Becoming a Better Teacher

by Neva Fenno, M.S.Ed. MLIS

teacher little girl

They say that experience is the best teacher of a teacher. That is certainly true in my case. When I first started teaching in a special education classroom, I was kind, giving, quite frankly, a sucker. Kids manipulated me into a corner every single day. So, over time, I learned to be less of a friend and much more of a guiding hand, sometimes a shoving hand.

There are some things that teachers can do though, above and beyond waiting for time to pass, and letting experiences teach lessons the hard way. One thing I have done religiously every year is to make home visits. It is the single most important thing I do – I set the end of October as my deadline to make sure I visit every student’s home (unless the family expressly forbids it – and that has happened.)

I learn so much about my students this way. I can observe family dynamics, see where my student fits in the family order, see how parents interact with their kids. Are they warm and loving and supportive? Are they stern, controlling? Are they protective (or over-protective) of their special education child? These characteristics and family interactions give me ways to approach the child in the classroom, I understand them better.

I can observe the home itself and I don’t mean for House Beautiful comparisons. For many years I worked in urban schools in inner cities. I saw poverty first hand, and also saw how tempting the street can be for students. When you don’t have much, it makes sense to join with a group of kids who also have very little. These bands of poor kids can, if guided by a mentor, do wonderful things. I have the utmost regard for organizations like the “Y”, Girl’s Clubs and Scouts, etc. If students have a sense of purpose, and a responsible adult to guide them, the negative effects of a gang mentality can be avoided. I also work closely with the police. The schools I have worked in were lucky to have community officers. They helped to prevent many bad decisions kids choose to make on any given day.

Another must for me has been taking advantage of every possible opportunity for professional development. Lately it has been attending workshops on Common Core State Standards curriculum integration for Special Education, and on technology. I haven’t decided yet exactly how I feel about distance learning; this is true of professional development as well as some of the new “courses” online for schools. For classrooms, asynchronous learning by itself is not sufficient. You need a teacher and interaction of some sort with other students. Some of the credit-granting schools for students who need more classes to graduate from high school may be helpful to some, but I worry about academic rigor. With SPED kids, there are many other factors to consider that an online solution may ignore.

Not all distance learning is suspect. I’ve discovered a website called Lynda.com. There are a slew of video based tutorials here on computer software programs like Microsoft Office and Adobe Acrobat. These lessons are very helpful in bringing me up to speed on new products, too. There are other examples of this for teachers. This kind of online learning, no stakes informational presentations, will flourish and do well. I worry though about online degrees and online high schools.

There are so many new software products for managing the day to day operation of your classroom, including the automation of IEPs that I can’t list them all. I found an article that shows you how to choose an effective system.

And, hold on to your hats, I still grab a good book to stay up to date on what teachers are reading. A list here stays on the topic of becoming a better teacher.

So, out of the box, you are no doubt a great SPED teacher (or “regular” teacher). Just remind yourself that there are some specific steps you can take to brush up on new skills, and improve the ones you have.

Let us know some of your tips and tricks to be a great SPED teacher. I learn from my readers all the time.


Grant Name: Lawrence Scadden Teacher of the Year Award in Science Education for Students with Disabilities

Funded By: Science Education for Students with Disabilities

Description: The recipient will be recognized at the annual National Science Teachers Association Convention, at the Science-Abled Breakfast, sponsored by SESD and Reaching the Pinnacle for Students with Disabilities. The winner of the Scadden award is expected to attend the NSTA conference to accept the award and a check for $1,000.00. The $1,000.00 stipend associated with the Scadden Award is provided to offset travel expenses to NSTA.

Program Areas:   Disabilities, Science/Environmental, Special Education, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)

Eligibility: Public School, Private School

Proposal Deadline: 1/20/2015

Average Amount: $1,000.00

E-mail: pverones@brockport.edu

Website: Science Education for Students with Disabilities

Availability: All States

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