As I understand it, the special educator brings the focus of specific students with identified learning challenges/styles (I don't like the word "disability.") and the classroom teacher brings the focus of teaching all students in the class well to the planning table. Yet, in many cases and many schools, there is no time to sit at the planning table so much of the collaboration is done on the fly--never a good idea especially when it comes to teaching children well. Hence, time for collaboration is a first issue with regard to this debate.
Today the distinction between special educators and regular educators is blurry because all teachers have the job today to differentiate, personalize, and teach the student rather than the curriculum. Hence how does this affect the collaboration as schools move from factories to learning communities and the roles and responsibilities of all educators change?
Also there's the issue of teaching time. While students with IEPs are legally suppose to receive a specific number of minutes per week with targeted support, that time is often connected to multiple other students and goals as well as the issue that most systems probably couldn't support the required minutes of each child to the letter of the law--that would simply be too expensive. Hence special educator teams spread themselves out as much as possible to meet all the needs--needs which are often complex including social, emotional, and physical issues too.
Plus, rather than categorizing students as those with special needs, some students are simply difficult to teach for a large number of reasons. When we look at students as "easy to teach" and "difficult to teach," it changes the way we think about our time and efforts. Difficult to teach students often don't grasp essential skills such as getting along with others, reading, writing, and math with ease. For these students, school may be the least natural learning environment. Figuring out the best way to teach "difficult to teach" students in engaging, successful ways is a challenge, a challenge that profits from apt special educator/classroom teacher coordination and collaboration.
You can see that I'm just beginning to think about this collaboration in different ways--looking at both sides of the issue and trying to tease out the main points.
One action that I believe can help this debate is a start-of-the-year focus on students with special needs. Rather than assuming that all teachers are on the same page with this topic, I believe a yearly review would help. The review would include the following:
- Introduction and review of the special educator's role and responsibility so subject-area and classroom teachers know what they can expect.
- A review of the IEP plan including what that means, how to read the plan, and how to short list the primary student goals.
- A list of what special educators expect of classroom teachers--what they hope classroom teachers will do to support the collaboration as well as to support students with identified special needs.
- Conversation time about what works, what doesn't, and what is still unclear about the two roles.
- Scheduling so that all teachers can begin servicing all children on day one of school. At my sister's former school they did this--all teachers and specialists created schedules in a common room on one morning prior to the start of the year, and then on day one all were set to teach. She said it was amazing and helped to get every child off to a terrific start because their needs were met from day one.
How do you and your learning community coordinate special education and regular education needs? What works best with regard to optimal service to students? How can we all contribute to make this debate one that serves students well.