Special Education Teachers Face More Challenges

Special education teachers face more challenges today then ever before…..

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Provisional Endorsements for Special Education

As a reminder, last year the State Board of Education approved an additional pathway for educators seeking to add a special education endorsement to their license. Click here for more information on how educators may attain a provisional endorsement for special education.

Special Education Teachers

“Special Education Teachers in Tennessee are hard to find, even harder to keep.”  —JC Bowman

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Note:  Advisory Council for Children with Disabilities

The next Advisory Council for Children with Disabilities meeting is scheduled for July 16 at 10 a.m. central. All interested persons are invited to attend the council meetings. This meeting will be held in Nashville at the Scarritt-Bennett Center in the Laskey Building, Great Hall meeting room. Please contact Kristen.B.McKeever@tn.gov for additional information.

Special Education Teachers Are Also Special

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It is becoming tough to keep special education teachers in the field beyond two or three years.  We already have a shortage and it is likely to get worse in the future.  Teaching is demanding enough, but special education teachers must cope with even more challenges.  Professional learning is rarely aligned to special education teachers’ needs. Special education teachers face more parental interaction, longer hours, potential lawsuits, additional paperwork, while their students need more attention.  The slogan “work more, same pay” is not exactly a great selling point in teacher recruitment.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, requires that every student have what’s known as an IEP — Individualized Education Program.  The IEP involves hours and hours of filling out forms and writing reports documenting each student’s progress.  Recently the Tennessee State Board of Education, in the name of greater transparency, has proposed a rule that may actually create more problems for Special Education Teachers.

The Proposed Rule:  The LEA must notify the parents of a child with a disability at least ten (10) days before an IEP meeting to ensure that a parent will have an opportunity to attend. A meeting conducted pursuant to 34 C.F.R. §300.530(e) may be conducted on at least twenty-four (24) hours’ notice to the parents. If the LEA prepares a draft IEP prior to the IEP meeting, a copy shall be provided to the parent(s) of the child at least twenty-four (24) hours prior to the scheduled meeting time. The copy of the draft IEP shall become the property of the parent(s). If the LEA prepares a draft IEP prior to the IEP team meeting, the LEA shall make it clear to the parents at the outset of the meeting that the services proposed by the LEA are preliminary recommendations for review and discussion with the parents. It is not permissible for the LEA to have the final IEP completed before an IEP Team meeting begins.

Many, but not all, districts provide parents with a draft prior to the IEP meeting, if requested, and with a reasonable timeline.  However, it would not be appropriate or reasonable to mandate that districts provide a draft prior to all IEP meetings.  Here are a few of the concerns, suggestions and questions that have been put forth by our members:

  • May discourage LEAs from creating drafts, which would lead to longer, less structured IEP meetings and may increase the likelihood of procedural errors.
  • May result in LEAs having to hold separate IEP meetings, which could delay initial services up to 30 days after initial eligibility, in order to give time to have a draft ready.
  • Currently, there is no means of documenting LEAs’ compliance as drafts are removed from EasyIEP system after 30 days or when final IEP is created
  • Places undue paperwork burden on already paperwork-heavy sped teachers.
  • May send information that is confusing to parents without having immediate access to professionals who can help interpret or give meaning to info in IEP.
  • May result in fewer parents attending IEP meetings as perception would be that IEP is already completed and their attendance is not necessary.
  • May lead to meetings starting with an adversarial tone.
  • Not all IEP team members are staffed at the same school, making it impossible for them to convene with the other IEP team members to collaborate on the draft 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Looking at the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and new regulations, an LEA should provide the parents with a copy of its draft proposals, if the LEA has developed them, prior to the IEP team meeting.  Parents deserve an opportunity to review any recommendations prior to the IEP team meeting, in order that they may be better able to engage in a full discussion of the proposals for their child.  It is already not permissible for an LEA to have a final IEP completed before an IEP meeting.  Parents should be able to request a copy of any draft documents prior to an IEP team meeting. However, it is critical to be reminded that not all IEP team members are staffed at the same school, and it may be impossible for them to convene with the other IEP team members to collaborate on the draft 24 hours prior to the meeting.  This creates twice the work for teachers.

Which brings us back full circle.  We subscribe to the philosophy of “All Means All” in public education, which means we educate each and every one of our students to the highest level possible.  If we continue to overwhelm special education teachers when we already have a special education teacher shortage by adding to their workload, recruitment and retention challenges will only escalate.  Then students with disabilities will never attain their full academic potential especially if teachers with no special education background are placed in their classroom.  The proposed IEP policy, as currently being suggested needs work.  This may well be a legislative item in 2019.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

A Teacher Invests in Lives

Jay ShinThis is a picture that is four years in the making, but to understand the story is really a bond between a student and a trusted teacher. Jay Shin is a senior at Walker Valley High School in the Bradley County School System in Tennessee.  Joel Swartzel is Special Education teacher in the system.

Jay is a bright, articulate student who has a real joy for life. He has an infectious smile and comes to school every day with a carpe diem attitude. He is not the type of kid who let’s things “get him down.” He faces every day with a smile and has that rare type of courage that draws other people to him. He doesn’t allow what you see to define him and when you experience that kind of optimism in the face of cerebral palsy, you know you have a special young man on your hands. This is a glimpse into the Jay Shin part of the story.

Four years ago, a former student teacher at Walker Valley was able to land his dream job. Joel Swartzel is a Special Education teacher, and when Jay’s teaching assistant was absent, Mr. Swartzel stepped in with the daily coordination of Jay’s logistics, getting him to class and assisting him with his needs throughout the day. A friendship began to form between the two, and Jay told Mr. Swartzel he always wanted to wear a costume for the Homecoming week festivities, which includes character day at the school.

Each year, some impediment kept Jay or Mr. Swartzel from being able to dress up for the Homecoming activities. Mr. Swartzel would either have to be off campus on character day for training or Jay didn’t want to be in a suit all day long. He wanted to be Professor X from the X-Men movie. He thought he needed someone to be an X-Man to be with him. Professor X, played by the well-known actor Patrick Stuart is bald, and also is in a wheelchair.

This year, Jay’s senior year, Mr. Swartzel told Jay that if he would wear the suit, he would make sure there was an X-Man to be with him. Little did Jay know, Mr. Swartzel went to the costume store and bought the X man character “Wolverine” costume and a bald skin cap for Jay. On the day of Homecoming Character Day, Jay came to school in a suit and on his way in from the bus, there stood “Wolverine” to take him to class. As you can see, the costume is impressive but you cannot clearly see the face. The only clue is the teacher badge that he wears proudly. From the smile on Jay’s face, you can see that he will never forget this day. I can guarantee the smile on that teacher’s face is just as wide.

The heart of this story is the investment of a teacher into the life of a student. In Tennessee, every day, more than 67,000 teachers walk into our public schools, ready to tackle the responsibilities of investing in the lives of almost a million students. Their time and giving hearts in things big and small are game changers for many young people. And if the truth is told, our students usually inspire us as much as we inspire them.

Joel Swartzel said “Originally I was supposed to be Beast, but I could not find the costume in time. With this being Jay’s last year I was going to do whatever it took to make this happen. Jay is one of those kids that everyone should try to be in life. He is a joy to be around and makes everyone around him smile. When Mr. Swartzel had to opportunity to do for Jay what he does for everyone else, zero chance he was passing that up.” Thank you to Jay Shin for inspiring your teacher.

As educators, we understand this on so many levels. Even though the “rigors of the profession” are great, the moments like this help us remember why we do what we do. We make a difference every day! Thank you Joel Swartzel for reminding us of that!

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. Follow him on social media via Twitter at @jcbowman.