How I Encourage Inclusive Teaching in My STEM Classrooms Through Leading by Example

As an educator, I make it a goal to lead by example. Whether it is showing up for my students on a day where I am not feeling 100%, showing up when I have a bad day, or owning up to my mistakes, I make it my goal to show my students how to navigate a world that can be cruel at times. As somebody who cannot hide their disability – a 75lb Labrador is pretty hard to conceal – I must face my situation each day, head on. I receive questions, I see the stares, and I see the doubt in people who think I cannot. My degrees and professional achievements hardly provide the confidence I need to quiet the doubters for the main reason that when people see somebody with a service dog, especially somebody who is ambulatory and has a service dog, the immediate reaction is pity.

I used to want to hide the fact that I was different. I used to want to hide the fact that I could have a medical episode at any given moment by staying to myself and telling those around me “I’m fine”. When my service dog came into my life, though, it was hard to hide. I had a newfound sense of security and safety having my service dog and with that came the scrutiny and knowledge that I could no longer hide. Instead of shying away from the questions, I welcomed them. When students come into my classroom, I openly address my service dog. I see the looks and rather than brush it off, I start with a conversation about what is different and what perceptions people can have of me.

Many may think that the best part of having my service dog may be that I get my best friend by my side 24/7. However, what it really does is challenge what people, especially students, think of what it means to be a scientist, to be somebody in STEM. In going against the grain of what is the stereotype of a STEM professional, it causes people to take a step back and think about what else they can do to challenge the status quo. Having a service dog has helped me open up the conversation about what it means to be different than the norm, to push the boundaries of what we have always been told or what society has ingrained into our minds about certain perceptions. I have been able to relate to my students not only through my life experiences but my service dog as well: I am different and yet here I am, pushing forward and not letting anything get in my way.

My students have asked me why I don’t share what school I graduated from and what degrees I have. I share, on the first day, and then never return to the conversation. I don’t have much in my room that gives away where I went to school, and unless you get to know me and ask, I don’t disclose. It isn’t because I am ashamed of my degrees or education – quite the opposite – rather it is because I want my actions to shine above the letters behind my name or the degrees that I have. Why? I tell my students all the time: no matter what degree you have, if you cannot perform the work, nothing else matters. If you are interviewing for a research position and asked to complete a titration problem but cannot do it, what good does the degree do you?

While this is not a popular opinion, it comes from the fact that I have to prove myself to the world day in and day out that I am just as capable even if I have some limitations. For example, I run marathons to push my body and show myself that I have no limitations. I may need some accommodations – I run with a support runner that is able to react in a medical emergency - and that doesn’t mean I am less capable.

With the experiences I have had as somebody who has a disability in STEM, as well as the students that I have taught and worked with that have disabilities, I use that to fuel me to create change. I am currently working towards my doctorate in education with a focus on understanding how to make STEM accessible for all. Many of my experiences have been firsts for not only myself but the parties involved – the first teacher with a service dog at the school, the first student with a service dog working in a research lab – and it is my hope that even if it has been an uphill battle for me, I am blazing a trail for others behind me.

I often like to think that in embracing my differences and my disability, I can inspire my students to challenge their stereotypes of themselves and do something more. I recall in the first class that was ever my own, I had a student who is visually impaired. I had all their paperwork and met with their aid, who would be in my class to help enlarge worksheets and take notes. The student introduced themselves on the first day of class, asked to be moved closer to the board, and kept to themselves. As the semester started to get going, I noticed this student was not doing their work. The aid was always there and happy to support – the student simply did not ask to use their accommodations. When I noticed, I first asked the aid, who had worked with the student the previous school year, about what may be going on. The aid said that the student doesn’t like to use their accommodations for the fact that they did not want to be seen differently than their classmates. Knowing this, I took the student aside. I asked them what they thought about seeing me with my service dog and they said that it was different. I shared with them that as much as I wanted to hide that I was different, I couldn’t. The student told me they struggled in science the previous year because they didn’t think they could do it – they had always been told STEM was too far out of reach for someone like them. I pushed back. I told them it’s okay to be different. From that day on, the student utilized their accommodations and received a B in my class, passing their first science class in high school.

I model by example; I like to think. I would hope that by giving others an opportunity, by not seeing an individual as their disability and limitations, I hope I am making a difference. To be a difference maker for a student who wants to go into STEM, hear them out. Listen to their needs. Work with them to create an inclusive and welcoming environment. Most importantly, don’t judge a book by its cover. Because individuals with disabilities see the world from a different perspective and can provide a different angle to solving everyday problems more communities are able to have their diverse needs met.

About the Author

Yujia Ding

Yujia Ding is a STEM educator and disability advocate with a passion for sharing her love of biology with her students. She is currently working on her Doctorate in Education where she seeks to explore how to make STEM accessible to individuals with disabilities. Her personal experiences and her students motivate her to keep fighting every day, despite the challenges she faces. Yujia was the Los Angeles Unified School District Rookie of the Year recipient for the 2020-2021 school year. She is a proud Northwestern University Alumna seeking to leave a positive impact for future generations of scientists. Yujia strives to show her students nothing is impossible, the word itself spells "I'm possible".