More educators today serve students with disabilities than ever before in the nation’s history. This demanding work requires practitioners to engage in lifelong learning, advocate for students’ needs, and be master collaborators with students, families, and school personnel. To prepare dynamic educators capable of supporting and advancing education, teacher education must also evolve and meet the needs of the field. It is this focus that informed faculty as they enhanced and aligned the Department of Special Education’s programs.
April Mustian and Yojanna Cuenca-Carlino, assistant professors in the Department of Special Education, said that the department first sought the feedback of alumni and school partners to determine what changes could best benefit special education teachers and students.
“Feedback from schools and alumni, not any policy change or mandate, initiated our initial redesign process,” Cuenca-Carlino said.
She said one of the areas of need for practitioners was strategies for serving students with diverse backgrounds, including English learners.
As a result, culturally and linguistically responsive instruction is more thoroughly embedded throughout the program. Candidates learn strategies that teach them how to effectively incorporate students’ cultural assets into the curriculum and to engage all learners.
Teachers and administrators also communicated a need for additional coaching on assessment practices that support and demonstrate student growth. Mustian said the program responded to this concern by increasing its focus on the use of multitiered systems of support, which have become central initiatives in most of today’s public schools (e.g., schoolwide positive behavior interventions and supports, response to intervention, etc.).
“Teacher candidates and practitioners learn that assessment really is not just the beginning and the end of instruction; it is really a nonstop process,” Mustian said. “They learn to recognize when the student assessment data indicate growth or if they need to modify instruction to better serve their learners.”
Candidates develop confidence in their use of assessment practices through course work, modeling, and, most importantly, by engaging students in authentic learning environments. The future teachers are provided with these opportunities early on in the program and receive more than 1,000 hours of clinical experiences in their junior and senior years through a practicum, a field-based experience, and student teaching semester. The variety built into these experiences challenges candidates to teach students with both high and low incidence disabilities with varied curricular needs. As candidates progress toward student teaching, their responsibility for student learning increases.
“This level of exposure to working with students is rare,” Mustian said. “Few special education programs across the country provide candidates with the amount and diversity of clinical experiences that we do.”
Within clinical settings, the aspiring teachers learn to monitor student progress and utilize this student performance information to inform future lesson design. This data-driven instruction enables them to serve both the academic and social-emotional needs of students.
Mustian and Cuenca-Carlino recognize that educators are often inundated with strategy options and vast amounts of student performance data. To help combat information overload and guide effective decision making, candidates receive continuous practice on determining the value of different approaches. This includes evaluating whether strategies possess a sound research or evidence base, or whether past and potential uses will facilitate meaningful and purposeful integration of instruction for their students.
“We focus on helping candidates to be responsible and critical consumers of the countless options that are now available because it really is a cluttered landscape,” Cuenca-Carlino said.
Collaboration and leadership
The importance of collaboration in special education cannot be overstated. Families, administrators, and general education teachers must be on the same page in serving a student and developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP). In addition, Cuenca-Carlino explains that the co-teaching relationship is often the greatest test of an educator’s ability to collaborate.
“I have heard a lot of my former students say that they were thrown into co-teaching situations without any notice,” Cuenca-Carlino said. “Often times, special education teachers are working with general education teachers who do not have a background in teaching students with disabilities. So it is also the role of the special education teacher to bring in that expertise and to serve as a leader in developing curriculum.”
Mustian states that some researchers liken the relationship to a marriage. Educators go through stages of “getting to know” one another and learning one another’s strengths before instruction can truly be effective.
To shed light on this complicated relationship, the department brings in teachers from the field to talk about their experiences in co-teaching. These professional educators often point to common planning time as the most valuable tool for developing well-balanced instruction that serves all learners. This work enables the teachers to negotiate the use of differentiated instruction so students with disabilities can be included in the classroom without feeling separated from their peers.
“Our candidates proactively plan lessons that involve differentiated instruction,” Mustian said. “It’s what we do in special education, and it’s a great area of expertise when collaborating with general education teachers.”
In addition, the department offers clinical experiences where special education teacher candidates are able to collaborate on projects and lesson plans with general education teachers. These experiences provide candidates with strategies that help them to develop effective co-teaching relationships after they enter the field.
Seeking administrative support
General education and special education teachers must also advocate for common planning time, resources, and professional development from their administrators. In today’s budgetary climate, many school leaders are operating on less-than-ideal budgets for such allowances. Thus, school resources may restrict what co-teachers believe are optimal conditions for serving their students.
“Through these challenges, the general and special education teachers must have a united front and continue to look for the necessary resources,” Cuenca-Carlino said.
In graduate-level teacher education courses, Cuenca-Carlino finds that one of the best ways to obtain administrative support is through action research projects. In this approach, teachers identify a specific problem and gather evidence that demonstrates the benefit of using alternative instructional strategies. This data collection reflects the needs in their own classrooms.
“With this school-specific data to back up recommendations, our graduate students have a greater chance to receive administrator buy-in,” Cuenca-Carlino said.
For more specific questions related to the strategies discussed in this article, alumni may contact Yojanna Cuenca-Carlino, April Mustian, and the Department of Special Education by emailing SpecialEducation@IllinoisState.edu. Inquiries will be routed to the appropriate faculty and staff.