Tim Villegas on Europe and an Inclusive Education Philosophy

Noodle Expert Tim Villegas discusses his desire to learn from Abraham Lincoln's steadfastness, his struggles with time management, and why he supports full-inclusion classrooms.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

When I was a young man I loved going to the library. I still do actually! I distinctly remember picking up the book Lincoln: A Photobiography and was immediately engrossed in it. I learned how Lincoln loved to read, how he was trustworthy, how he rose from humble beginnings to become the 16th President and used his leadership to usher in a new America that abolished slavery and moved us along on the road to equality. How hard it must have been to follow through with what he thought was right when there were so many against him. I would have loved to have had the opportunity to learn from Lincoln how to be steadfast in my philosophy of inclusion. Apart from him, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi have always been two of my favorite leaders; as long as we're dreaming, I would love to learn from them as well.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

Something I have always remembered that has informed my teaching practice is to "work smarter, not harder." I learned this when I installed window treatments in college and it has applied ever since. It is easy to plunge headfirst into a project without thinking and planning out what you are doing a head of time. In addition to the planning, chances are that someone else has done what you are trying to do. So then, the process becomes one of synthesis. Learn what someone else has done and apply it to your vision of what you would like to see happen. For instance, when I don't know how to teach a lesson to my students I will ask a colleague, "How would you teach this?" Invariably, their insight informs my lesson plan. Working smarter means standing on the shoulders of giants that went before you. In teaching, you are not alone; it is a collaborative practice.

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

One of my favorite comedians, Eddie Izzard, has a tongue-in-cheek one-liner about growing up in Europe — it's "where the history comes from." I would most definitely send a student there. After all, the country that we live in was — upon European settlement — a British colony, and some of the most important parts of our democracy were modeled after Britain's parliament (along with some Greek and Roman influences). Also, who wouldn't want to experience Italian food at the source instead of a few thousand miles away? I have had the opportunity to visit London a couple times in my life and it has profoundly affected my perspective on the world. In addition to this, traveling to Latin American countries like Mexico (where my family's roots are planted) would be greatly beneficial to a new traveler. The disparity between what the United States and some other countries has to offer is eye-opening.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

Getting good grades was not really an issue for me through elementary, middle, and high school. It was when I got into college that realized I had to put in extra time to absorb content and complete projects on time. Time management is difficult for me; for as long as I can remember, staying organized and keeping a schedule have been weaknesses of mine. When my grades started slipping in college I knew that I needed to reevaluate how I prioritized my time. I learned that I am a person who likes to say "yes" to people who are in need, and that sometimes I need to say "no" or "not right now." Taking care of yourself is a priority, and part of that is not doing things that you would normally want to do. I have come a long way in my executive functioning skills, but I still have a long way to go. Fortunately, I am not done growing yet.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

One of the last classes in my undergraduate coursework was called The Psychology of the Exceptional Child. I thought I was going to learn about gifted kids. Instead I learned about special education, IQ, and assessments. I realized there was a whole other world I knew nothing about. When I graduated, there were not too many jobs for people with psychology degrees, so I took a position as a behavioral therapist for children with autism. It was there that I became passionate about special education and people with disabilities.

Not long after this job I went back to school to get a teaching credential and have worked in public schools every since. I was lucky to have an inclusion-focused teacher education preparation program. What I didn't realize at the time was that not very many such programs exist. When I got my first job, I was put into a self-contained classroom for autistic students. I had to become creative in attempting to integrate our classroom with the rest of the school community. It was here that the first seeds of my inclusive philosophy took root, and I have been trying to fulfill that mission to this day. I know that the concept of "full inclusion" is still controversial to most people in education. Hopefully I will be able to contribute positively to conversations about education reform and maybe even change some minds along the way.

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