Two side-by-side headshots, from left: A white woman in a red dress with a black headband and a smiling man wearing glasses and a white shirt against a neutral background with the words "Exploring Inclusive Education Through Storytelling" above them.

Exploring Inclusive Education Through Storytelling with Tim Villegas – Episode #24

How can we show everyone the benefits of inclusive educational spaces? Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications at the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education. His work centers around helping school systems build support for more inclusive classroom environments, and he sees firsthand the value of spaces where children with different learning styles learn together. These classrooms benefit not only children with disabilities but also typically developing children and their educators.

Episode Show Notes

Tim’s journey to inclusivity advocate has so much to teach us all, including how to:

  • View disability advocacy as support, not salvation
  • Work with children with disabilities highlights the need for classroom equity
  • Address the ongoing pushback against inclusive classrooms
  • Acknowledge the authentic benefits inclusivity offers every person

Important resources from this episode:

Connect with Tim Villegas: 

Connect With Alida:

Advocate for underrepresented and underserved groups in organizations with Ethos –


TIM: Equity means you’re giving every learner what they need. And in order to know what they need, you have to know the learner, you have to get to know the learner, you have to have relationships with the learner, and you also have to have a way to assess what’s going on with the learning of everyone in your classroom.
ALIDA: Welcome to the Care Work podcast. I’m your host, Alida Miranda-Wolff. This podcast is for anyone in the business of providing care. Whether you’re being paid for it or not, you’ll discover what it means to offer care and how to take care of yourself in the process. For the last ten years, as a diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging practitioner, a care worker myself, I’ve focused on providing care to other people for a living. Now, with this podcast, I’m hoping to create a culture of care in my community and help you do the same in yours.
Can we say that we are leading inclusive classrooms if we still separate students with disabilities from students without disabilities? If you’re today’s guest director of communications of the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education, Tim Villegas, the answer is no. A former classroom teacher himself, Tim has centered his career around helping school systems build support for more inclusive classroom environments. And no, it’s not just because of a sense of principled ideals. He understands from being in the field that when children with different learning styles learn together, everyone benefits. Hi Tim, welcome to the Care Work podcast.
TIM: Hey Alida, thanks for having me.
ALIDA: So, to start things off, you were a public school teacher for 16 years, and you developed this really specific focus on students with disabilities.
And obviously now, as a communicator, you’re focused on this population of students. How did you decide that those were the students you wanted to teach, advocate for, care for?
TIM: Well, it was really by accident or providence or however you want to say it. I originally wanted to be a counselor or family therapist, so I went to school. I graduated from, um, Azusa Pacific University with a psychology degree. And my intention was to graduate, get a job, just to make ends meet and then go back to graduate school and get my licensing degree and, uh, I had no intention of being a teacher. And my first job was as a behavior therapist for young children on the autism spectrum and had no idea what autism was. I had, you know, very little knowledge about disability in general. It wasn’t until I started working with young children in their homes, with their families, and then also in school that I was like, oh, I like this. This is fun. I have an aptitude for this. And people were giving me really good feedback on my work. And I was like, well, maybe this is what I need to be doing maybe this is the path for my life and I did take some detours before I ended up going back into school for teaching but when I did, I think originally I was like, well, I have these certain gifts and strengths. I think I can use them towards helping kids with disabilities or children on the autism spectrum. And then as I was growing in my career, especially those first four to five years, I began to realize, well, it really wasn’t about me necessarily saving these kids. Originally, I think, you know, my heart was in the right place, but it was definitely. Like, okay, there’s a problem here that I’m going to help fix. And the problem was disability. And instead, as my understanding of disability and understanding of what disability justice is, I began to really change my mindset. And so it’s more about how can I support people who maybe happen to have a disability, but also support learners in general, no matter who they are and where they are. And then my understanding grew of just inclusion as like, well, we just have to put students with and without disabilities together in one place meaning it’s just about placement it’s just about, like, having kids in the same room with each other it’s more about a deeper understanding of what inclusion actually means, and it’s more about fostering inclusion and belonging for everyone and when you do that and you develop curriculum and when you develop an environment and create an environment where everyone feels like they belong, then a learning will happen at high levels.
ALIDA: I’m hearing a lot in your story about how you came here and what you came to learn, and it’s bringing up a really basic question for me, which is, when you think about inclusion and belonging in the classroom for students with disabilities and students without disabilities, what is the role of educational equity and equitable practices in creating those conditions?
TIM: As I’m learning, and I’m still learning about equity, I think one of the best definitions I’ve ever heard is that equity means you’re giving every learner what they need and in order to know what they need, you have to know the learner you have to get to know the learner, you have to have relationships with the learner, and you also have to have a way to assess what’s going on with the learning of everyone in your classroom. And then if you’re an administrator, assess what’s going on in your school or in your district and so as an educator and thinking about educational equity, you’re really looking at creating classrooms and environments where it is possible for everyone to be together, because that is a value of mine, that at the beginning it was just like this idea and I thought it was a good idea. But as I’ve grown in the field and read the books and read the research and talked to all these people and seen it in practice, educators are better educators when they universally design lessons if you have one classroom for this kind of learner, like, let’s say they’re reading below grade level, when you have one classroom for learners on the autism spectrum, when you have one classroom for students who maybe happen to have an intellectual disability, you know, or those kinds of support needs and they’re all separated, you are completely segmenting and segregating people from ever getting to know each other. And so, when you see inclusion, or when you see universally designed lessons in classrooms where all of these, you know, different kinds of learners get to learn together and get to learn from each other, and the educator, the teacher, gets to learn from them, it’s a beautiful thing and apart from that, the research says it’s a good thing. When you actually experience that, you’re like, I don’t want this to end. I need this every day, all day. And I also want to share that with other people, which is probably why I’m such a strong and vocal proponent of inclusion whenever I talk to people, I want them to experience what I’ve experienced. And so I’m really more of an ambassador and evangelist for this kind of work.
ALIDA: And I, uh, think there is some merit in talking about why folks might not be. So. This comes up all the time when I am working with folks about the importance of integrated classrooms and what it does to bring people who have different needs into a space together. There is this sort of utopian sense of this is something without objection, of course, this is wonderful. And yet, when you get into the practice, I’ve been in the school board meetings. I’ve heard parents on both sides with kids who have disabilities, who are saying they need specialized attention and learning and need to be with students like them, who are concerned that they’ll be bullied or mistreated or that they won’t learn and grow, and then also parents who say, no disrespect, but I want my kids to have the best education possible and I don’t want them to be slowed down because other needs have to be met. But I wonder if we might explore a little bit what it is that keeps students from being in these integrated classrooms today.
TIM: I can certainly sympathize with people who don’t think this is the right thing to do because I was one of those people. So I was definitely an inclusion skeptic when I started my career there’s a lot of reasons for that I went to private school, so I had zero exposure to this thing called special education. Looking back, we certainly had people and children and youth with disabilities, but it wasn’t a thing. It wasn’t like, oh, well, they’re getting something extra special or different. It was just, they were in the classroom and it was no big deal, because in private school, you just kind of do what you want as a student that was my experience. I don’t know what it was like on the educator side, but that was, for me, my experience. And so it wasn’t until I started learning about the system of public education and the system of special education that I had any sort of thought or that I analyzed any of that practice. Once I got in, once I got my first job, and once I started going through my teacher training, then I became skeptical, like, well, you have certain learners with very specific needs, support needs. I don’t see how we can provide the support that this child needs in a regular classroom. And it’s because I thought the general education classroom would have to change so much it would be, like, unrecognizable and at the time, I was like, no, that’s not right not fair for the other students very much like what you’re talking about when you go to school board meetings or when I hear the objections to full inclusion. But it wasn’t until I was based on an assignment that I had in school, in my teacher education, to include a student. I taught in a segregated, self contained, disability specific classroom just for students with autism. And part of the assignment was, you have to create an inclusion plan for one of your students and so, okay, I am fulfilling the requirements for this assignment. I picked a student who I didn’t think would be successful, to be honest because they had some significant support needs. I collaborated with the general education teacher was a 6th grade learner, and, um I think it was a social studies class. And we developed a plan based on the strengths of the student.
So this particular learner was non speaking. He had some significant behavior challenges. He had a lot of sensory needs so he would pick up pieces of paper and tear them into little bits and drop them in front of his eyes and watch the little shreds of paper fall in front of him, and he would take scissors and he would feverishly cut pieces of paper but that was a definite strength like, his fine motor skills were actually really strong. And so when I was collaborating with the teacher, we decided, well, whatever he does in the classroom, let’s use his fine motor skills so this particular instance was a lesson around topography maps so the class was creating 3D topography maps, and they were using cardboard. And so the learners had to cut out the cardboard and stack one layer on top of one another to create these 3D maps, and so we said, okay, well, he can cut, like, that’s definitely something he can do. And so when we eventually went in to participate in the lesson, the learner cut, and he cut for a really long time. And we’re, you know, talking about, like, 45 minutes, no behavior issues, very little vocal stimming it was like, oh, all we have to do is actually, we just have to plan. We just have to plan for the learner to be successful. And it wasn’t until I saw it happen and I experienced it. And that was just a real short example. In a pretty simple example if I were to do it now it would be a lot different. But like, that small amount of success made me realize, oh, we can do this with everyone. This is not as hard as I thought it was going to be.
The difficulty is more in the adult mindsets that this is an important thing to do and that is possible, and that we can do it with a little bit of planning. You know, the funny thing is, I tell that story a lot, but it’s usually that story in and of itself isn’t enough for anyone to change their mind. And I could bring out, and I could cite a bunch of research that not only is it beneficial for all learners, we have, like, decades of research that are backing this up. That doesn’t change people’s minds. It’s usually only when an educator has experienced it themselves that they actually change their mind and start going, oh, like, this is what that means, and then they change their practices. So, that’s why it’s so important in our work at, you know, the Maryland Coalition for Inclusive Education to really work with school leaders to change mindsets. Because when you have principals and district administrators who are leading the work in a district, they are able to facilitate those experiences for their educators.
ALIDA: So, Tim, when you talk about this example of the 6th grade learner and how you were able to, with the proper planning, engage them in this educational activity and really leverage a strung space mindset, this is somebody who has really strong fine motor skills, so we can engage them in this way. There’s clearly an example of how this works. This is possible in the classroom, but what is the benefit both to the student on the autism spectrum and to the students who aren’t on the autism spectrum?
TIM: Well, the benefits for the learner who has a disability, I think are quite obvious. But just to say and to reiterate that for students who have been historically segregated and marginalized, when they are seen and feel like they belong in an environment where there are typically developing children or nondisabled peers, they have access to educators, social/peer models, language, and curriculum that they would not have access to if they were in a segregated space. But for the learners who are nondisabled, or typically developing, they actually benefit, not only from being able to learn with and next to someone who is different, right? And they can develop all sorts of things in their social emotional tool belt, but also they benefit academically. And the reason they do that is because if you are a teacher and you have a wide variety of learners in your classroom, you teach differently if you have a very homogeneous set of learners in your classroom, you can teach one way and it’ll probably be fine like not everyone will get it, but the majority of them will get it, and you can go home and feel good about yourself.
But if you have a very wide variety of learners in your classroom and you are teaching only one way, then a very small amount of students will get how you’re delivering that instruction you’re not going to feel great because you’re uh, not reaching everyone see, that’s the thing about inclusive practices. And when you universally design your lesson and your curriculum, you’re able to reach the margins and it benefits everybody and I do want to, there is a bit of research or a white ah, paper that I want your listeners to know about it’s called “A Summary on the Evidence of Inclusive Education”, and it is quite old at this point. It’s from 2016, but I remember when it came out and we were so excited about it because one of the things it talks about, and there’s a lot of um, documentation in this particular white paper is about the benefits for nondisabled peers with inclusive education. So I highly recommend you look at that. I uh, guarantee you if it was republished in a few years, it would say the same thing, because we’ve known this for a very long time.
ALIDA: I think that it’s important because we have different levels of understanding in terms of the benefits in fully inclusive education. So there’s just a lot of challenges that are coming up that make an inclusive classroom even harder to get to because the ecosystem is contentious and unpredictable. So, I wonder if we might start by talking about kind of where we are today.
TIM: I think what you’ve seen since 2020 at some of the school board meetings is that there have been some very vocal and organized groups that have been targeting the word equity and have been very concerned and vocal about districts pursuing any initiatives toward equity and where that is concerning. Know our work for MCIE and for others who provide technical assistance to districts surrounding educational equity. What ends up happening is that learners who have historically been marginalized, including learners with disabilities, they all get lumped into this backlash against equity. We have a friend in Maryland, a district administrator, who got a job as a director of equity in Georgia, in a county that is actually close to where I live, because I live in Georgia, even though I work for a non-profit in Maryland. And at a school board meeting, this particular person who they had never met who hadn’t even moved to Georgia yet, just because she had the title of Director of Equity, at the school board meeting, parents and community members were so irate that there was going to be a title of Director of Equity that they started saying all of these things about this person who they didn’t know and what they believed and how they were going to change the culture of the school district and so that person resigned without ever actually having one day at their new job.
Now, this person, who, again, we know, has worked in inclusive environments and is somebody that we had partnered with and I have personally spoken with, and so I know their mindset. This is the kind of person you want working for your school district. This is the kind of person that you want to be, um, influencing educators, because they have seen the benefits of inclusion, they’ve experienced it firsthand, and they know what it takes. And so it’s very concerning to me and to us as an organization, when we see certain groups be vocal against educational equity, because it ends up affecting a lot more than maybe they think it is.
ALIDA: So what do we do about it?
TIM: That’s a great question, Alida. Uh, it’s something I think about all the time. I think for us, we’ve leaned heavily into storytelling, you know, as someone who’s come to the communications profession a little bit sideways, and I’m still learning a lot about communications. Storytelling is such a powerful medium that the more that we can tell people’s stories in a compelling way that help the listener or the reader walk through and experience the change that a person may go through when they’re learning about inclusion or experiencing inclusion or including a learner for the first time, the more the listener and reader can experience that with the storyteller. I feel like the more effective we can be at changing mindsets.
ALIDA: I want to go kind of broad here and ask, when you think about what care work is, specifically the work of taking care of other people, how would you describe yourself as a care worker?
TIM: Well, uh, that’s interesting. I haven’t felt like a care worker for a bit now. I was a public school teacher for 16 years, and while I was an educator in schools, in classrooms, and supporting teachers in a school district. Care work and the thought about care was definitely on my mind all the time. And now, as a communications professional, it is something I think about. It’s probably something I should think about more, um, now that I have a little bit more space to breathe and to, you know, expand my knowledge. But when I was in the classroom, it was a lot about making sure that I felt I had enough energy and information, and like my bucket was filled up enough to be able to come to work every day.
And I was just having a conversation with my wife, who is an RN. Nursing is definitely care work. And she was telling me about a conversation she was having with colleagues. And the conversation comes up time and time again. It’s like, I need to make sure that I’m okay in order to be able to serve my clients, my patients, you know, the children that I work with. But the other thing that I think is really interesting about this is that the job itself isn’t the thing that is, like, that’s not what is supposed to take care of me. So, when I was a teacher, I needed to make sure that I was getting enough rest. I was eating well, I was exercising. I was taking care of the relationships in my life so that I was good enough to come to work and to serve my students. But the very act of serving students isn’t the thing that should take care of me.
ALIDA: In the short term, for folks listening today, if there’s one thing that you would have them do, what is it?
TIM: Start conversations with your colleagues, so if you’re an educator, talk about what inclusion means to you and what It means to your colleagues. Have the conversation. That’s simple and easy and free. And if you’re a parent of a child with a disability and who wants inclusion and wants to see inclusive practices. Make sure that when you’re having your IEP’s or when you’re talking with your district administrator, a special education administrator, that they know that this is the vision that you have for your child. Because our work really begins with a conversation all of this equity work begins with a conversation. It’s how we change. It’s how we influence people, is through relationships. So the more relationships we can create, the better.
ALIDA: Well, Tim, thank you so much. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. I want to just close out by asking if folks want to continue learning from you, learning with you. Where should they go?
TIM: You can go to and you can find us on the socials @think_inclusive.
ALIDA: Well with that. Thank you, Tim.
TIM: Thanks, Alida. It was a pleasure.
ALIDA: Thank you for listening to Care Work. Please share this podcast with other care workers in your community so that we can collectively create a culture of care. This podcast is a collaboration between ETHOS and Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Your host is me, Alida Miranda-Wolff.
Theme music, Vibing Introspectively, was written and recorded by Logan Snodgrass.
Production assistance was provided by Ivana Savish Grubacitch.
Audio editing and podcast post production were provided by Organized Sound Productions.

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