The Five Words that Made Me a Special Needs Advocate


Shannon Dingle talks about the way God led her to a passion of advocating for special needs children.

I was already a special education teacher. I had friends with disabilities. I grew up with an IEP for severe speech impediments. But this wasn’t my passion yet. It was just a job. It wasn’t my heartbeat. Not yet.

Then I was called into the principal’s office at the end of my first year of teaching, and everything changed.

First, let me say that being asked to the principal’s office as a teacher feels a little bit like being hauled there as a student for misbehavior. I was nervous. I didn’t know why he needed to see me. I thought I might be in trouble.

Then as I entered the room and sat down, he smiled across the desk. I could see this wasn’t a bad thing. He began complimenting my teaching style and success with some challenging students. He described the good things he saw in a recent observation of my classroom. He wasn’t generally this positive, so I wasn’t sure what to make of his monologue.

Then those path-altering words came: “Miss Saunders [my name at the time, as I wasn’t married yet], you’re an excellent teacher, and those kids don’t deserve you. I’d like you to switch to general education where the kids can really benefit from a teacher like you. We can find someone else to fill your space in special education.”

I’m rarely left speechless. But for a moment, I couldn’t find any words to answer him. I didn’t realize it yet, but a switch had flipped in my soul. There was no going back.

I inhaled, choosing my words carefully.

“No, sir,” I started. “I appreciate your confidence in me, I do. But I need you to understand this: my students deserve an excellent teacher. They shouldn’t get less than any other child just because they’re in special education. If you insist on moving me to general education, I’ll resign. That’s not the job I want. No, thank you.”

I can’t remember what he said next. I vaguely remember a standing offer to change my mind later, if I so chose. I managed not to share my opinions about how vile I considered his words to be. I returned to my classroom, but special education was no longer just a job.

I was an advocate, forever changed. I knew, from then on, my life would be marked by making it clear that “those kids” deserve anything any other kids do. I still don’t care for that principal. But? God used his reprehensible flattery to shape me into who I am today.

For that, I am thankful.

Written by: Shannon Dingle

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