Andy Mellen has a vision. Every day that he walks into his classroom at the William H. Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts, he’s determined to create greater access for students with disabilities. For Andy, being an adaptive learning center teacher means providing the highest quality education possible for every learner. It means evolving his practice to overcome challenges with creative solutions. But most of all, it means being a firm advocate for inclusion and human rights.
Early on in his career, Andy had a gut feeling that there was a better way to approach special education. Starting out in the private sector, he observed that interactions with students were cut and dry, almost automatic. “There was a lot of if student does X, you do Y,” he recalls. “And that was the end of the discussion. There weren’t thoughts like, ‘What is the student really trying to tell me? What can I do to make this experience better?’”
Driven to bring a social justice lens to his work, public education felt like a natural transition for Andy. He applied to Lesley University’s master’s degree in Special Education: Severe Disabilities and from the moment he interviewed, he knew the program shared his commitment to advocacy. “I really do believe that there needs to be a change in education,” says Andy. “Lesley does a really good job of pulling in the humanitarian work of a social science. Engaging in discussion and treating each student as a whole person who has depth and value—I believe that prepares you to be a better teacher in a special education setting.”
During his search for a student-teaching practicum, Andy discovered the adaptive learning center teacher position at the Lincoln School. While finishing his degree, he was able to work full-time at Lincoln, laying the foundation for the special education program he envisioned. “Being the lead teacher at the start of the school year, I had the freedom to fully design the program from the bottom up,” reflects Andy. “I was able to say ‘this is how we're going to do it, because this is best practice, and this is what we should be doing.’”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in fall 2013, 95 percent of students with disabilities ages 6–12 were served in regular schools. But not all teachers are prepared to meet the needs of diverse learners. To change this, Andy knew he needed support. And so with full backing from the Lincoln School's administration, he began meeting with general education teachers.
On a daily basis, Andy and his colleagues parsed through upcoming lesson plans, brainstorming ways to adapt the curriculum for students with a wide range of disabilities. These disabilities included significant developmental, physical, and cognitive needs. An example of a modification the team made was a second-grade unit on science and nutrition that was modified from a traditional lecture to an interactive activity using play food. Andy’s students employed skills such as movement, sorting, and matching as entry points into the learning process. Better yet, the whole class benefited from getting up to move, talk, and exchange ideas. Through exercises like this, Andy helped his general education peers to broaden their frames of reference, and most importantly, become allies in developing fully inclusive models of teaching and learning.
“I've been very lucky with the teachers that I work with. The teachers here want to know what they can do to help every student,” says Andy, whose initiative has been so successful that teachers now come to him first with their own ideas for adapting curriculum. “Having me take a step back and allowing other teachers to initiate and drive the process illustrates the culture of teaching and learning at Lincoln,” he adds.
Throughout everything he does at Lincoln, Andy is guided by a student-first teaching philosophy and a spirit of creative problem solving. “In my teaching philosophy, it's not really me who decides this is how we're going to learn,” he says. “It's the student informing my practice, which I then take into account in designing programs or lesson plans that are student-centered. They're going to make the most connections that way.”
In his own classroom, also called the Adaptive Learning Center (ALC), Andy thrives on finding new and different approaches to helping his students learn and grow. Having overcome the feeling of needing to do things the “right” way, he’s following a new motto: Just try. He urges special education teachers who are just starting out in the field to, “Give your idea a try. If it's not working, reassess. Drop it. Try something new. The point is you're not doing something wrong if you're gathering data about your practice to benefit the student’s outcome. That's part of the process.”
Outside of Lincoln, Andy is contributing new thinking that aims to revolutionize how teachers approach writing instruction for students with severe disabilities. Before his school day and long after, Andy devotes his time to planning, organizing, and promoting initiatives that have the potential to make a meaningful impact in his own classroom and far beyond.
“When you come into work and you feel like you're doing the best job that you can do, and you feel like you're not only just educating students, but you're protecting their rights and looking out for their self-determination and advocacy, and you can play and teach while playing, it doesn't feel like work at that point,” he says. “It feels like the right thing that you should be doing.”