This post is sponsored by University of St. Thomas.
When it comes to equity and access in our schools, how well are we serving students with special needs? How do we create an environment that ensures these learners -- along with their peers -- are challenged and encouraged to grow? University of St. Thomas Teacher Education professors Shelley Neilsen Gatti and Terri Vandercook talk with SmartBrief about these questions. Here’s what they had to say.
How do we create a culture that embraces all learning differences?
Creating an inclusive culture begins with teachers and school leaders. While other stakeholders help foster culture, teachers and school leaders set the bar for all students and nurture the belief that every student can succeed.
Start by building relationships. Take the time to learn about your students and their families. You can do this through home visits, interest inventories, family nights and so forth. The goal is to foster relationships with them and build a bridge between home and school.
Next, make sure curriculum includes the lived experiences of all students and the communities where they reside. Use materials that reflect the different contributions made by local citizens and leaders, including those with special needs. It’s important that all students see how citizens -- regardless of age, ethnicity, gender or learning difference -- have opportunity and responsibility to contribute to their community.
Finally, implement Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a set of principles designed to help guide teachers’ planning and teaching. UDL expects and proactively plans for a wide range of ways students can access learning content, engage in learning and demonstrate mastery. It moves away from “one size fits all” instruction and focuses on the diverse ways we can reach and teach all learners.
As we aim for this inclusive culture -- where every student feels nurtured and challenged to grow -- what needs to change about how we perceive students with special needs?
We need to view children with disabilities as general-education children first. This belief enhances the likelihood that general and special-education teachers will take shared responsibilities for all students.
We need to remember that special education is a service that students receive – not a place where they are sent. Every student has value and is capable of contributing to the school community.
Let’s broaden the definition of intelligence. Intelligence should not be limited to mastery in numbers, language or writing. This can also be the person who is skilled in music, relating to others or adapting to different circumstances. Expanding the intelligence paradigm lets us create a framework for unique learning pathways. It allows us also to foster an environment that celebrates non-traditional successes and gives all students opportunity to shine.
How can we better recruit, develop and retain special education teachers?
Schools can attract and retain SPED teachers by promoting a school climate that is about great learning for everyone. Set positive expectations for your teachers and make sure they know you value the work they do. A positive climate for the adults translates to a positive climate for students.
Help educators feel comfortable taking risks. Encourage them to try new strategies and don’t expect perfection for everything they do.
Give your teachers voice in choosing curriculum and let them reflect on their teaching practice. These efforts create meaningful, continuous growth and benefit students.
Recruit from among your ranks. Many districts are developing “grow-your-own” recruitment programs that target district para-professional staff and high-school students considering careers in teaching. One advantage of this model is that these individuals have demonstrated a commitment to the community and represent the student population.
Foster a climate of teacher collaboration and leadership. Resist a culture of isolation.
When training teachers for their work, be honest about what lies ahead. This work is demanding, rigorous and can be rewarding. We do a disservice to future teachers when we sugar coat the work we do. If the first time they face the harsh realities of teaching is when they do their student teaching or get their first teaching job, we have not served them well.
At St. Thomas, we recognize that ongoing field experiences or being immersed in teaching work (such as in our residency program) is critical to the preparation for that initial teaching position. Applied experiences let license candidates see the realities and possibilities of the profession—and increase the likelihood that they will stay. They have a better understanding of what excellent teaching really takes. They are less likely to be shocked or disillusioned by a disconnect between what they thought would happen and what did happen in school.
Finally, districts need to provide multi-year induction supports to new teachers. It should be differentiated and include embedded professional development, coaching, mentoring, enhanced social supports and networks, and affinity groups.
About University of St. Thomas
University of St. Thomas’ teacher education program is training educators for the 21st-century classroom. Our program includes pathways to six special-education licenses and a Master of Arts in Special Education. Students can take classes on campus, online or through our extension or residency programs. These – known as Flexible Pathways – are designed for working professionals, to give them options to continue their education in the way that best suits their lifestyles.
Interested? Visit us online to get more information.