I find that the majority of first year teachers I support teach in multi-age, self-contained special education classrooms. Many of the challenges they face are unique to this setting and predictable to administrators and veteran teachers in the school. Many of these challenges are also driving potentially long term and high quality special educators out of these settings and into other positions.
There are two major issues of equity that I see as prohibiting these programs from being the vehicle by which students’ transition back into the general education setting is supported and encouraged.
Access to Curriculum
There are two issues within access to curriculum. First- teacher expertise. I have yet to see a school or district find a way to provide the same professional development opportunities to the classroom teacher with students in grades 5-8 in his room as provided to the sixth grade math and science teacher next door. By professional development, I mean more than just the once or twice yearly content and strategy workshops (although that would be a start). The sixth grade math and science teachers meet bi-weekly as a cohort to plan, develop common assessments, problem solve around student misconceptions and work together to design ways to skillfully differentiate instruction by scaffolding a challenging topic in next week’s lessons. Throughout their time together, these teachers reflect, build on experiences, analyze student work and support each other. The good news for the students in sixth grade general education math and science classes is that they will reap the benefits of their teachers’ work for years to come. The level of expertise of these educators continues to grow as they interact as a community of professionals. This is an excellent example of teachers leading their own professional development. They’ll likely pass along any materials they created to Tim, the self-contained special educator, and someone will probably stop in his room to recap the learning… but just like in a classroom where 21st Century Skills are paramount, the growth and development of the learners is a result of actively participating in the learning experience, not just accessing the paper and pencil product. All of these teachers have the best of intentions. Read More
One of the most recurring topics of conversation within the groups of beginning teachers I support is teacher assistants. Some of the most common concerns I hear include:
“I don’t know what to give Mrs. T. to do. She is always ready for the next job and I can’t keep up.”
“She doesn’t think I should do it this way… Do you think she’s right?”
“He knows the kids and the program better than me. How can I possibly give him directions? I’ll just follow his lead.”
“I don’t know how to tell her that I don’t like the way she interacts with certain students.”
“The teacher assistants aren’t getting along with each other and I’m stuck in the middle.”
It’s no surprise that this can be one of the greatest stresses for beginning teachers. A beginning teacher is often the newest member of a classroom community. In many special education settings, students remain in the same classroom for more than one school year. This often means that even the students are a part of the community that the beginning teacher is joining. There may be routines and procedures previously established that everyone knows except for the teacher. Consider an awkward pause at a party, when you are the only one that didn’t understand the reference to an inside joke. For many beginning teachers, being faced with “that’s not what we did last year” and, “Mr. G. did it a different way” can be deflating at best.
Beginning teachers generally recognize the value of having another adult support in their classroom. They have subbed in classrooms where a teacher assistant was their savior. They have heard horror stories of classrooms that should have had a teacher assistant but did not… Mostly, beginning teachers are thrilled to have the luxury of a teacher assistant and want the relationship to work. The best way to make that happen, many think, is to be nice. And luckily, the beginning teacher is pretty sure that s/he is already nice… so this should really be a non issue.
Making it Work
It’s too bad that within their studies of Educational Psychology, Differentiated Instruction, Methods of Teaching Science, Assessment Strategies and Mathematical Literacy, pre-service teachers don’t have a required field placement that focuses on management, collaboration and leadership. A semester analyzing the work of an inspiring manager whose employees always give their best effort and report feeling respected at work, would be quite a learning experience. I have yet to hear a beginning teacher tell me that s/he has such an experience… but I’m still asking and hoping! In the meantime, while I wait for the colleges to add this class for me, I do have some suggestions for teachers.