By Ann B. Welch, Ph.D.
1993 CEC Clarissa Hug Teacher of the Year
Special Education Resource Teacher
Staunton City Schools, Virginia
Welcome, new and returning special education teachers! If you are reading this blog you are already doing one of the most important things you can do to help yourself and your students—networking. Networking is one of the most important things all teachers can do to save themselves from slowly and painfully reinventing the wheel. Your teacher education program provided you with some tools. Your student teaching experience provided you with even more important tools. But now you have your own students—students for whom you are a primary source of support regardless of the service delivery model in which you are working. No matter where your students are on the continuum of services, from residential school to full-time inclusion, no one teacher can have all the answers. In fact, we rarely have all the questions. I hope one of your professional goals this year will be building a network of support—personal support, such as a shoulder to cry on after a bad day, and professional support, teachers and other educators with whom you can brainstorm ways to respond to any challenge you face with your students. I am excited to see that experienced special education teachers are already responding to some of the questions posted on the blog.
I have just returned to a public school special education position after six years teaching prospective teachers in a small liberal arts college. After six years in higher education, a Ph.D., two Masters degrees, and 23 years as a special education teacher you might be tempted to think I have all the answers, but, like you, I am actively engaged in networking to meet the needs of my students. My general education colleagues have helped me with information about my students, their families, the local curriculum resources, and the unwritten rules of the school, among other things. My special education colleagues have oriented me to the specific paperwork demands of my new school division. I have brainstormed with friends who are special education teachers in other school divisions regarding specific students (without divulging names or other identifying information). A colleague in a neighboring division is trying to track down Fundations training videotapes for me to borrow, so that I can better incorporate Fundations strategies into my reading instruction even though I do not yet have access to Fundations materials. Borrowed teaching materials can give you the data you need to persuade your school or school division to purchase those materials for you. Borrowed teaching materials can also help you to avoid spending money on materials that do not meet your students’ needs.
Do not be afraid to ask questions. They do not make you look stupid (as we often feel, especially when we are new to a situation). They make you look like what you are, a concerned professional looking for the best way to help your students. In addition to this blog and CEC’s many other resources, try some of the following networking strategies.
- Plan regular phone or e-mail contact with classmates from your graduating class. You’re probably facing similar challenges but you all have access to different resources. You may be surprised at how much you know collectively.
- Contact professors you admired. You might be surprised how many will take time to offer suggestions and support.
- Take advantage of problem-solving opportunities that already exist in your school. These may include grade-level team meetings, teacher assistance teams, child study teams, or teams with a variety of other names, all designed to provide a place for teachers to brainstorm to meet student needs.
- Plan informal breakfast or lunch meetings with your most sympathetic colleagues.
- Ask for time to observe master teachers in your building or school division. Find out if that teacher is willing to be available to you as a formal or informal mentor.
- If you have an assigned mentor teacher, take advantage of him/her. If you don’t, find your own. None of the people I consider my professional mentors was assigned to me. I found people I admired and built a mentoring relationship. So did the colleagues for whom I serve a mentoring role.
Finally, in this age of access to electronic information, you can network with strangers in far away places as well as colleagues in the classroom next door. Even finding an article can serve a networking purpose: you have a question and someone else has a suggestion. Following are some good general sources of support and information, with links to many other sources of information on specific topics.
Regional Resource and Federal Center Network
Virginia’s Regional Training and Technical Assistance Centers. The online resources are available to anyone. The same is true of resources in many other states.