How’s Your Marriage?

By Anne M. Beninghof

In my workshops on inclusive schools, I frequently ask participants to complete the following simile:

The marriage between special education and general education is like …

After a few chuckles, participants silently begin to write their responses, some thinking of an answer immediately, while others stew for awhile. When it is time to share, the similes run the gamut from horror story to every teacher’s dream.

The marriage between special education and general education is like …

… peanut butter and jelly—each good on its own but better together.

… an elderly couple—constantly bickering about trivial details but dependent on each other.

… a fine wine—it gets better with age.

… a roller-coaster ride—sometimes thrilling, sometimes making you sick to your stomach.

… a hidden gem—just needs some elbow grease and polishing to make it shine.


Imagine doing this activity with your faculty. You provide them with blank index cards and ask them to complete the simile anonymously. When they are finished, you collect the cards and read the examples aloud. What would the overall tenor of the examples be? Mostly positive? Mostly negative? Somewhere in the middle? The vast majority of teachers believe that the similes would be heavily negative, reflective of their experiences. These similes reveal a pervasive problem in our schools—a climate of separateness between specialists and classroom teachers

Proactive steps can be taken to develop a new climate of collaboration and inclusiveness. Dozens of ideas for promoting a healthy school climate have been suggested and implemented by leading educators. Specific steps for developing positive inclusive climates include:

  • Creating a vision and mission statement that embrace collaborative relationships. Which comes first—the vision or the mission—is kind of like the argument about the chicken and the egg. What is not in dispute is the fact that organizations need a heart and a head—a belief and a set of processes and skills—to bring about change.
  • Conducting a climate survey to identify subtle messages embedded in the physical environment (Beninghof and Singer, 1995). Research shows that our habits are woven into our environments. Small tweaks in an environment can make a big difference.
  • Ensuring that staff development programs integrate the needs of special populations into the content and discussion. Often, great ideas are presented in workshops, but teachers are left to their own devices to figure out accommodations and adaptations at a later time. Building time for this into the original professional development ensures that all students will benefit.
  • Providing adequate staff development on inclusion and coteaching practices. The tone of the building can be greatly affected by the quantity and quality of professional development experiences. The best co-teaching occurs when all participants have a common knowledge base to build upon.

Potent, schoolwide efforts to build bridges between faculty members will lead to healthier relationships at the one-to-one level. Although it is not realistic to expect everyone on a faculty to agree on everything, it is realistic to expect collegial interactions for the sake of the students.

Woodie Flowers, a professor emeritus at MIT, coined the term “gracious professionalism.” Gracious professionalism refers to the blending of determination, respect, high-quality work, and valuing others. Teachers who embody the characteristics of gracious professionalism will be most successful at coteaching and inclusive practices.

Anne M. Beninghof, M.S., is an internationally recognized consultant and trainer who has more than 20 years of experience working with students with special needs, in a variety of public and private settings. She has been a special education teacher, faculty member of the University of Hartford and the University of Colorado, and has published several books and videos. Contact her at or visit

About Anne M. Beninghof

Books by Anne M. Beninghof: SenseAble StrategiesMeeting StandardsIdeas for Inclusion: The School Administrator’s Guide

Categories: General Education, Professional Developement | Leave a comment

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