llen Croke has been a special education teacher at Milwaukees Neeskara School since 1979. When she first started teaching, she says, she was young and green and unwise. At that time, children with special needs were segregated into separate classroomsand that separated her from the rest of the staff at her school.
In the past two decades, Croke says, special education has changed for the children, offering more inclusion and individualized learning plans. But for new teachers, its still an extremely tough job. Researchers at UWM are evaluating the challenges, accomplishments, and support base for new special ed teachersand drawing some interesting conclusions about what would make life better for these highly sought-after professionals.
The need for special ed teachers is overwhelming. A national report shows the vast majority of the nations big-city school districts, including Milwaukee, need teachers with exceptional education experience. According to the report, The Urban Teacher Challenge: Teacher Demand and Supply in the Great City Schools, 98 percent are in immediate need for special education teachers.
The study of 40 large urban school districts was conducted by Recruiting New Teachers, a non-profit organization working to build the nations teacher workforce; the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nations 57 largest urban public school systems, including Milwaukee; and the Council of the Great City Colleges of Education, which comprises schools of education (including UWMs) serving those cities.
In Milwaukee Public Schools the number is even higher. An estimated 16,000 of the 100,000 students are identified as having disabilities. Partway through the first quarter of the 2000-2001 school year, there were 48 vacancies for special education teachers in MPS elementary schools, 18 in middle schools, and four openings in high schools.
These are positions staffed by permit teachersthose individuals who are not fully certified but are involved in a certification program for special education and do write IEPs (individual education programs) for students with disabilities, according to Susan Ristow, MPS manager of certificated staffing. Ristow says those positions are staffed with substitute teachers who may not have any training with special education.
Problems and Accomplishments
Associate professors Amy Otis-Wilborn, Judith Winn, and Alison Ford, and Assistant Professor Maureen Keyes are part of the faculty team in the UWM Department of Exceptional Education responsible for preparing special educators for primary- and middle-level students. The researchers teamed with colleagues at the University of Florida to add a rural-suburban perspective to Milwaukees urban setting.
We set out to document special educators problems of practice and accomplishments and to examine them in light of how factors within the context contribute to overall socialization, Otis-Wilborn says.
Funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Otis-Wilborn, Winn, and their Florida counterparts conducted individual interviews and classroom observations for two years with 36 beginning special education teachers, 12 in Milwaukee and 24 in Florida. They also interviewed people whom the graduates viewed as influential in their professional development. Most of the teachers served in traditional classroom teaching roles in either resource rooms or self-contained classrooms; the remainder served in a cooperative consulting or inclusive educator role.
In many respects, the accomplishments described by novice special educators are typical of other classroom teachers, Otis-Wilborn says.
But given the distinctive demands of working with students with disabilities, its no wonder theres a shortage of special education teachers. Teachers might love the students, but they frequently face additional difficulties, such as shortages of materials and resources and poor classroom organization. Sometimes special education classrooms themselves may be located in separate schools, centers, or self-contained classrooms, so access to resources and personnel is limited. Other problems the survey found include:
Lack of administrative support. Although a few beginning teachers described supportive relationships with administrators, most viewed their principals as unsupportive.
Curriculum resources and planning time. Special education teachers often described aspects of the curriculum as one of their most significant problem of practice.
Behavior management and discipline. Beginning teachers also identified problems with classroom behavior management and addressing difficult behaviors of individual students.
Collaboration. Many of the beginning teachers in this study wanted to have their students more fully integrated into the life of the school. In their efforts to achieve this goal, they struggled to find ways to collaborate and communicate with their general education colleagues.
Armando Brazzoni, a UWM graduate now in his fifth year of teaching special ed at Milwaukees Hamilton High School, says by far the biggest problem is the high student-teacher ratio.
My first year I had eight kids; now I have 16. Its changed unbelievablydoubled in four years. That makes it very difficult to manage and hard to do individualized education, he says.
Brazzoni sought out support, just as the teachers in the study did. He was mentored by a special education teacher who had years of experience, which he says was extremely helpful.
They provided instructional ideas, materials and resources, information about the school, information about special education policies and procedures, and comfort, Wilborn says. General educators in some cases provided beginning special educators with positive and supportive relationships, as did other support staff, such as school psychologists, physical and occupational therapists, guidance counselors, and educational assistants.
Croke agrees, noting that she enjoyed worked with regular teachers to determine the best way to include students into everyday classes. They were very available, and occasionally came to me offering to help, she says.
Only a few beginning teachers in the study noted that they had supportive relationships with their administrators. Those who did, however, believed it was an important factor in their success. Administrators who were reviewed positively by beginning teachers often had experience teaching children with disabilities.
Despite the problems, and thanks to the support of others, many teachers still felt they had several achievements by the end of the first year. There are those moments you savor when you have a breakthrough experience, you hear someone say, Ive got it! or youve helped them meet a goal, Croke says. It takes a lot of patienceteaching anyone anythingbut the real satisfaction is when they show you another way to do it.
According to the study, respondents cited these as their accomplishments during their first year of teaching:
Student learning. Although it was often a struggle, many beginning teachers were proud of their efforts to help their students learn.
Curriculum content and instruction. The development of challenging and interesting curriculum content and activities contributed to their growing sense of satisfaction about helping their students learn and progress academically.
I think that teaching is perhaps the most honorable profession there is, says Mary Kohl, assistant principal at Hamilton and a former special ed teacher. Being a special ed teacher is even more honorable. Some of the people when you talk to them feel theyre called to teach.
Applying what theyve learned
Otis-Wilborn emphasizes her belief in putting her teams findings into recommendations for action and disseminating the information so that others who are working to support beginning teachers can put the ideas into practice.
We dont consider our role as just researchers. Judi (Winn) and I believe there should be a link between research and work. We like to take what weve learned and apply it to our UWM teacher education curriculum. We think we can have a direct impact on whats going on, she says. That philosophy is in keeping with The Milwaukee Idea, a commitment from UWM to be involved in the community.
Our findings suggest that it may be useful to help pre-service teachers comprehend schools as organizations, the impact of school culture and climate on professional development, and the unique demands of the first year of teaching, Otis-Wilborn says. These areas may also prove beneficial in developing optimal beginning teachers.
She and her team also recommend that school officials take the following steps:
Be sure there are organizational structures in schools that sustain collaboration between special ed and other classes.
Most important, provide mentoring for new teachers to provide adequate support.
Effective mentoring requires more than simply chatting or scheduling classroom visits. Effective teacher mentors develop systematic, ongoing relationships with the beginning teacher that include expertise in diagnosing problems, providing feedback, and conferencing, according to Otis-Wilborn.
In addition to the qualitative portion of the study, a second phase will attempt to quantify the challenges facing first-year special education teachers, as well as indicate the support they seek and the accomplishments they have achieved. Surveys were sent to some 1,500 special education teachers in Florida and Wisconsin, and the results should be tabulated this spring.