Members use All-Member Forum to help “newbie” learn about the special education profession

“Hello, I am a newbie in special education―currently working on my degree,” Sestak posted in the All-Member Forum, “and I’d like to know more about the field. I’d like to know what factors you think influence the delivery of special education the most? Doesn’t matter if they are positive or negative. I’d just like to have an input from people who are actually working in the field and not textbooks.”

Twelve CEC members quickly weighed in during the next 24 hours, giving her what she needed―and more. It was a powerful example of the value of this interactive online community, a free CEC member benefit.

The first person to comment was Timothy Mills, who just graduated in May 2018 and will begin his career as a special educator this fall. His comments captured the essence of how teams and connections with students can help a special education teacher succeed.

“I would say the biggest factors that affect the delivery of special education services are the combination of the needs your students bring and the team you work with,” he said. “Your interdisciplinary team (IEP team) is your primary support base of parents, school specialists (such as a psychologist, therapist, and learning specialist) who come together with you to develop goals and help you plan for each student. One of the nice things about special education is you aren’t required to have every answer; that’s why there is a team. Get to know the people you are working with; they will be one of your biggest sources for answers when you are just not sure. The trust, cohesion, and strength of this team will be a deciding factor in the success of your teaching. Learning to be a team player and know all the key people was one of the challenges of student teaching, because there are so many people to know and interface with on a day-to-day basis.

“A second factor is to know your students, not just from the reports, but as people―their likes, dislikes, what they are good at, etc. As educators, we work with people first. It sounds cliché, but it’s really not. You need to know and understand your students for who they are. Sometimes, the success or failure of a whole lesson can twist on the smallest details, like a job you ask a student to do, or even the time of day. As one of my mentors reminded me, ‘You need to talk with, not at students.’ In planning, you learn to use each student’s strengths and help them to help each other. Best of luck!”

Sanna Roling, a retired special education teacher, echoed Mills by adding, “Always think of your students as people with abilities, desires, and dreams. Treat them as people. Know their disability so that you can modify the interactions to accommodate their disability.”

“Talk with their parents so you know what the family hopes and dreams for their child. These goals may be underestimating or overestimating the real possibilities. That’s okay. You get to quietly, carefully, and continuously show the student and thus their families how close to the goals they can really get.”

After delivering some practical advice about how to effectively use reading materials and other classroom tools, Roling concluded, “As a retired special educator now teaching youth with disabilities to ride and care for horses, I leave you with this thought: All students can learn. Some learn very differently than others. Find their learning style and teach using that style. You will be amazed at the results. Connect to them by finding out things they really like―cars, sports, television, games, etc.―then scaffold from there. Food rewards are temporary, the real rewards come from their personal successes.”

Ann Holstrom shared this view: “I’ve been a special educator in my state for over 30 years,” she said. “If I were starting out now, I would do things differently. With a change to more inclusive practices, I find that I am now more of a consultant, and spend less time actually teaching children, which is what I hoped to do when I entered the profession. Teach children, I mean.

“Special educators seem to spend more time doing assessment, paperwork, and consultation. Well, we always did assessment, paperwork and consultation, but as for me, I also taught a self-contained class for 25 years. I don’t have anything against consultation; it’s just not how I prefer to work in the field. There are folks who love doing assessment, and others who love being consultants. You need to decide what you love, and why you are entering the profession.

“I told my principal recently that if I were starting now, I would still get my special education certification, but I would look for a job in general education with the expectation that I would have students with special needs included within my classroom (I also have elementary ed certification). That would allow me to focus on what I love―teaching―without having to worry about the paperwork piece.”

Emily A. Wallen, a special education administrator, shared a career journey that began without her planning to be a special educator.

“I started by student teaching general education for the fourth grade. When I did so, there was a co-teacher that came into the classroom and would work with students in the back of the room. I didn’t really know who she was at first, but soon we were planning and executing lessons in which we would switch roles, she would take the class, I would take a small group in the back, etc. When I completed my student teaching and finished my teaching program, our principal invited me to return and stay on staff as a long-term special education teacher substitute teacher. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the job, so I was hesitant at first! It ended up with me acquiring my emergency special education teaching certification, and now the rest is history!

“Why am I telling you this? Because where you begin now may not be where you end up. You will find out what areas you like to focus on the most, what your strengths are, etc., as you become acclimated with the field.”

Stephanie Hindes, an academic resource teacher, focused on the importance of time and gaining an early sample of what the job is like.

“Being a special education teacher can be like having two full-time jobs,” she observed. “One job is working with students and the other is doing paperwork. We are asked to do so much and are stretched so thin. If you really want to know what it is like, please spend some time volunteering and observing. Make sure you spend time in different types of special education classrooms and different age groups. I wish teacher preparation programs made students begin their programs by spending some time in the trenches to see if they want to continue taking classes. Anytime someone asks me if I think they should become a teacher, I tell them to go spend some time in some classrooms before they even enroll. It is hard work, but it is the most rewarding work you will ever do.”

Rose Ann Daltoso, a special education resource teacher, chimed in, “I agree with Stephanie 100 percent. One of the first special education courses I took had us spending 50 hours in a special education classroom. My experience was in a self-contained classroom that I ended up volunteering in whenever I had time the rest of that semester.

“I personally think patience and flexibility are key factors in the special education world. What worked yesterday or sometimes five minutes ago might not work now so you have to be able to adapt and change with the student.”

Martina received numerous responses to her original post that all answered her question, but with differing perspectives. What advice would you share with Martina? Or, if you don’t have specific advice for Martina, what question or expertise would you share in the CEC All-Member Forum?

Log in to the All-Member Forum and start a conversation today.

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