After spending 16 years in public education as a special education classroom teacher and district support specialist, Tim Villegas turned his communications habit into a full-time career. He is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-chief of Think Inclusive, and hosts the Think Inclusive Podcast. He also freelances while working on a book about his journey from being an inclusive education skeptic to becoming a self-proclaimed inclusionist.
My first PR job was for an indie record label nestled in a second-floor office above the main drag of a sleepy suburb close to Los Angeles.
The president of the label handed me a phone book and a sheet of paper with dates and locations. “Here you go, book us a tour.”
I spent the next few weeks during off times from my studies at the university, cold-calling venues up the Pacific Coast to book our indie rock band tour.
It was a tough gig. But you know what? I loved every minute of it. There was something magical about using my conversational skills to convince other people to take a chance with booking our band.
Little did I know that my next official communications job would be as Director of Communications for a nonprofit — or that it would take 20 years of experience and education to get me there.
Initially, I went to school to become a counselor — but there weren't too many jobs right out of college for Psychology majors. As a stopgap, I took a position at an organization that worked with young autistic children and realized that I had a knack for teaching kids. That's when fate took over.
When my job led me into a public school to support one of our clients, I surveyed the educators around me, and thought “I could do that!” The advice given to me was to become a substitute teacher and see if it was something I wanted to do. And I did! That year, I applied to a local teaching credential program. Within 18 months, I obtained a provisional teaching certificate so I could get a job as a teacher.
When interviewing for my first job as a special education teacher, I remember saying “I think special education has a PR problem.” Before taking my first courses in my teacher education program, I had no idea what it took to be a teacher — and working with students with disabilities was still a mystery to me and everyone else I knew.
Not only did most people not know what teachers do, but it also seemed to me that there was a significant disconnect between what my teaching credential program taught me and the reality of public schools. My program was supposed to prepare me to work in schools, but the inclusive values instilled in me — that students (with and without disabilities) should be educated together, not in separate classrooms — were not evident with my first employer.
As it turns out, segregating too many students with disabilities into separate classrooms has been a big problem since the federal government passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1990. The United States has definitely made progress since then, but not enough.
Although I had some allies, many people did not understand my passion for inclusion. It wasn’t until I moved from California to Georgia that I found the problems present in my first teaching job were very similar in my new job. I had the idea of creating a blog to share my thoughts about how educators could do a better job of including students with disabilities in general education.
I started a Twitter and Tumblr account as I was preparing to present at a disability rights conference near Atlanta, GA. Once I began writing and sharing, I realized how powerful social media could be — and how my writing could help connect me to like-minded individuals.
A friend helped me set up my first domain, ThinkInclusive.us, and I was off and running, reading everything I could about blogging and website design. I asked friends that I met through social media to write blog posts centered around inclusive education. Shortly after that, I started a podcast to interview people who are actively working to change educational and societal systems to be more inclusive.
Promoting the blog and podcast felt very similar to the days when I worked for the record label — except this time, I was armed with the internet.
I kept up my side hustle for eight years; teaching during the day, and blogging, editing, and podcasting by night. I’m not going to lie. It was exhausting, and there were many times I took long breaks. A few times, I even said I would quit. But every time I was tempted to hang up my keyboard, I would listen to the whisper inside of me to keep going — and I am so glad I did.
Today, my comms habit has turned into a full-blown gig as the Director of Communications for a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and sustaining inclusive education. I’m writing, editing, and podcasting every day, and I wonder what my younger self would think if I told him what I was doing now.
I’m grateful for everyone who ever told me not to give up. If there is one takeaway from this, it's that you should always make your passions part of your journey. If writing is what gets you up in the morning, don’t let go of it. You might just find yourself back where you started, home.