So often, being a special education teacher feels like you are teaching on an island. You are in a school with other teachers, but there is this sense of isolation that hangs over our profession. That isolation can impact not only our teaching, but our students as well. I say this because it can also heavily impact our own culture of learning.
We teach in a world where our classrooms don’t fit the model of the model classroom and our students don’t have the needs of the average student. What this also means is that we, as professional special education teachers, don’t have the same needs for our professional learning as the average teacher.
Our IEP-driven classrooms, created for the needs of our students, most often determines the professional learning we receive. My previous district was a county-level classroom for students with severe and multiple disabilities. A student only showed up in my classroom if the local district could not meet their particular needs. It would be fair to say that we had some of the most complex students in the state. This meant that my professional learning was almost always tied to incoming students.
Because my classroom was home to some of the most medically fragile students in the city, my professional learning (PL) was targeted to strategies to teach students who were visually impaired, or who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or brain damage.
When I look through the notebook where I kept track of my professional learning hours at that job, I see an isolating trend: hour after hour of district-provided PL, for seven years, and the bulk of it was focused on how to complete official paperwork.
Since I taught all subjects, where was the PL to make me a better Math teacher? Or Science educator? Or Art instructor? Why do the general educators have that kind of PL while I am excused to do paperwork?
At that job, my culture of learning was trapped inside a bubble. Though I expanded my skills and knowledge, it was often tied to a singular student who would eventually leave my classroom. I am extremely well-trained in how to teach and support my autistic student who is blind, but my need for those skills, and all those PL hours wrapped up in those skills, goes out the door when that student graduates.
If you need a parable, imagine you are the best Volkswagen mechanic in town, but you work at the Ford dealership. You can still change oil, rotate ties, but your intricate knowledge of how that precision Volkswagen engine works lies untapped.
That is the special education bubble that we educators often find ourselves trapped within. And, it is a bubble that can easily be burst in this day and age.
The Internet has given many teachers the ability to find their own professional learning. At the job I previously mentioned, I was not allowed to go to conferences. My classroom was so complex that it was difficult to find a substitute. On one occasion when I did attend a conference, I was called back to school by lunch time.
This modern era of communication can set a special education free. It is too easy for paperwork to dictate how we grow as teachers. I can do an IEP on three different systems, but the teacher who got to attend the conference on how to teach Math is a better Math teacher than me.
By nature, every teacher is conscious of creating a culture of learning both for their students and for themselves. Professional development providers had to take their offerings online during covid. For the art teacher in you, that means you can take an online course on elementary art. For the science teacher in you, you can find a how to adapt science for every learner in your desks. And just as important, you can grow your strengths in every area, not just on how to do paperwork.
NOTE: You may notice, in this piece I say “autistic student.” I do this because many autistic people see person-first language (“student with autism”) as demeaning. Here in the United States editors insist on person-first language so I use both in an effort to create a conversation around labels and how we use them.
Brett Bigham is the first special education teacher to be named Oregon State Teacher of the Year. He is a two-time National Education Association Foundation Global Fellow and was named one of their Educators of Excellence. Brett creates field trip supports called Ability Guidebooks. These books help autistic people visit cultural destinations. There are over 170 of these books in 40 countries and in six languages.