pay and benefits. Decrease class size and workloads. Avoid legislation that overburdens teachers.

The fact is that if nothing happens, there will not be effective and well-trained teachers in our children’s futures.

Meanwhile, I have a request for those of you writing articles about education.

Give me more positive education articles and stories to read about.  

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