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Special Education Teachers: Community of Learners (Professional Services)

Nancy Baldree

Professional learning for teachers has come a  long way from the days of “sit and get” workshops covering topics mandated from on  high.   Learning  through  collaboration  with  colleagues, deepening knowledge and skills in  a focused area, and learning over time with  the  ability  to apply new learning and reflect on  the experiences are  all  hallmarks of  meaningful  professional learning  for  educators. The ETFO  project Special Education Teachers:  Community o Learners  was able to provide special education teachers  across Ontario with an exciting professional learning opportunity based on these principles of effective professional learning.

Providing  high-quality  professional learning  to   members is   one   of   the cornerstones  of our union. Funding provided  by  the   Government of   Ontario, through the Ministry of  Education, has allowed for  a  rich,   in-depth  learning opportunity at  little   cost  to  the  participants.   Specia Educatio Teachers:Community of Learners focused on:

  • working collaboratively  with classroom teachers to support students with special needs in their classes
  • increasing knowledge of coaching skills
  • increasing knowledge and understanding  of differentiated instruction (DI)  as a key way to program for students  with special needs in the regular class.

During   the   course  of   the   year-long project,  20  special education teachers from across the province came together to  form a community  of  learners. They met as a group three times, for a total of  six  days of  face-to-face sessions. In addition to  these face-to-face sessions, the project also included an online component. The participants committed  to completing a project that involved working   with  a  partner classroom teacher and sharing a presentation about  their project with the group.

The structure of  the project contributed greatly to  the success the participants experienced. Learning over time, with the opportunity to apply and reflect on  their  new  knowledge and  insights, was a meaningful, job-embedded growth experience that  many participants had never experienced before. Meeting several times over the  course of  the  year allowed for the application of and reflection  on  new  learning  as  well  as  the opportunity to scaffold their learning. It also  provided teachers with  an  opportunity to re-energize and refocus on the project over time.

Because there were only  20  teachers in the group, the participants were able to develop significant relationships, providing each other with support and encouragement  over the  course of  the project. Assigning  teachers to a “home team”  (five   teams  of   four   teachers each)  was  also  a  successful strategy. Having  the   teachers  complete a   survey prior to meeting for the first time allowed for the structuring of carefully crafted   home teams based on  participants’ interests, motivation, and needs. Having  them  introduce themselves to each   other   electronically  paved  the way for effective team building during the first face-to-face session. Feedback indicated  that   the   support  of  their home team members was critical for the success of  the project and for keeping participants  motivated and accountable.

Each participant worked  with a partner  classroom teacher(s)  to  determine the   project  focus.  The  project  topics reflected  individual needs and readiness level regarding differentiating instruction and coaching skills  for  both  the  class- room teacher(s)   and the  special education teacher. Project topics included:

  • creating class profiles
  • linking diagnostic assessments  and unit planning
  • improving reading comprehension
  • improving social skills and behaviour
  • using flexible groupings.

Creating class profiles
In  one example, the project participant put  together an  assessment and learning/multiple  intelligences  package for teachers  to use. She then modelled  for the  teachers how  to  gather  and  use this information when programming  for students. She  worked  with several class- room teachers, using  this  information in  various ways, based on  their  needs. She   worked    collaboratively  with   one teacher  to  create  a  spelling  program based  on  DI   activities  that  reflected the students’ learning  profiles. She and two  other  classroom teachers  worked together to create a differentiated character education  unit; and  together with a fourth classroom  teacher she created and implemented a social skills program based on DI principles.

Improving reading comprehension
In this project some participants  worked as  part  of  the  team with  the  Junior and   Intermediate  classroom teachers to   improve knowledge and practice in three interconnected areas: comprehensive literacy instruction, comprehension strategies, and differentiated  instruction. Over several months the  teachers com- piled data and information to help them know  their   students.  They  used  this data to collaboratively plan activities to meet the level and interests of their students,  incorporated   flexible  groupings into their planned activities (e.g.,  based on  reading level,  interest,  or  learning style), used tiered graphic organizers for various  comprehension strategies,  and incorporated   inclusive technology (e.g., Kurzweil or WordQ) as applicable.

Participants feedback
Members  indicated they felt  motivated, more knowledgeable  about differentiating instruction, and more comfortable  in working   collaboratively with  classroom teachers.  All   indicated  growth,  on  a continuum ranging  from an  awareness to  mastery level  regarding DI  and key coaching  concepts. This project reinforced the fact that professional  learning is  meaningful and rich  when it  is  voluntary and selected by   teachers to  meet their  own identified needs. It underscores and reinforces the  understanding that  teachers learn best with  and from each other in  job- embedded opportunities.  Recognizing and supporting the passion  and enthusiasm educators have  as they strive to do the best for the students in  their care, and supporting them as they refine their teaching craft, continue to  be  top priorities for ETFO.

Participants’ feedback

“This project has impacted my work with teachers as they have a better understanding of classroom profiles and how  assessment can guide their planning, instruction, and assessments Students’ level of achievement has increased from the strategies put in place in this project.”

“My teaching  partner is very enthused about her program and the use of student profiles to inform her teaching.  Students are more engaged in learning.”

“This project gave me the confidence to coach other teachers through  the strategies that were given to me.”

I am much more confiden in working with teachers on programming in their classes.”