In partnership with eSchool News, Illuminate Education is spotlighting teachers in a series recognizing educators, the way they have moved instruction online during COVID-19, and how they have prioritized the needs of their students.
SDC K/1st-Moderate Severe Disabilities
Woodcrest Elementary School
Fullerton School District
“Don’t compare yourself to others, and just stay true to who you are as a teacher, and it will all fall into place.”
What motivated you to become a Special Education teacher?
When I was younger I didn’t know I wanted to even be a teacher, nonetheless a Special Ed teacher. It wasn’t until my brother, who has autism, joined the Special Olympics and I was helping him train. That experience gave me the opportunity to work with a lot of other people who had different types of disabilities. I would get so emotional after every practice because I just loved them so much and that’s when I realized what I was meant to do.
Before the schools closed, what did a typical day look like?
I was already having a pretty challenging year. Even though I had four aides in the class, two of them were designated 1:1. My other two aides were considered medical aides and were primarily there to help with the students who had more intense medical needs from the other three special education classes, not just mine. That left me with seven students who didn’t really have as much support, so I really had to plan out exactly how the day would go to help keep some structure. I wanted to make sure I maximized every opportunity for education.
During the day we’d work on different communication goals such as requesting and labeling, using pictures for picture communication systems, and sign language. Some of my students have augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), so they have an iPad with a communication app on it. We’d teach them everything from the basics, like expressing “please” and “thank you,” to bathroom self-help skills, such as independently pulling up their pants and washing their hands. We would spend a lot of time with them in the mornings at their work stations because I felt like they were more alert earlier in the day. Every year you have to adapt based on your students’ needs and my students just weren’t ready for small groups this year. So I had to be creative with rotating stations and really coordinating with my aides to make sure each student knew where to go and when. We didn’t really have reading stations or math stations, students were focused on working on their goals from their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). In order to keep track of schedules, goals, and data, I started using different Google Forms, Slides, and Sheets, which proved to be extra helpful when we moved to remote learning.
How did things change for you when you had to move to remote learning?
The main thing I really had to do was create something where I didn’t have any aides’ support. You get used to having not only extra hands but also extra brains, and it’s easy to take for granted everything they do for you. So in trying to come up with a game plan, I decided the best thing to do would be to create structured lesson plans for each child. I used our district’s unique learning system program (ULS), because it already had about two months of prepared monthly lesson plans, including worksheets with activities that the students could do. I made sure to print them and give them to the parents all at once so that they wouldn’t have to go to the school weekly—since their kids were already medically sensitive, I didn’t want to make the parents go out more often than necessary.
In the first couple of weeks, we were also bombarded with meetings because everyone was trying to figure out how we were going to make all this work. We had staff meetings, PLC meetings, and Special Ed meetings with our program coordinators and our school psychologist. There was just a lot going on so I had to adjust and make a schedule that made sense for me and my students. I scheduled all my lessons from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and did 1:1 lessons with each student. I split up my students and saw my kinder students on Mondays and Thursdays and I saw my first graders on Tuesdays and Fridays.
What did your daily lessons look like?
I really wasn’t ready, and didn’t even know how to start working on their goals with my students, so I had to get creative. I wanted to keep a consistent structure that my students were familiar with from our in-person lessons, with lots of visuals, predictability, and engaging materials. I would start each lesson with a good morning song that introduced the lesson, then we’d go into a video about the lesson. We would then do a song or some kind of movement to get the kiddos moving, and then we ended with a goodbye song. So those were my lessons with the students at first, just a very general lesson with basic concept lessons to get the students in the habit of how school was now working. We then moved on to practicing our social skills through a whole group calendar, core word lessons, and Fun Fridays on Zoom. To maintain student engagement, I continually shared my screen and used visuals, music, and interactive PDFs or Boom cards to supplement academics. I maintained predictable routines and just tried to make learning fun!
How were you able to stay connected with your students?
Luckily I was already connecting well with the families through the SeeSaw Family app. It really helps me stay connected as I can post photos and share stories throughout the day, especially since most of my students are non-verbal or aren’t able to fully express to their families what they do at school. I could also see when the parents saw a post, and they always interacted positively with it. So I already had that established before COVID. I also ended up having to use Zoom and Google Sites. I am constantly calling, texting, and emailing families to check on students and ask parents how we can help their child together. The parent-teacher relationship and communication is vital, especially for our students who are non-verbal, have limited motor movements, or have behavioral challenges.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with remote learning?
One is definitely that I didn’t see all of my students. There were a lot of families who couldn’t get connected to Zoom or from whom the lesson times didn’t work. I am thankful that even if I couldn’t see the student, I was still able to call the parent and check-in. But you know, all the difficulties of life didn’t stop just because of the pandemic. I have families going through tough times that were made tougher by having to work from home or from losing their jobs—plus having to help their kids with school. It’s not like other families where they can set their child up on the computer and walk away while their kid is in class. They have to actually sit with their son or daughter and help them focus and learn. Because I work with students with special needs, I have to document everything we do, such as their attendance, all of my conversations with them or their parents, progress on IEP goals, and so on, so if I don’t connect with a student for their lesson, I have to call or email with the parents to follow-up.
There was also a lot of anxiety that came with doing these remote classes. First, there was the pressure of maintaining the students’ goals and providing enough learning opportunities. And there were also just the challenges of using technology and figuring out the best way to adapt to the different families. For instance, I have a student whose parents are both deaf, and trying to figure out how to teach so that his parents could help him was stressful and difficult. We hired an ASL interpreter for the Zoom lessons, but then there was the challenge of making sure she was spotlighted the whole time so the parent could see her. There were just a lot of unique challenges that we couldn’t have predicted at the start of all of this. Special Education teachers were definitely not prepared for remote learning, but we sure learned fast and are continuously creating and modifying instruction.
Do you think the lack of routine created stress on your students?
The lack of a schedule was hard on both the kids and their parents. I really stress the importance of routines and schedules for parents, so I created a Google Site filled with interactive learning activities that simulates our daily schedule from class. I encouraged them to do as many of those activities as possible. On the Google Site, I also broke down each section of the day. We would go over what the kiddos can be doing at different parts of the day, like in the morning time such as breakfast, getting dressed, and brushing teeth. I also gave them examples of what the kids can be doing for PE and movement, and included stories and videos to supplement the lessons for each part of the day.
Has there been any kind of silver lining to this remote learning experience?
My students are still so young, and because of their disabilities, they may not have been as exposed to so much technology so early on. So I think that is a positive that has come out of this: being able to teach them things like video conferencing etiquette and what’s expected of them, even remotely.
It also definitely has changed the way I teach. I think at the start of the school year, you want to have everything planned out, but I’m learning you really can have no idea what’s going to happen. So as a result, I’m focusing more on weekly lessons so that there’s more flexibility and so I can try and make them more fun. I also never sent home homework because I didn’t want to overwhelm my kids, but now I’m seeing that it may be more doable—and can even help my students blossom more as it’ll provide that extra enrichment. And honestly, being on Instagram has been super helpful. It’s been like my new Pinterest because so many teachers are posting what’s working for them, and it’s just a great way to trade ideas and help each other out.
What advice would you share with other educators in your field?
It’s really important to just do you. I’m kind of a hypocrite in that sense because I had my plan and I wanted to try and do a lot of extra things that I thought would help my families. I didn’t want to do anything new or introduce them to anything that was “too out there.” But I learned that the important thing to do is just make them comfortable and do as much as you normally would’ve done. No one is expecting you to be perfect at this, so you don’t need to pull out all the stops. Expose them to the same kind of lessons and routines, and if you hit obstacles, just fight through them. Don’t compare yourself to others, and just stay true to who you are as a teacher, and it will all fall into place. You know your kids, and they will love you and appreciate you for it always.
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