Special Education Teachers – Unique Professional Journeys

teacher time

As a young teacher, I took great pride in my choice to become a special education teacher. My early assignments were in resource rooms where students came to me with many different challenges. In those days, we still used words like “retardation” to label and describe low functioning students (my age is showing). My specialty was Learning Disabilities and all the variations in learning styles that “LD” evoked. It takes great stamina and a special balance between caring and strictness with students to be a really great SPED teacher. I excelled in the first, failed miserably in the second. It happens often in classrooms, teachers step over an invisible line to become a friend. It’s not what they need. Fortunately, I knew this and worked hard to get training in classroom management techniques that proved very helpful in sorting out these priorities.

I was always struck by how often SPED referrals were generated by discipline and behavior problems that teachers couldn’t handle in the regular classroom. It’s actually still a big problem in schools, students are referred for the wrong reasons, clogging the system and costing money to evaluate and assign (or not). We need to find a way to support new teachers to help them with classroom management skills. I’ve seen referrals “go away” once a teacher is guided to find in-class solutions to tricky behaviors. RTI (Response to Intervention) shows great promise in providing whole building solutions to these problems.

After many years, I became aware of new technologies that showed promise for remediation of reading and math disabilities. I shifted my focus from working with slow and reading impaired students, to finding technologies that could be implemented in the classroom for real learning success. Our kids were responding so favorably to computers and certain learning software. I went back to school and received a master’s degree in library science with a concentration in technology integration. I never looked back.

I tell a personal story because it’s unique; all special education teachers arrive at their choices of classrooms in their own way and time. Administrators are often just grateful to have specialists on their staff to handle tough behaviors by keeping kids quiet and learning in a classroom.

These days, it’s tempting to plug a student into a computerized solution if nothing else is working. All the IEP’s and core meetings in the world can’t fix some of the problems we are seeing in society and families that impact student learning. There are solutions “in the cloud” that show promise, distance learning opportunities where a student may have an online mentor to guide them through tricky math and reading assignments. There’s something attractive about this online presence, non-judgmental and private. The student isn’t embarrassed to reveal his deficiencies in as glaring a way as he might in the traditional classroom environment. The opportunities are there to explore, the danger lies in keeping rigor in the quality of instruction that is provided.

Another thing I learned during my first 15 years in education was that many principals, especially old-school principals, are not good at supporting their teachers.  There needs to be a whole building effort to construct a special education program that provides support for students, but also can be pointed to for best practices in regular classrooms.

The law says we are supposed to provide the least restrictive environment for all students, removing kids from classrooms and placing them in resource rooms for at least part of the day provides an “escape-valve” for kids who just need some extra support. Today, with all the great possibilities that technology may provide, we need to work in teams to make informed decisions about educational methods and materials.

I see a grant writing solution for everything these days. In the case of special education, it might just be wise to seek some funds for a process of reflection. Professional development grants are fairly easy to get, grantors like to think their support is changing school culture in fundamental ways, and the best way is to train teachers to work together for improvement of instruction throughout the school community.

Baker & Taylor/YALSA Conference Educational Grants from American Library Association. This grant is funded by the Baker and Taylor Company. The two grants of $1,000 each are awarded to librarians who work directly with young adults in either a public or school library to enable them to attend the Annual Conference for the first time. Applications must be received in the YALSA office by December 1.

States: All states
Average amount: $1000.00
Address: American Library Association, 50 E Huron, Chicago, IL 60611
Telephone: 800-545-2433 ext 4387
Email: ngilbert@ala.org
Website: click here
Eligibility: public school, other
Program funded: library, professional development
Deadline to apply: 12/1/2013
Deadline comments: December 1 is the annual deadline

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