When students witness many of their classmates receiving extra support, special education loses its stigma. It’s not just the children who think differently about it. Teachers are more comfortable with the idea of students receiving extra help when they need it.
The Special Education Teacher
Since the beginning of this school year, I’ve been aided by a special education teacher for two hours of lessons each week. Although this teacher constantly has his eyes on students with documented special needs, he’s regularly working with other students in my class.
The special education teacher works flexibly. Sometimes he’s circulating around the classroom, offering help to those who need it. At other times, he’s working with a student one-on-one at a desk in the hallway. Right now, he’s planning on teaching a small group lesson during one of our literacy blocks.
Just to be clear, my colleague is not a paraprofessional. When I worked at a public school in Massachusetts, paraprofessionals were the ones who most commonly worked with students with special needs in the general classroom.. Oftentimes, these were adults without formal teacher-training. Furthermore, they were paid about half as much as classroom teachers. These two factors seemed to make it difficult for teachers and paraprofessionals to see eye-to-eye and collaborate. Although they were both expected to care for the students in the class, one adult had more professional authority than the other.
It’s a different story with my colleague. He actually has more formal training than me. Finland is famous for its highly selective 5-year teacher-training programs. A master’s degree is required of special education teachers, too.
Once a week, the special education teacher and I meet after school for about an hour. We’re not contracted to meet up, but it’s expected that classroom teachers collaborate with special education teachers. Primarily, we discuss ways to better support those students with documented learning needs. These meetings help me to make sure that I’m not letting any of my students fall through the cracks.
Recently in our meetings, we’ve been co-writing individualized learning plans (ILPs) for several of my students. In the United States, I worked with many students who had individualized learning plans (IEPs), which are similar to ILPs. Although an American classroom teacher has a role in crafting an IEP, the plan is largely determined by professionals outside of the general classroom (e.g., occupational therapists, speech pathologists, etc.). At my Finnish school, I have more ownership of individualized learning plans since I’m writing them with my special education teacher. This does not mean that other professionals are excluded from the process of crafting this plan. It just means that the classroom teacher (along with the special education teacher) has the responsibility of writing the first draft. I've felt more empowered through this process.
It’s common at my school for teachers to offer remedial teaching sessions for students who are struggling. Before coming to Finland, I have to admit that I had never heard of this concept. The idea of teachers getting paid to work with students who have a difficult time keeping up with the “normal” pace of learning was unimaginable to me. I thought that this was the job of private tutors!
Many students receive extra support at my school, but they're not the only ones. Many teachers receive extra help in order to better address the needs of students. As I've mentioned before, I'm assisted though a student-welfare team, in-class support, after-school meetings, and remedial teaching sessions offered to my students. I'm experiencing special education that addresses the needs of students and teachers.
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