When special and general ed teachers collaborate, everyone benefits

The implementation of the Common Core State Standards has been met with anxiety from administrators and educators at every level, because, like any major change, it can seem scary and overwhelming. General education teachers have had to learn and apply new instructional strategies to address the new standards and the vision that the standards embody, particularly universal design for learning. Special education teachers have been required for the first time to become pseudo subject-area experts to help struggling students and those with learning disabilities meet the standards.

This can be a stressful time for everyone. However, when educators are empowered to share their expertise with one another, and given the time and place they need to collaborate, they surpass expectations and their students soar.

At Sweetwater Union High School District, located near San Diego, we bring general and special education teachers together to meet the needs of students through a framework known as universal design for learning, which provides something of a blueprint for creating learning goals and materials that work for all learners. We accomplish this through carefully-designed cohorts, teacher-led “zones,” online resources support, and by fostering a collaborative culture.

A shift in mindset

Cultivating the right mindset is of the utmost importance before any change can result in positive outcomes. The type of mindset a district strives to develop is dependent on their goals. At Sweetwater Union, we aim to create a supportive culture in which educators feel comfortable enough with their peers to share their thoughts and insights and are encouraged to take risks.

When our district brings together general and special education teachers, we reframe the conversation to focus on “our” students. It’s no longer about your kids or my kids. Every student is impacted by a universal design for learning, and to achieve college and career readiness goals, we must view them as everyone’s responsibility.

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Cohorts and Professional Learning Communities are led by teachers, and special education resource teachers provide ongoing support to all cohorts. This enables teachers to rely on each other for help. When they have this kind of safety net, educators are more willing to try new strategies and tools and share their findings with others. The mindset that I share with our teachers is that it’s all—Common Core, UDL—a work in progress. It’s new to us all, and we are all learners together.

Zones enable educators to learn together

Our district has established zones in which subject-area teachers and general education teachers work together to develop and evaluate lessons that address multiple modalities. Teachers volunteer to be site leads for schools to develop sample lessons and model UDL approaches. Site leads meet with subject-area experts and special education resource teachers across all schools in zone meetings for each subject. Educators in these zones are able to get their hands dirty, test, and explore best practices before they try them in the classroom. The goal is to give teachers the tools they need to enable students to demonstrate subject-area mastery in various ways.

During zone meetings, the department site leads share what they’ve learned in their cohorts with the departments in their assigned zones. We have seen a dramatic increase in turnout for these sessions because the content is more helpful and relevant to the teachers. By tapping into everyone’s expertise and sharing it with others in zones, the district is able to leverage the great minds they already have and establish a support network.

Continuous growth

In addition to the cohorts and zones, our district pairs general and special education teachers together in collaborative and co-teaching models to support UDL- and Common Core-aligned learning goals.

In our collaborative model, many of our students who need additional supports stay in mainstream classrooms and receive individualized support through lessons designed to address their learning styles and needs. A special education teacher works with several general education teachers in and out of the classroom to ensure all students are progressing. For core subjects of math and English, the district uses a co-teaching model. A special education teacher is paired with one general education teacher and is in the classroom 100 percent of the time.

To ensure support is provided on an ongoing basis, technology plays a critical role in providing resources that are available 24/7 and accessible to students with varying abilities and skill levels. The district uses an LMS (Learning Management System) in order to share resources. UDL lessons and resources are curated by teachers and posted in the system for anyone to use. The district also employs a variety of apps and software, such as Gizmos, Achieve 3000, and will be using Math180 to reach students through auditory, kinesthetic and visual learning and demonstrate mastery in ways that make sense to them. For example, Learning Upgrade, an online math and reading curriculum, uses catchy songs and fun games with text to address Common Core standards in a relatable way.

The district’s collaborative culture and teaching approach further enables educators to adapt to new technologies. We encourage teachers who are reticent to try one thing first, whether it be an instructional strategy or an app, and master it before moving on to the next in order to build their confidence and comfort level. As the district expands its one-to-one program beyond the middle school grades, this mindset will become ever more important.

About the Author:

Christine Fax-Huckaby is a Special Education Academic Support Teacher (SEAST) in the Sweetwater Union High School District in California.