Change is Always the Normal for Special Educators
A Brief History of Special Education, Some of it I have lived
For some context when I began working with adults with intellectual disabilities the state agency I was employed by was called Mental Retardation Services. That gives you an idea of how long ago I started.
After working with adults with disabilities I moved to education. I began teaching students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders, this included students in the Autism Spectrum. For continuing context the school where I taught belonged to a system of schools called, Psychoeducation. No kidding. Many years later the name was changed to something more generic and less derisive. For a while, not much changed in special education except for the labels applied to children. After teaching I moved into administration. I worked in that system for 14 years and then I became a state consultant for special education working with special educators in multiple school systems for 12 years. Now I help teachers teach reading…
This is not about me, this is about the teachers who are teaching unique children and the everchanging special education system.
The Early 1980s
The role of the special educator has changed greatly since I walked into my first classroom early in the last two decades of the final century of the previous millennium. At that time the special education teacher taught in a special education classroom sometimes in a portable classroom (also known as a trailer) located a safe distance from an actual school building. I began teaching in a completely separate school at that time was located in an old segregation-era school building.
At that time children placed in special education tended to remain in special education throughout their school career which tended to end well before the 12th grade.
Children in special education classes tended not to be taught the same curriculum as children in regular education classes. Children in special education classes did not participate in state-mandated testing or some of the more enjoyable school activities. All of these decisions were made during an Individualized Education Plan, (IEP) meeting that would include the special education teacher, a school representative, and possibly the parent if they were available.
The decisions were made with the best intentions to support the child to be successful in school. Not necessarily to challenge the child.
The Early 2000s
It may be surprising to some that the turning point for special education occurred as a by-product of the No Child Left Behind Act. School accountability required a focus on student achievement which translates into more testing. Students with disabilities who previously were exempt from testing were now counted along with all general education students. All students were to be held to the grade-level curriculum expectations.
More testing to increase student achievement to me is the equivalent of more flogging until morale improves. However, it can not be denied that special education students along with their teachers were now becoming a part of the general education world. The least restrictive environment defaulted to the general education classroom unless it could be proven that this was not beneficial.
Special education teachers with a few exceptions became co-teachers working side by side with their general education counterparts and were responsible for the progress of all students in the class, not just students with IEPs.
In a perfect world, everything would be implemented as easily as writing the previous simple sentence to describe it. The reality is that the work to educate students with special needs is an ongoing process. Each student is unique, each teaching situation is unique and constantly changing. Teachers, students, and parents adapt and overcome.
Teachers, students, and parents are once again changing in ways that no one anticipated at the beginning of the 2019–2020 school year. In many cases, schools closed with little on no notice. Some school systems moved forward to provide educational opportunities by any means necessary while guidance on how to conduct the business of education changed frequently.
Closing the Factory?
Since last spring teachers are living and making history which is a messy business. However, teachers are doing things on a regular basis now that they had not dreamed of doing a year ago. In some cases, we are looking at a fundamental shift from a factory model of education that has been in place for over 100 years. In the factory model fleets of school busses and SUVs transport students, hundreds of support staff maintain the building and grounds, students move between activities en mass at the sound of a bell, at the end of the day everyone was happy to go home. It was that way because that was how we always did it.
Change sometimes occurs slowly over time or sometimes it is caused by an earthquake. During the previous pandemic schools closed, some school work may have been sent home, however, it was between the child and the parent what was accomplished educationally during this period. Now we have the opportunity to reach students in their home and provide instruction. Will this be a solution to a temporary situation or an ongoing practice?
For all my friends, special and general educators:
- Keep doing the fantastic job you were doing before everything changed!
- Keep doing what’s best for your students.
- Keep in close contact with the student’s caregivers.
- Keep implementing the IEP and follow those laws!
- Keep working closely with your co-teacher to plan for virtual or face to face teaching
- Keep following guidance from your state and local school system and if you have any questions check with your administrators.
- Keep up with what your state legislators are doing, this is good practice no matter what is going on in education.
- Remember you are making history and making history is a messy job, things will not always go as planned.
The location may have changed but the job is the same. Remember, you are a part of a special band of brothers and sisters, the few, the happy few…