Professional Interview Analysis
This interview is with a special education teacher who faces many unique challenges. She is charged with the task of educating, but also facilitating growth at a much more humble rate, and in many different ways, than other educators. The interview revealed several themes related to foundations of leadership, ciritical issues, and effective practices.
Keywords: inclusion, special education, co-teaching
Prior to becoming a special education teacher, Amy, a name provided in order for the subject to remain confidential, grew up in a single parent home in Phoenix, Arizona. Despite growing up with a single mom, Amy felt a sense of permanency as she lived in the same house from the time she was three until she had finished high school. She was active in her elementary school and attended the same school through the eighth grade. One of Amy’s elementary school teachers became a coach and a mentor to her during her formative years. While she was in high school, this same teacher moved to the high school to teach. Amy felt this relationship with her teacher/mentor reassured her through a difficult adolescent time and this reassured her that she always had someone that she could trust and and talk to if needed. This mutual understanding between teacher and student helped inspire her to become a special education teacher. Amy majored in psychology at Arizona State University and also attained licensure in special education as well.
With an inherently pragmatist perspective in education philosophy, Amy leads her classroom with a Deweyian sense of democracy and community. Amy takes a purposeful Montessorian approach to each of her students as she views the individual as being exceptional, unique, and possessive of the ability to learn especially when given the right types of intervention. Amy’s personal, holistic commitment to the student as a whole not only resounds of her Montessorian perspective, but also can be theoretically linked to the progressive ideas of John Dewey that students are individuals and learn according to their own rate of change and progress (Gutek, 2011). As a means of educating the whole student, Amy recognizes the benefits of inclusion and relates its future success within the school community to the effective practice of co-teaching. The subsequent advantages that are commensurate to this practice help to create continued professional development, sponsor mentoring relationships, and foster collaborative consensus. Each advantage of this practice contributes to the ideals of teacher efficacy envisioned by Horace Mann.
With the philosophical undertones of pragmatism, the collaborative perspectives of Montessori and John Dewey, Amy’s teaching reflects the type of classroom environment that continues to grow and develop the intellect of each individual student. Whild doing so, she holds herself accountable as a professional with a duty not only to her students, but also to her surrounding community.
Foundations of Leadership
As a special education teacher, Amy believes that education philosophy is constantly changing and that perspectives often change over the course of years while being a teacher. When she first began teaching, Amy knew about inclusion as a theory but did not yet quite have the experience to see it in practice. After 7 years of teaching in a high school setting with low-income students, most of whom are affiliated with some type of gang, Amy feels that it is part of her duty everyday to make sure that her students feel that they are in a safe environment in her classroom. Fostering a democratic spirit of community, ideas are to be expressed in a respectful way, and her students must leave their differences at the door and learn from one another. Amy wants her students to feel that at least in her classroom, they have the opportunity to be the best student that they can on that day, in that moment. Amy places emphasis on the fact that her students recognize that they are different from their peers and do not learn in the same ways as general education students. As a result, many of her students feel labeled as being “dumb” and become very passive and apathetic about learning (A. Smith, personal communication, 2016). In an effort to confront this attitude, Amy strongly believes that her students are taught the same subjects as general education students. Her students may receive shortened assignments or she may have them complete the assignments as a class, but they do complete the same work as their general education counterparts. In this way, Amy feels this allows her students to be able to relate to their peers within the school environment.
In response to the particular philosophy or education philosopher that strongly influenced her as a teacher, Amy conveyed her foundational beliefs similar to those of Maria Montessori. As a special education teacher, Amy positions her classroom around the central idea that all children are exceptional. Montessori championed this same notion beginning her career working with special needs students (Gutek, 2011). Montessorian educators are trained to perceive all children as exceptional and in equal response, individualized, flexible, and differentiated learning are of utmost importance (Cossentino, 2010). Montessori’s commitment to the holistic and responsive types of support needed to carefully match the needs of the student with the instruction given are in direct correlation to the stipulations found in current early intervention models and corresponding instructional models (Cossentino, 2010). In Amy’s classroom, she fosters a type of independence in her students similar to the Montessori approach that is built upon encouraging the “divine urge” which stimulates growth through self-action (Gutek, 2011, p. 401). As a special education teacher, Amy noted just how much her students need her involvement, but with her decreased level of intervention, her students learn to perform their work more independently. In turn, similar to Montessori philosophy, there is derived in her students a greater feeling of self-accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from work completed or a task well done. As a result, the feelings that surface from her students’ various forms of independence produce higher self-esteem (Gutek, 2011).
Although Amy did not comment on any religious views or a specific worldview that has impacted her view of education, she did illustrate a pragmatist perspective reflective of John Dewey. As a teacher and former student of psychology, Amy could not directly assign to herself a religious background or worldview perspective as she feels that such views are part of a rapidly changing world. Her perspective of such views are reflective of pragmatism in that they are tentative at best, pluralistic in nature, and are left for openness subject only to the experience of reality (Gutek, 2011). The characteristics that she sees are the most important part of an educator’s repertoire are those that, according to pragmatist philosophy, allow for a great degree of probability in the classroom. For example, most of Amy’s students have been identified through testing as learning disabled, but to Amy, this quantitative knowledge about each of her students is probable rather than certain. While such tests do provide some direction and even present possible remedial actions, they only provide generalizations that often result in failure to capture changing individuality and most importantly, experience. To Amy, and pragmatists in general, intellectual testing primarily appeals to the aristocratic tradition that “intelligence is a ready-made possession of individuals” (Danforth, 2008, p. 58). In turn, this indeterminate system also creates, according to Amy and pragmatists in general, some of the most critical issues that currently face educators.
From the perspective of special education, Amy posits three critical issues that currently amass within education today. The constraint of intellectual disability, quantitative testing, and a resulting negative attitude that permeates within her students combine to create a prolonged, although outdated sense that students with learning disabilities have very little room to progress or change. In response to these issues, Amy’s model of classroom community can and does imply a model for institutional change as well as provide a glimmer of light to the current most critical issue in special education: racial disproportionality (A. Smith, personal communication, 2016).
Revealing his philosophy of education through the structure of democratic processes, John Dewey titled his work, Democracy and Education. In it, he expressed his belief that the power and potential to grow is present where life exists (Danforth, 2008). As a special education teacher, Amy recognizes the constraint that an intellectual disability places on her students. Although this is the case, Amy in true pragmatist spirit, does not view her students as lacking the potential to grow and change over time (Danforth, 2008). To her, an intellectual disability does not freeze growth or learning, as has been the tendency to address this issue in the past. Although expansions are quite humble for her students in comparison to other general education students, Amy liberates herself from past models of perceived learning stagnation and supports each of her students by recognizing and nurturing the gift that he or she is personally endowed. In agreement with John Dewey, Amy sees it as a critical issue in education to aggregate instances of failed learning into a complete picture of inability that ultimately denies the potential and reality of actual growth (Danforth, 2008). Further, Amy classifies the current reliance on quantitative performance criteria as being problematic, especially to her students. Sadly, she feels that many of her students’ futures are predicted and contstrained squelching the growth of their own individual and dynamic capacities. This is most similar to John Dewey’s perspective of education as a means of fulfilling a democratic ethic to all individuals. In this regard, Dewey’s critical view of intelligence testing equates to Amy’s objections in that it is merely a welcome procedure with which to sink the individual within a class based on a numerical scale, thereby limiting the individual to certain vocations, rank, and a predestined order (Danforth, 2008). For Amy, this leads to a third most critical issue.
Amy’s students know that they are different. In fact, Amy’s interview narrative relays that her students not only recognize their inability to learn at the same rate as do their peers, but that they also feel that this pattern of growth recasts them as inferior. In a sense, Amy’s students feel that in addition to a learning disability, they also feel defined as failing to be the person that they should be. In an effort to combat this invasisve attitude, Amy leads her classroom as a communal unit. A pragmatist at heart, Amy approaches these problems with a progressivist viewpoint recognizing that any sort of progress for her students is implied change (Gutek, 2011). Her class celebrates the successful completion of a task by a fellow student as a family. The success of one is celebrated by all members. Dewey’s notion of democracy is preserved in this sense and a sort of dialectic, constructive relation is born between the individual and the social organization which is in this case, the school (Danforth, 2008). According to Amy, these critical issues conglomerate into one overarching problem that will continue to become a troubling development within special education: racial disproportionality.
In Amy’s classroom, her students are mainly comprised of Hispanic and African American ethnicity. There are currently three students who would identify themselves as Caucasian. The term of intellectual disability employed within the categorical scheme operative in the U.S. currently is a label that is part of a daily reality for at least six hundred thousand public school students (Danforth, 2008). When diagnosed, there are doors opened that compel a great deal of substantial financial and personnel resources toward the individual student as well as the activation of a legal apparatus that serves to protect the right to instruction specifically designed according to the individual’s academic and social abilities (Danforth, 2008). However, Amy’s classroom also clearly demonstrates a disparate representation. This pragmatic evaluation alludes to both achievement and problems within the current system of special education. Although Amy’s classroom model does not eliminate the growing racial disproportionality in special education, it does serve as a small step to a potential glimpse at institutional change. Applying Dewey’s democratic education, Amy recognizes that a school can move toward a democratic ideal where individual members not only can experience satisfaction, but can also achieve a filial sense of achievement and values (Danforth, 2008). As a result, the growth and learning of one student is understood as having value amongst the group as a whole (Gutek, 2011). A school that promotes democratic community increases the interaction between students with and without disabilities and the progress of one has worth to the others.
In order to provide the best education possible for all students, Amy’s school implements three successful practices that have cohesively fostered a high-quality education in the strategy for supporting inclusion within her school. Under repeated efforts to include students who have disabilities in general education, the practice of co-teaching continues to be implemented in schools (Pugach & Winn, 2011). Working in unision with one another, each practice in Amy’s school builds upon the other in order to create a sense of shared responsibility for a group of students. Co-teaching, for Amy, has been one of these successful practices that her institution uses in order to facilitate inclusion, a sense of community, as well as further mentoring roles for novice teachers. As a result of co-teaching, the effective practice of inclusion is promoted in conjunction with the potential to ameliorate teacher burnout, provding novice teachers with a mentor.
The term inclusion is often seen as a challenge to many school districts. There is rarely a universally accepted definition or even a narrowly defined policy that exists at the federal level (DeMatthews & Mawhinney, 2013). Inclusion is a word not specifically outlined in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) and is also not delineated within case law. What does give rise to the legal impetus that coincides with inclusion is the language that constitutes the least restrictive environment component of IDEA (DeMatthews & Mawhinney, 2013). A student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) addresses what will be the least restrictive environment in order to preserve individual learning goals, attain the appropriate services for that goal, and where the student will receive those services (DeMatthews & Mawhinney, 2013). There is a preference for inclusion in IDEA in which students remain part of the general education classroom; however, IEP teams (consisting of parents, teachers, the student, and service providers) have the ability to determine the extent of inclusion. In consequence, there is no mandate of full inclusion and the courts create additional leeway for school districts to regulate the degree of inclusion on a case by case basis (DeMatthews & Mawhinney, 2013).
Co-teaching, or the shared responsibility of a general education and special education teacher within the same classroom, is a strategy implemented by schools to support inclusion (Pugach & Winn, 2011). True to her pragmatist philosophical style, Amy regards co-teaching as a means to encourage a student-centered classroom where both teachers act as helpers and guides to the path of learning (Gutek, 2011). Further, inclusion is akin to Horace Mann’s concept of a socially integrated organization that was also a vehicle to create a social, racial, and academically integrated society (Gutek, 2011). Reflecting Mann’s integrationist themes, inclusion supports Mann’s common school philosophy in that it provides the same skills and knowledge equally to all students (Gutek, 2011). Consistent with Mann’s philosophical goals, public schools create communal integration when wholly supportive of inclusion. In order to achieve this level of inclusion, the co-teaching method creates a sense of shared responsibility, accountability, and resources conducive to support all students’ learning (Pugach & Winn, 2011). Amy’s school system implemented a fairly atypical strategy of co-teaching which has also served to create a stronger sense of community amongst general education and special education teachers. In this model, an interdisciplinary team is responsible for a group of students for a period of two years. This team comprised of a special education teacher and content teachers serves as the first point of reference for parents while they also collectively develop curriculum, plan interventions, and monitor student progress. In this way, this co-teaching approach creates an environment of inclusion, but it also lessens the degree of marginalization that special education novice teachers often feel when entering the field. This method establishes the effective practice that focuses on assimilating special eduation teachers into the general education community. They are no longer as isolated from their professional cohorts and experience integration with their colleagues. This degree of teacher preparation also rests on the concept of Horace Mann in that teachers must not only be experts in their level of knowledge and skill, but also be adept at classroom management, while striving to be part of a profession marked by consensual collaboration (Gutek, 2011). Mentoring is a form of direct support that emerges as a part of the team, and it is a practice that Amy feels is critical in helping future special educators become effective practictioners.
According to Andrews and Brown (2015), the average special education teachers work in the classroom for only a total of six years. Attrition rates are generally higher than those of general education teachers, and it is of particular note that many special education teachers experience compassion fatige which causes them to devalue their work and lose motivation to teach (Andrews & Brown, 2015). This issue is one that Amy contributes to the common mistakes found within special education that provide inadequate professional support/mentoring, a lack of integration of special education teachers into the school community, and the inability to meet standards while also meeting student’s needs. Perfectly situated within Mann’s vision of consensus leadership, co-teaching provides a method to address these mistakes and perhaps eventually prevent teacher burnout. Despite different interests, general education and special education teachers have the opportunity to unite for a common cause, improve instruction, and professionalize teachers (Gutek, 2011).
Andrews, A., & Brown, J. L. (2015). Discrepancies in the ideal percpetions and the current experiences of special education teachers. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(6), 126-131. doi:10.11114/jets.v3i6.984
Cossentino, J. (2010). Following all the children: Early intervention and Montessori.
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Danforth, S. (2008). John Dewey’s contributions to an educational philosophy of intellectual disability. Educational Theory, 58(1), 45-62.
DeMatthews, D. C., & Mawhinney, H. (2013). Addressing the inclusion imperative: An urban school district’s response. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 21(61), 509-526.
Gutek, G. L. (2011). Historical and philosophical foundations of education: A biographical introduction (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Pugach, M. C., & Winn, J. A. (2011). Research on co-teaching and teaming. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 24(1), 36-46.