We’re entering the third month of the 2010-2011 school year and I will continue to use the Peace Corps motto to describe the heart and soul of the service that I provide as a special educator. Team teaching remains the toughest job that I’ll ever love.
My two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa were truly a time of reflection, growth, and resilience. The experience was filled with ups and downs, tears and triumphs, but I survived with the support of countless mentors and friends.
Similarly, in my second year of teaching, I am much more confident in my duties as a student advocate in the classroom and throughout the IEP process. I am familiar with our diverse socioeconomic and cultural student population, and as a result of our school’s community outreach and engagement initiatives, I feel accepted by and connected to the families and parents of the students that we serve.
The challenges and struggles I face as a new special education teacher lie primarily in the establishment of roles and responsibilities with my content teachers. In speaking with friends and colleagues who have been special educators for decades, team teaching is also, for them, the toughest job they’ll ever love.
When I think about my past and the loving relationships that I have been blessed to have, I realize that understanding and mutual support are two key concepts that allowed those relationships to thrive. Likewise, team teachers must understand that planning and teaching for inclusive classrooms must be a partnership in which content teachers and special educators work together to create instruction specific to student needs, strengths, and interests.
Our goal is to create a variety of assignments and tasks where all students can access the standards, develop understanding, and build upon their individual strengths and weaknesses. This process is difficult with two educational “artists” on board, one trained in the subject area and the other trained in instructional strategies for student disabilities. This collaboration remains my biggest challenge, as I work with four different content teachers who have different teaching styles and different levels of readiness to share teaching roles and responsibilities with another educator. Each day, I enter four different teachers’ classrooms and must ask permission to contribute to the learning of their students.
In most cases, the general education teachers I’ve worked with either are 20 years older than me or have decades more experience under their belts—or both. I would tell new teachers not to be discouraged by this, although I do continue to have such moments myself. Involve your principals, department chairs, resource teachers (in my district, we have a wonderful resource teacher and mentor specifically for secondary special education teachers), Right Start Advisors, and even differentiated instruction specialists to facilitate this discussion of roles, responsibilities, and expectations in team teaching.
Last year I had the opportunity to attend a Debbie Silver conference for special educators. She provided me with four words of wisdom that sustained me throughout my first year, four words that I would offer to all new teachers, four words that must be said with conviction and pride, that actually sound better spoken in a slow and intentional fake British accent: “I AM A TEACHER!” Debbie Silvers empowered us to claim our professions and to make our voices heard. We are not paid to hand out papers, to walk students to the office, or to be an extra set of disciplinary eyes in the classroom. WE ARE TEACHERS! I hold these words in my heart everyday and I hope that you hold them in your hearts as well.
Although students with special educational needs are historically some of the lowest-performing student groups in our nation’s schools, there is still no mandated collaborative planning or training specifically for co-teachers. I hope that one day co-teaching training will be recognized as an intrinsic professional development tool that should be delivered not in isolation just for special educators, but to team teaching partners through collaborative, hands-on, content-specific workshops and through team teacher mentoring, modeling, observations, and feedback.
Co-teaching needs to be at the forefront of any discussion about differentiated instruction because a true collaboration of content and special education expertise ensures that standards will be taught in a way that children of all levels can learn and be successful.