From Student to Teacher: My Life in Special Education
By Andrew James Fuller
Since starting my career as a high school teacher this fall, I find myself thinking a lot about kindergarten. Like
many of the students I now work with as a special education teacher at Tri-Cities High School here in Atlanta, by
the age of five, I had been identified as different. And while I now know that effective special education requires
identifying the individual needs of students and designing the additional supports to meet high, appropriate,
expectations, this was not my experience. Pulled into a smaller classroom, I received easier assignments, a
narrower curriculum, and found myself passed from grade to grade with little expected. For me, it seemed, the
bar would always be lower.
As I progressed through school, my athletic abilities – along with my parents’ unwavering faith, and the support
of a few unforgettable teachers – helped me to stay on track. As a senior, I earned a football scholarship and
enrolled at Portland State University. After four years on campus, I learned two things. First, I could do anything
my peers could do. Second, every student deserves what is made possible by the power of high expectations.
Together, these led me to me pursue a Master’s degree in education and to join Teach For America. Now, I
teach 9th-12th grade special ed and coach football in the city that raised me. Every day, my students deepen my
conviction that all children can thrive – and that we owe it to them to expect nothing less.
I am proud to have so much in common with teenagers on my roster. As an African American man and former
special education student, I understand what it feels like to live in the space between what we know deep down
we are capable of and what society expects of us. Across the country, black men make up just five percent of
college students. Here in Atlanta, less than half of low-income kids will graduate from high school. Together, my
students and I are working to change this – to reach the goal of college as we prove that our labels do not define
us. Four months into the school year, they have exceeded my expectations every single day.
As I look across my own classroom, I am more grateful than ever for the teachers, coaches and family members
who recognized my own potential, and for the opportunity I now have as a Teach For America corps member to
pay this forward. With so many challenges facing our kids, we must come together to be the role models they
need – as teachers, tutors, aunts, uncles, mentors, parents, neighbors and friends. We owe it to them to share
what we’ve learned from our common experiences, and to raise our shared expectations. If my students are any
indication, they will not let us down.