Special Times. Special Needs.

Sometimes I’m asked by young teachers, “What now?”. They’ve got their degree, certificate and have been teaching a bit. They want to know what will help them grow and excel as a teacher.

Besides the soft skills of social networking, building a PLN, informal learning – what I advise most is for teachers to spend a lot of time learning about special education – it’s procedures and practices. Even get their qualifications in this area.

I did this early in my career, fresh out of teachers’ college and it really is fundamental to my understanding (and hopefully my success) as a teacher.

You really get back to basics and achieve a sharp understanding of how people learn. You also will learn about the basics of educational technology and how it has been helping special needs / disabled students for decades. But most of all, you’ll gain insight into and appreciation of, your own students’ struggles in the classroom. I have become a true believer that we MUST teach to the challenged and aspiring students in our classrooms – not to the top group or few. It’s the biggest mistake I see in classrooms – teachers teaching above the group. Let’s face it, your excellent students will achieve irregardless of your teaching – they will. However, those with special needs and who really struggle learning, they won’t and they need you most.

Yesterday I was thinking about this – what is happening to those students who need us most – as we transition to online teaching during the coronavirus health emergency? How many special needs students will get left behind, be untended to, be made almost redundant in the process?

Here are just a few of the things, events, teachable moments in my own teaching career that involved special needs.

  1. The belief that the 2nd language learning brain IS a disabled one. And that our practices should be informed by the best practices of special educators. Repetition. Structure. Mastery. Differentiation etc … Dinklage noted this at Harvard where he was puzzled by so many brillant students failed their foreign language requirement.
  2. As a Director of Education of a large learning platform I spoke with many teachers using our online product. One topic that came up so often – many teachers noted how students who were having a hard time learning, often excelled with self-directed online learning. Where they were out of the group, there was a lot of repetition, structure …
  3. I taught Grade 4 for a while and it was a real challenge. I was hired after the regular intake and my class was a hodge podge of a couple “extra” students from all the other Grade 4 classes. Basically those the teachers really didn’t look forward to teaching. That year, I learned from all these special needs students – how to create community where none existed. How to celebrate their unique take on the world, the quirkiness of them, the outsiders. I learned how too elicit the support and help of students as I walked around the classroom with Krishnu tied to my wrist …. a student with severe ADHD.

4. Technology – it helps. I had students who just wouldn’t read in my classrooms. I tried bringing in the local subway/metro newspapers, comics etc … just wasn’t working. So I went into my own pocket and bought a karaoke machine. It took a lot of explaining to my principal but I made great strides into my students’ phonemic awareness, voice, sight word knowledge. Plus we had a blast. Look towards technology and how it might do something that can truly help learners – a better mousetrap.

I’d like us at this special moment of time in education to sit back and think more about how we can design the schools of the future to more wholly, completely fit the needs of all learners. And also for us all to acknowledge the very special need to learn about teaching from the perspective of special education.


Also published on Medium.

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