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I graduated from with college dual licensure and degrees in elementary education and special education. This qualifies me to teach all subject areas grades K through 6 and special education grades Pre-K through 12. Inclusivity was and remains a strong value of mine. I felt a calling to incorporating my knowledge of special education as a general education classroom teacher. I spent my first three years teaching as a classroom teacher and loved it. Incorporating my additional training and skillset working with students with disabilities in my classroom communities brought me joy and purpose.
I have since transitioned into a role as a middle school special education teacher, and quickly realized dramatic differences between my coursework and field experience as a special education teacher compared to that of my highly qualified colleagues without special education licenses. General education teachers play profound roles in the work I do and the plans I create promoting student success and access to the general education curriculum. Without their collaboration and cooperation, the success of an Individualized Education Plan is impossible. Until conversing with my team of general education teachers about reading IEPs at a Glance, implications of accommodations and provisions, general education teacher participation in case conferences, and my schedule and responsibilities, I did not realize the intensity of such discrepancies.
I have no problem communicating the meaning of special education when educators simply weren't taught. However, we have a serious need for improved instruction for general educators on the implications and implementation of special education. Licensed or not, we are all special educators. Inclusivity is and should be the norm. And while I may not turn the tables of higher education to include more special education for general education teachers today, I can provide tidbits on what to expect when educating our exceptional learners and collaborating with special educators.
Your Special Educator is...
... support, not a substitute.
The interventions I teach and additional adult support I provide does not replace the highly effective instruction provided by content area teachers. It merely supplements the great instruction happening in general education classrooms. The purpose of Individualized Education Plans is to make the general education curriculum accessible to students with disabilities. These accommodations are “in addition to” not “instead of.” You are just as much a student’s instructor as his teacher of record. In addition, Special Education teachers are not substitute teachers.
In addition, your special education staff is not a guaranteed substitute teacher. The responsibilities of special educators can cause unreliable stand-in status, and there is a reason special educators and substitute teachers have distinguished titles. In the interest of your special education team and IEP compliance, avoid relying on a co-teacher as a fill-in during your absence when possible.
...a liaison, not the sole communicator.
It is the responsibility of your special education team to communicate with content teachers the implications of students’ Individualized Education Plans. They coordinate and facilitate case conferences at least once a year with students, parents, teachers, and administration. Please know this does not mean the teacher of record is the only person who communicates with families of students with IEPs. I am intentional in avoiding serving as a middle man between general education teachers and parents, and not in the interest of my convenience or my content teachers’ inconveniences. Rather, a general education teacher can speak better to her own celebrations and concerns than I.
I realize this is extra work for our general educators. I was a classroom teacher making these calls once not so long ago. However, special educators have responsibilities and communications to uphold as well. I believe in supporting my co-teachers and lightening their loads as much as I can; but, we are all in this together.
...a highly qualified professional, not an assistant, aide, or paraprofessional.
Special education teachers are teachers, too. This is out of no disrespect to paraprofessionals. My mother and my dearest college friend have both worked as aides in school settings and have highly impressive skillsets working with children. Nonetheless, their roles, responsibilities, training, qualifications, and expectations in the classroom are different from those of certified teachers. As a special education teacher, I am qualified to teach the same content as half of this country’s educators. I am well versed and trained in classroom management, data analysis, differentiation, and responding to student needs. I am happy to teach alongside you. Do not be afraid to utilize my training and skills accordingly.
...allowed to work with all students, not just students with IEPs.
Do not feel like your co-teacher is only permitted to work with those students who have special education labels. Yes, they are there for the purpose of servicing students with IEPs; however, this does not mean students without IEPs are not allowed to interact or work with your special education staff. In fact, mixed-ability groups are conducive to all learners, with or without disabilities.
...someone you should hold accountable, not a free agent.
The schedule of a special education teacher is unpredictable and demanding. It may not appear that way when walk past my classroom on my planning period or lunch and my eyes are glazed over working on an IEP during my planning period. The truth is, I have 23 students who I hold a minimum of one-hour-long meeting every year. These meetings require preparation, and their results have legal implications. Not to mention teaching classes of my own and supporting students who, in the middle school setting, can at any given moment be in all different places at once.
That being said, do not be afraid to hold your Special Education Staff accountable. My job does require me to go with the flow, calling me to unexpected places at unpredictable moments. This is not a reason for me to skip out on my duties, though. It can be tempting in a flexible position to take advantage of such circumstances. If your special education teachers are anything like me, they have crazy schedules to track. They may not tell you about an unexpected schedule change or even forget about an expected one (guilty as charged). Nonetheless, it is OK to check on these things. If a teacher is scheduled to support in your classroom, there is likely a student whose IEP warrants such support. There are tactful ways to check in with your special education staff, respecting their integrity and professionalism while also advocating for students and support.