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Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke
BY Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke
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How Training of Special Education Teachers Has Changed to Prepare Them for Inclusion

Among the many things required to make inclusion work in today’s schools are teachers who are trained to do it right. Friendship Circle asked Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke, associate professors of special education at Eastern Kentucky University, to answer some questions about how teacher training has changed to accommodate diverse learners in a single classroom. This month, they’ll give some insight into the current state of training; next month, they’ll consider how things could improve.

How has the training of special education teachers changed with the increase of inclusive classrooms?

Dusty: To respond to this, we need a little background. There have been changes that have come about from the outside in. What I mean by that is that the changes that have occurred have really been prompted by legislation. That legislation changed what happened in districts and schools, and as a result of changes happening at the school level, universities needed to make changes in how they prepared teachers to be successful.

When NCLB came out in 2001, there was a much stronger push for students with disabilities to receive instruction in the “core” content areas of literacy, math, science, and social studies. Students with disabilities who might have previously been receiving that instruction from a special education teacher in a resource or self-contained special education classroom were moving to the general education classroom. What we collectively saw was that many general education teachers weren’t prepared to teach a class with more diverse learners, and many special education teachers didn’t always have the content knowledge needed to teach to the level of their general education counterparts.

Special education teachers now need to be “highly qualified” in a content area in order to teach a resource or self-contained content area class. With this in mind, some universities, like the one where Laura and I teach, offer dual-certification programs that allow prospective teachers to get certified in both general education and special education. That way, regardless of what setting they teach in, they will be prepared to teach all students.

The other change that can be directly linked to NCLB is how we include students with disabilities in the general education classroom. The most common method for inclusion is co-teaching between a general educator and a special educator. Because of the emphasis on co-teaching in P-12 classrooms, university programs are introducing co-teaching as a part of their curriculum. In our program, our special education teaching students learn about co-teaching in their methods course, where they have the opportunity to write co-taught lessons and even practice co-teaching with their classmates.

Of course, co-teaching takes practice to master, and many university students don’t get the chance to really dive into co-teaching until they are hired by a district. However, they are at least learning about it while in their teacher preparation programs. In fact, some universities and state departments of education are having student teachers engage in apprentice teaching, using the strategies of co-teaching with their cooperating teachers during student teaching placements, to help prepare them further for this practice. Other universities offer opportunities to learn more about how to co-teach in summer institutes or collaborate with community partners to introduce co-teaching to practicing teachers.

Laura: Our focus today, in training both general education and special education teachers, is on the requirement to use “evidence-based practices” (EBP) in instruction, so a lot of our focus has been on defining EBP and helping everyone (teachers, administrators, and families) understand what EBPs are and how they should be used to provide instruction in the classroom.

We’re also trying to address Response to Intervention (RTI). In the past (prior to our focus on inclusion), we used a “wait to fail” model where everyone would wring their hands and complain about how far behind a student was until he or she was so far behind as to require intensive intervention outside of the general education classroom. Today, using the RTI model, we assess all students and immediately begin to intervene with research-based strategies to support learners in their areas of deficit. This includes continual support and assessment to gauge progress.

Only when progress is not being made do we consider a referral to special education and more intensive supports and interventions. This RTI focus helps support all students—including those with disabilities—learning in inclusive classrooms.

Do general education teachers also get training for co-teaching in an inclusive classroom?

Laura: Some states are doing a better job at providing pre-service general education teachers with training in co-teaching. In Kentucky, all teachers are trained in the models of co-teaching and are encouraged to use co-teaching as one of the research-based practices that should be used to increase both student engagement and student achievement. At the university level, different programs have different practices. Where we teach, we’ve introduced co-teaching to general education candidates in their differentiated instruction course.

Dusty worked on a grant-funded project that allowed her to spend two years co-teaching middle grades methods courses with general education faculty at one of our regional campuses. It was a rich experience for teachers and students, because the teachers got to practice planning for and then actually co-teaching every day, and the students got to see effective co-teaching modeled.

Where training and practice seems to be catching up is in using the more effective models of co-teaching. By this, we mean that many co-teaching partners are very comfortable using the one teach-one assist and one teach-one observe models of co-teaching, but these models don’t lend themselves to increasing student achievement because they do not increase opportunities for engagement, specific instruction, or feedback. While these strategies for co-teaching certainly have a role, we encourage our students and the practicing teachers we work with to move away from them when possible, because they don’t encourage parity between teachers and can sometimes encourage stigma for the students working with the assisting teacher.

The models of co-teaching that actually increase student engagement (and therefore achievement) are: station teaching, parallel teaching, and alternative teaching. These models have a lower student-to-teacher ratio and allow for more opportunities for teachers to provide direct instruction to a smaller group and for more students to engage directly with the teacher.

Have you seen any resistance to the idea of inclusion—people who want to go into special education to work in self-contained classes or schools, or want to go into general education and not work with kids with disabilities?

Dusty: While many teachers have embraced inclusive classrooms and instruction, there are still teachers—both general education and special education—who prefer for students with disabilities to be educated in separate classes. Sometimes this attitude is one of protecting the students with disabilities and sometimes because it is perceived as being easier for the teachers. Some teachers simply don’t understand the nature of disability or feel that they don’t have the strategies necessary to teach certain populations of students.

We’ve found that with training and practice, teachers feel more empowered and supportive of inclusive instruction. Teachers who have the right training and resources (adapted equipment, technology, or additional people support) are most likely to embrace inclusive instruction and to provide the appropriate instruction using a model such as Universal Design for Learning.

Next question: What more would you like to see done to prepare teachers for truly inclusive schools?

Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury and Dr. Laura Clarke
Dr. Dusty Columbia Embury is an associate professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University and former special education teacher. Mom to two girls, she’s learned how to be a better special education teacher by participating in IEP meetings as a parent. Dr. Laura Clarke is an associate professor of special education at Eastern Kentucky University and mom to four amazing children. Her experiences as a parent of a teen with a significant disability have shaped her teaching and research.
  • In my opinion, inclusive classrooms are not the right way to begin teaching for special needs children. Special education classrooms offer a lot more value to them, especially during the early years and can prepare them better for, eventually, being a part of inclusive classrooms. However, training special ed teachers for inclusion can help them ease the transition for a special student to a normal classroom.

    • One of the key features of our federal special education law is that the education provided to children with disabilities must be INDIVIDUALIZED. When we have students with disabilities who really need a highly specialized classroom in order to make progress, then we are legally obligated (and ethically, right?) to provide that. When we have students with more mild disabilities who would benefit more from the general education classroom, then we are obligated to provide that as well. Even though the laws have changed over the years, and as a result, our classroom practice and teacher preparation has changed, the key feature remains that the education be individualized for what EACH child NEEDS. We know a “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work for every student and this allows us give our students what they need.

      • I completely understand that. However, I have seen from personal experience that some teachers find it difficult in implementing just that. Are those teachers bad? Certainly not. These people are smart and excellent teachers but some of them just have a hard time getting things underway with special needs children. On the other hand, things are quite different in a special ed school which, in my opinion, gets the basics right. Hence the idea that special needs student would fare better in a dedicated school when beginning their education.

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