How Special Education Teachers Can Advocate for Students
On October 20, 2017 the Education Department, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, released a listed of 72 documents related to special education that were to be rescinded. The initial announcement framed the move as one that should relieve “unnecessary regulatory burdens.” Upon further inspection, though, most of those documents had expired, been replaced recently, or been overturned by new laws and policies. Unfortunately, that truth didn’t mend the growing rift between special education and disability advocates and the Education Department. In fact, just a few days after the document rescinding, the administration announced that it may do away with the laws that requires public schools to use federal money to address the problem of minority overrepresentation in special education programs.
Special education teachers have always needed to be advocates for their students. Here are some ways a special education teacher can work within the school community to help educate others and support students with special needs.
Get in With Your Principal
Though you, as the special education teacher, must know how to write IEPs and keep up with the paperwork required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act , your principal and other administrators still have important decision-making roles in the special education process. In order to get the time you need to write IEPs, manage assessments, have required meetings, and also write and deliver instruction for your students, you'll need to work with your principal. Sit down with the administrative team and explain all of the nuances of your job and of the special education program that you are running. Make sure they understand the services you provide to students so that when you ask for more time, a special meeting, or more buy-in from general education teachers, your administrator will understand why you're making the requests.
Encourage Full Inclusion
The law requires that your students receive education alongside their peers in general education classrooms when it is appropriate. Working with general education teachers in their classrooms with the “push-in” model can sometimes be problematic and this is why many schools have moved to a full inclusion model of co-teaching. In this case, a special education teacher is the full partner to a classroom teacher. In either case, whether you're pushing in or working in a fully inclusive classroom, you bring a variety of strategies for children to use. This helps educate the general education teachers about how to work with children who have a range of abilities. In addition, the general education teacher is generally the teacher of record and, so, advocating for an inclusive classroom experience is important to all of the adults who care about children with special needs.
Present New Ideas
Be willing to share strategies at professional development meetings. Getting general education teachers up to speed about students with special needs will help everyone on campus become an advocate. Like you, your colleagues are busy, and they don’t always know much about the experiences your students have with learning struggles. Make the professional development personal by telling stories about your students, especially how they felt about school when they first entered into special education and where they are now that the learning is modified to meet their needs. Share lessons that work for your students and accommodations that general education teachers can make to meet the needs of any learner who needs some extra scaffolding.
Visit Students at Home
Home visits help you understand your students in their natural environments. This means you’ll see what they’re interested in and what their abilities are outside of the academic setting. You’d be surprised by what you can learn in a home visit that will help you in the classroom. For example, you’ll see what kinds of books the students have on their shelves, what kinds of video games they like to play, what photos they have on the wall. All of these things help you build a curriculum that your students feels connected to. In addition, during a home visit, you get to know your students’ families. You can talk with them one-on-one about progress and make suggestions about how they can help at home.
Start a Book Club
Identify a special education-related issue that is important to your campus and host a professional book club. For example, schools are supporting many students with Autism Spectrum Disorder and few teachers have a strong understanding of how wide-ranging this disorder is. Not all students with ASD need the same accommodations or modifications. You could suggest that the group reads any of the books about teaching students with ASD on this list for educators. From there, the group could make a plan about how to educate others on campus. If there’s not much interest in your campus, offer the book club to schools around the district or to people in the community who are interested in learning more about supporting students with special needs.
Special education teachers often feel alone or misunderstood because your jobs differ from their general education colleagues. In addition, administrators and parents usually only have a basic understanding of special education laws and processes. So you’re in a unique position to educate others about your students as learners and increase understanding about disabilities and special education to the community at large. Your advocacy can go a long way to helping people see the importance of educating and treating all students with respect.
Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children's fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.