New teachers take on special education
New teachers welcome help from parents, colleagues and teaching assistants.
Debbie Tuchow, Wendy Garland, Chandra Anantram and Catherine Christie, teachers at Pleasantville Public School in Richmond Hill.
"I was always juggling 10 balls at once. I never sat down all year," says second-year teacher Wendy Garland of her first year at Pleasantville Public School in Richmond Hill. "I learned quickly that I had to stay relaxed, so that the kids would be too." Last year, Garland had 34 students in her Grade 4 class and one educational assistant (EA). Her class included one child with Asperger's syndrome, one with autism, one who was gifted and several who had low language skills.
Like most schools, Pleasantville has many students with special needs, and new teachers will likely have exceptional children in their classrooms. The challenge for teachers at the beginning of their careers-when they have little experience to draw from-is how to handle the already daunting task of teaching a room full of exuberant children, coupled with the extra challenge of teaching children with special needs.
Garland and her fellow teachers at Pleasantville not only survived their first year, they did well. They credit their educational assistants, their teacher-mentors, the collegial atmosphere of their school and regular contact with parents.
Get Parents and Students Involved
"I always had parent volunteers in my room and the extra hands were invaluable," says Garland. "More importantly, they saw how hard I worked with all the kids and they appreciated my work." She reported that parents did not resent the extra time and attention she had to devote to the exceptional students.
Communicating regularly with parents helped. Garland, like many teachers, used a daily communication book with her exceptional children and encouraged the parents to share information with her. "I needed to know if one of the boys had a bad morning so I could prepare for it."
Debbie Tuchow, another second-year teacher, offered this tip: "Learn how to talk to parents before you start calling home. I needed to know how to phrase things properly, to use the right words to ensure that they were on my side, on the child's side really, and ensure that we were a team working together in the child's best interest."
Garland contributed one of her most valuable secrets of success (survival, she called it): involving other students in the class. She explained how the other children interacted with the boy with AS: "The kids were used to him by Grade 4 because they'd been with him since Kindergarten and they accepted him. When he started to become anxious about something I may have done, they would tell me what I was doing that troubled him, or they would intervene themselves and help calm him down."
Take Advantage of the Expertise in the School
All the new teachers got tremendous help from their colleagues. No one was afraid to ask for help. The teachers stressed the importance of working closely with the educational assistants, because they often have worked with the children for some time and their experience and hands-on knowledge are invaluable. As well, the EA delivers and monitors most of the special programming, making regular and clear communication essential.
Garland reports, "I worked with my EA every night, and we debriefed the progresses and challenges of the children with special needs and we constantly strategized about what to do differently and better."
The group recommended that a new teacher find a grade partner who is also new. "That way, you won't be afraid to ask questions and you can work things out together."
Talking to more experienced teachers, in a formal mentoring program or informally, was a big help. The Pleasantville teachers took advantage of the expertise and perspective of an experienced mentor. "Don't feel you have to reinvent the wheel," said one, "when it's already been spinning flawlessly for years."
Another tip for first year teachers: be organized and prepared. The second year of teaching is much better, these new teachers are finding, because of all the preparation they did in the first year.
Catherine Christie talked about knowing when to draw the line. She says, "Don't be afraid to insist that a child be excused from your class if he is interfering with the other kids' learning. For some of these exceptional children, teaching social skills is more important than teaching the curriculum, but that's not always the case for the rest of the students."
Get Other Perspectives
Tuchow found that talking with others who were starting out in their careers helped her gain perspective. In the early days, she often went home feeling "totally frustrated and horrible. Survival was my only goal. It was all so brand new and so difficult and I often felt like quitting."
But she found, "It's the same for all of us. My dentist friend felt much like I did last year and it helped both of us to realize that it wasn't anything that we were doing wrong. It was just the challenge we had to face at this early stage of our careers."
The group also had some ideas on how new teachers could be better prepared for their first year:
Catherine Christie found her first year was not at all what she expected: "It was a shock to find so little special education support in the system. I don't have a problem trying to diversify my teaching for all the students in my classroom, but if safety becomes an issue, if a student is a risk to others or is interfering with the ability of others to learn, then I want some extra help and support, and I didn't get it last year. How can I lead a guided reading session if I'm worried about a child hurting himself or others?"
Nevertheless, she looked forward to beginning her second year. She says, "I was excited about having two special needs kids this year, because I'll learn new skills that will help all aspects of my teaching. I hope this experience will make me a better teacher; it will certainly allow me to think about my programming in different ways. I'm also nervous though, as the kids will likely be unpredictable."
The kids' behaviour may be unpredictable, but Christie and her peers can count on continued support from others in their school community as they continue to grow in their professional practice.
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