So You’re Not A SpED Teacher…

So your background is not in special education… but you need more than one hand to count the number of special education students in your classroom that you are responsible for teaching?

One of the more challenging situations I was put in as a teacher was teaching a group of students that included a group of students that were never in a traditional general education classroom. I was teaching middle school world history when I was given a group of students who were in self-contained classrooms for the bulk of their academic lives. I am all for the inclusion classroom, but the conditions must be there to have an inclusion classroom… like an inclusion teacher maybe, but I digress. At times throughout the year, I had an instructional aide (IA) to help me out but it wasn’t an everyday thing. In fact, whenever the IA showed up, it was a luxury.

What really frustrated me was that the special education students were put in self-contained classes for mathematics and language arts literacy but for nothing else. Those students would put their heads down, become a disruption in class or simply sat there and refused to do the work because they couldn’t read, write or comprehend on grade level. If I was being observed, it was my job to have all students engaged, including the special education students who had academic needs I was not trained to meet. Some administrators and even some teachers may read this and think that I am complaining or whining about having to do my job. Those who think that are ignorant when it comes to the idea of a just and quality education for all students. Had I been supported to work with this population of students by school leadership (or had I actually went to school for special education), I have no doubt that I would have done a better job meeting the needs of the students. Unfortunately, I was not always supported the way I needed, nor did I go to school for what I was doing and thus the educational quality wasn’t’ always the best. While I was judged on that in my evaluations, that responsibility fell on the administration. As a parent, had that been my child, I would hold the administration responsible. I can guarantee you that had those administrators found their children in a similar situation, they’d take their children out of that school and put them in a better one. Unfortunately, many urban and inner-city parents cannot afford to do that. Some believe that at best, charter schools give the illusion of choice for those parents. My experiences, however, make it very possible to side with those who disagree; but again, I digress.

With all that said, none of what I said changes your predicament. So what do you do? Two things that you have to remember is that you must (1) protect yourself and (2) serve the child. You have to make sure you protect your career from the possibility of not getting renewed or getting your license revoked. You also have to do what is best for the students that you teach. Here are 10 action steps that you should do to do both of those things:


1. TELL YOUR UNION REP. The first thing to do is this; call your rep. This is your first line of defense. The union will step in and handle the situation for you. If your union has handled the situation for you, then keep this information in your back pocket. If the union says that you do have to teach the student(s), continue reading steps 2 through 10. If you have no union at all, continue reading steps 2 through 10.

2. REQUEST SUPPORT AND ASSISTANCE FROM YOUR DIRECT SUPERVISOR/PRINCIPAL AND DO IT ALL IN WRITING (EMAIL). Make sure that you specifically ask for INSTRUCTIONAL SUPPORT from your administrative team in writing. Document EVERYTHING! Document when they’ve given you support and when they’ve failed to give you support. Document when they haven’t given enough support. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING!

3. KEEP TRACK OF ALL CORRESPONDENCE WITH INSTRUCTIONAL LEADERS AND DISCIPLINE LEADERS CONCERNING SPECIAL EDUCATION STUDENTS. Make sure that all your correspondence is in writing regarding your sped students; whether you are discussing an instructional or discipline matter. This is important because if there is a meeting scheduled with the student about instruction or discipline if you don’t have the paper trail of your discussions and notifications about the student, you will receive the blame whether you deserve it or not. Having your correspondence organized will ensure that the blame isn’t shifted to you and that the problem(s) are directed to the proper person.

4. READ THE IEP’S OF ALL YOUR SPED STUDENTS! Make sure that you read the IEP’s so that you know the student’s deficiency and what you need to do in order to meet their need(s) in the classroom. Be familiar with the IEP… Don’t memorize, but be aware of it. And if for some reason no one seems to know where they are located, badger the instructional leader and/or supervisor of special services. If there is no IEP on hand and your supervisor requires you to teach that student, call the parent and ask for the IEP. If they don’t have it and they say the school does, have them to call the principal so that you can get it.

5. TRACK STUDENT GRADES IN THREE CATEGORIES: (1) ALL, (2) GENED AND (3) SPED. If you have to teach a mixed group of gen-ed and sped students, track their grades according to their category and track it all together. You do this for two reasons. The first reason is that you want to see where student performance is in each category so you can see how you are doing with all students and how one group impacts the success of another. If your VP or Principal comes to you during a post-observation evaluation meeting or its your bi-yearly or yearly review and throws your student grades and/or test scores in your face, throw those numbers right back at them and remind them of what you are CERTIFIED to teach, that one group impacted the other and that there should be consideration for your scores due to the circumstances you’ve been put under. The second reason is that if you’re sped students were successful in your room, you have the data to prove it. You then highlight it and show it off to your instructional team and principal. When this happens, you will be “asked” to do it again – teach sped students in your classes. When approached, you ask to for the school to pay for college (grad school) credits so that you can get a degree in special education and get paid more money.

6. PROVIDE SPED STUDENTS WITH NOTES. You can either give them all of the notes to copy down or you can have them fill in certain words within your notes packet. I suggest the latter because you can keep the students engaged and involved with the class. You won’t alienate them because they’ll be working alongside their classmates and administrators see that you have the entire class engaged.

7. SCAFFOLD YOUR INSTRUCTION. You cannot teach each day with notes on a board or on a PowerPoint. You MUST incorporate other tools from your toolbox in your instruction. You should model exactly what your looking for from your students; either model a response with a rubric or actually get it and do what it is you want your students to do. Use visual aids, connect to the lesson to the student’s background knowledge, use your body language, have students themselves initiate their learning in small groups, pre-teach new vocabulary and set a daily learning goal(s) for the students that day in class. Also be flexible; one scaffolding strategy may or may not work, so switch it up.

8. GIVE CHARTS FOR YOUR HANDOUT ASSIGNMENTS. Consider your content; whether math, science, history, literature… you may have some notes and readings (and problems) that you would like to deliver to your students. Rather than have students do different assignments according their academic levels, give them all the same assignment but give students a chance to focus on 1 or 2 concepts  within the chart rather than having them know everything. Please look at the chart below:

As you see here, there is a lot of information that your students will have to cover in the entire chart. If you’re teaching American history, this assignment requires students be able to recall information on three wars. However, you’ve filled in some of the information. This gives your students hints to fill the other spaces but it also gives them the sense that they are escaping doing all the work. For your sped students, you can fill in more information and call on them to focus on 1 aspect of the chart. You could also have them focus on 1 or 2 boxes. The point here is to give sped students work they can handle while at the same time challenging your student to recall information… and you can actually have students fill in the chart according to high, mid and low groupings.

9. GIVE GROUP QUIZZES. Split your class up into groups of four or five and make sure that each group has at least 1 sped student. Each student can be responsible for 1 question or all can work together to answer 1 or 2 questions. This reinforces the truth that all students hold each other accountable and that all students are working on the same work. The last thing you need is for a divided classroom with non-sped students thinking that everyone is not doing the same work or that some students don’t have to do any work. With a group quiz, everyone has ownership in the work and in their grades… but you also allow those who need some help to get some help from their classmates. Just be sure to create quizzes that don’t allow for the “smartest” person in the group to answer all the questions.

10. DO YOUR BEST. You can only do the best that you can. Don’t over think your responsibilities. Don’t take your work home. You can only control what you can control. Do your best and make sure that you are following action steps 1 to 9.

Teaching is a very tough job. Being an administrator is a tough job also. The role of an administrator to fit and make things work. Your role is to teach to the best of your abilities according to the standards mandated to you. You have got to merge the two roles to benefit both the students and yourself. These steps will help ensure that you are protected, that your students have their needs met the best way under the circumstances and that your administration keeps in mind that they are to support you and assist you as best as they can. As always, be vigilant.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark.

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