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Teachers say they do not get enough training around special ed issues

Jennifer Guerra

I want to give a huge shout-out to all the teachers who took our recent State of Opportunity surveyabout special-education training. You ROCK! We got a ton of responses and I promise to share some of them with you, but first, a bit of context.

We've been doing a fair number of storiesabout special education, and the thing that keeps coming up over and over again is how many children with special needs are in general education classrooms. Students with disabilities are entitled by law to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment, which often means children with special needs learn alongside their peers who do not have disabilities. 

So I wanted to know: How much special-ed training do general-ed teachers get in school?

We received more than 30 answers (thank you!) from teachers as near as Ann Arbor and as far away as Hawaii (OK, well, they got their teaching certificate in Hawaii ... not sure where they live now) and the big takeaway from everyone is:


So that's the headline, but let's take a closer look at some of the responses. What follows are real teachers giving real answers about their experiences in the classrooms. (Where people allowed me to use names, I've included them. The training quotes include alma mater and graduation year.) 

Let's start with the actual training

"Very brief ... nothing in-depth." – Northeastern University, 1999

"I had one course on special education and how to differential lessons and modify them to meet students' needs." – University of Hawaii at Manoa, 2008

"We read one chapter in a class, but it was a really quick overview of different special-ed formats. No real techniques or even curriculum were reviewed." – University of Michigan, 2006

"I took one class ... it was approximately six weeks long. It was just a lecture format, with multiple choice tests – no practicum component." – Eastern Michigan University, 2010

"I was required to take a two-credit course that skimmed the surface of how to teach students with disabilities." – U of M-Dearborn, 2001

"We had a few classes that were designed to specifically discuss different types of special-education students and strategies for supporting them." – Michigan State University, 2005

"We were told about 504 plans and taught inclusive classroom strategies. The year-long internship allowed me to implement some of these strategies." – Michigan State University, 2002

"We took a special-education course which included ways of modifying tasks and IEP requirements." – Eastern Michigan University, 2005

"My program had one class specifically geared for this. It was called Students with Exceptionalities." – University of Michigan, 2009

"I had some general courses in college, but nothing to make it adequate. There needs to be more, specifically with autism or defiance disorders." – Michigan State University, 2011

"I've never been trained on how to reach students with cognitive, emotional, spectrum disorders." – Eastern Michigan University, 2003

Here's what happened when they started teaching for real

"I do feel like I received strong initial instruction, but I also feel like it would be good to receive additional professional development." – Quinn Strassel

"Other than being given an IEP when I have a new special-ed student, I receive no special training. The IEP is usually very vague and not helpful at all." – Thomas Lhamon

"I don't feel like I served the students very well for the first six months or so while I was struggling to figure out how to teach in a way that would reach them all. There were a lot of meltdowns and fights in my room because the students were frustrated and not properly attended to, since I didn't have an aide or the training to know how to teach them." 

"Meeting for two hours a week, writing a paper, and reading a short textbook comes nowhere near preparing a teacher. Because of my lack of training, I added two special-ed endorsements to my teaching certificate and changed the path of my career." – Sue Ladach

"I think the classes given were as much as could have been done to help prepare me ahead of time. Much of the learning ... is a result of trying things out. Over time you develop a toolbox of what works."

"No one explains how challenging and emotionally hard it can be to balance the needs of some students with the needs of the rest of your class. Although I have found ways to educate myself and work hard to meet the needs of every student, I think that it would have been helpful to have more information and practice working with students with special needs before I got certified."

And now, a few thoughts on what seems to work

"Through the power of team-teaching with a special-ed colleague, I learned an immense amount about special education and how to best teach students with autism, ADHD, TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) and other 'hidden' disabilities. Unfortunately, these partnerships have vanished as a result of having to cut teaching staff." – Christina Snyder

"I don't think my program did enough to prepare me ... but my school has done a fabulous job setting up co-teaching relationships to help support special-education students." – Sheila Orr

"The best training I received was the year I taught sixth grade with a 50% special-needs population in my classroom. I worked closely with the special-education teacher, collaborating on IEPs and accommodations/modifications in my own lesson plans, and the hands-on experience was invaluable."

"It was very important to be able to work directly with our special-education staff to learn about the specific accommodations students need while in the general-ed classroom. It would be very difficult (probably impossible) for a gen-ed teacher to successfully teach a student with special needs without the support of a team."

Are you a teacher but didn't have a chance to fill out our teacher survey about special-ed in the classroom? It's not too late! Click here to take the survey and let us know what you think, or leave your thoughts in the comments section below. 

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.
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