Preparing High-Quality Special Education Teachers for Inclusive Classrooms

Preparing High-Quality Special Education Teachers for Inclusive Classrooms

By Joanne M. Van Boxtel and Heather Taylor Wizikowski

Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of AC&E/Equity & Access

Special education has moved from the early days of access to the current focus on accountability in all areas of student academic and behavioral growth. We have seen increased responsibility on special education teachers, making it critical to have highly-trained, skilled teachers in each classroom. However, persistent shortages across the nation and continued issues with teacher retention have plagued the profession. We see teachers entering the classroom through alternate pathways such as internships or emergency permits where they start teaching with little to no preparation and leave the profession at higher rates (Darling-Hammond & Podolsky, 2019). There are targeted and systematic ways in which teacher preparation programs can assist their surrounding communities find and keep quality special education teachers in the classroom.

Changing Expectations for Special Education Teachers

Shifts in accountability expectations for students with disabilities have evolved. All students with disabilities now participate in standards-based assessments and states are monitored for their implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), reporting on various student indicators (National Council on Disability, 2018). This accountability shift underscores the inclusive education mantra, “all means all” and signals that all students with disabilities should achieve at high levels. One way we cultivate the mindset of high expectations for all students is through strengths-based assessment practices. Rather than a deficit-based approach to assessment focused solely on discovering student weaknesses, our candidates view students holistically to discover their preferences, interests, and strengths, as well as their needs. Candidates use multiple measures to create strengths-based assessment reports and incorporate parent and student voice in the assessment experience.

Rigorous instruction for students with disabilities is a moral imperative. Gone are the days where we tracked students based on their “educability” or “trainability”. We have research-based frameworks to guide inclusive education: Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL). MTSS unpacks systems-level supports for students’ academic, behavioral, and social-emotional needs through a continuum based on intensity of need (SWIFT Education Center, 2017). UDL applies neuroscience research findings to common learning barriers through a three-pillared, “multiple means” approach in the areas of engagement, representation, and action and expression (CAST, 2018). These frameworks are threaded throughout our methods courses and key assessments, along with the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC) High Leverage Practices (HLPs) (McLeskey, Billingsley, Brownell & Lewis, 2019). Our candidates are increasingly accountable for applying the HLPs as they progress through the program.

A cornerstone of our program is technology innovation and preservice teachers participate in virtual environments often (Israel, Marino, Delisio, & Serianni, 2014). They gain knowledge using content acquisition podcasts (CAPS) and CEC HLP video case studies, apply their knowledge and receive feedback using video coaching platforms, and analyze and reflect on their learning using Flipgrid, Padlet, and VoiceThread (Dieker, Kennedy, Smith, Vasquez, Rock, & Thomas, 2014). Accessibility features are practiced in Chrome extensions, as well as Microsoft and Apple apps, programs, and devices. Candidates learn to collaborate and create progress monitoring plans using real-time environments such as Google tools. Candidates are immersed in technology that is intended to promote access, participation, and progress in K-12 students with disabilities–which dovetails perfectly with the UDL principles candidates are also practicing (Israel et al., 2014).

Candidates in our preparation program learn that students with significant support needs can be taught symbolic and emergent communication with the expectation that there are no “prerequisite abilities” that must be present in order to promote AAC. Exposure to symbolic communication systems such as Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is prevalent in several courses in both low-tech iterations (Velcro, laminated pictures of objects, and file folders) as well as high-tech examples (Symbol-It app). Other practices that are integrated into our program encourage AAC implementations as K-12 students learn to associate objects and activities, such as picture calendars and schedules. Lastly, our candidates are taught how speech generating devices are useful in the classroom so that students with disabilities may initiate and request and grow in their expressive complexity as well as develop literacy skills (Peckham-Hardin, Hanreddy, & Ogletree, 2018).

Another foundational philosophy that guides our preparation work is the belief that inclusion and coteaching are essential to K-12 student success. Inclusion intersects well with MTSS and UDL principles, AT, and AAC and allows for equity-based models of education that do not rely on subgroupings of students into separate settings (SWIFT Education Center, 2017). We advocate for our teacher candidates to encourage inclusive education for students with disabilities which is critical to both academic and social growth (SWIFT Education Center, 2017). We prepare our teachers to integrate into general education settings as coteachers, acting as the specially-designed instructional expert to support students with disabilities. The general education teacher is then the content area expert and this partnership develops a natural co-teaching relationship when supported by school administration.

Meeting the Challenges

Many students with disabilities, primarily those with intensive support needs, have teachers who have not completed, or in some cases, started preparation for teaching. This is more prevalent in high-poverty schools that serve students of color (Darling-Hammond & Podolsky, 2019). We have implemented strategic recruitment efforts to alleviate this issue including: targeted online marketing; on-campus events; and “grow your own” outreach to districts. Google and Instagram ads have created online traffic and have been successful in recruiting students from our diverse communities. We have successfully put on Celebration of Teaching events where local high school and college students are nominated by a mentor to come learn about the profession. Our “grow your own” program partners with districts to encourage paraprofessionals to seek their credential through teacher residencies and funding made available by state and DOE grants.

Only 37% of new teachers nationwide report having mentoring support in their district (Fowler, Coleman, & Bogdan, 2019). We know that teachers who have some sort of mentoring report higher job satisfaction rates, commitment, and retention (Ingersoll & Strong, 2011). Our goal is to prepare teachers effectively and then support them during their first critical years of teaching. We offer twice yearly mentoring sessions, either virtually or in person. Each session is open to peer engagement and sharing of successes and challenges. Faculty facilitate as well as respond to questions and concerns. This model is imperative as many of our graduates are the only special education teacher at their school site—the connection to colleagues is important to address feelings of isolation (The National Center to Inform Policy and Practice in Special Education Professional Development, n.d.).

Practice makes perfect cannot be overstated within teaching and teacher preparation. Pre-service teachers need authentic and quality practice-based experiences to bridge theory to practice (Benedict, Holdheide, Brownell & Marshall Foley, 2016). We work thoughtfully to carefully scaffold practice-based experiences throughout all phases of our program. In foundation courses, candidates conduct classroom observations and analyze practices observed such as UDL and differentiated instruction. In phase two, candidates build upon these skills and apply HLPs with focus students through case study assignments. Candidates present authentic student data and implications for learning through a formal action research symposium where they engage in peer critiques of professional skills and instructors provide both evaluative and constructive feedback. In their final phase, feedback and self-reflection is promoted heavily during their clinical practice experience and it is enhanced through video-based observation and annotated feedback.

Video-based observation with annotated feedback has been a game changer in our program, enabling us to embed more supervised, quality field experiences well before candidates complete the program. Video analysis has been identified as a promising practice in terms of evidence-based practices for teacher education and our candidates have found video-based remote supervision it to be as effective as face to face supervision for clinical practice due to convenience as well as the ability to self-reflection on actual in-the-moment teaching practices (Van Boxtel, 2017). We use platforms such as Edthena and GoReact for virtual coaching and support as candidates practice their pedagogical and classroom management skills for key assignments in methods courses. We have also combined instructor and peer feedback within these micro-teaching experiences to model collaboration and to deepen self-reflection.

Concluding Thoughts

The challenging roles and responsibilities of special education teachers have changed in the 21st century. We assert that they are changing for the better and that our candidates are up for the challenge! We have outlined proven inclusive practices that are signature themes of our credential program and we have described some of the work we are doing to attract and retain a diverse and effective teaching force that better matches the diversity of today’s schools. However, what remains constant in the field of special education is this: passion and commitment to students with disabilities and their families. It is our hope that as we strive to attract diverse candidates with that passion and commitment, more special education teachers will thrive in the profession and be the change agents needed for students with disabilities and their families to thrive.


Wizikowski and Van Boxtel appeared
on Education Talk Radio in 2019.

Listen to their interview:



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