Teaching & Learning

Special Education Teachers Navigate New Normal

Q&A with virtual special educator Erin Brummel
Erin Brummel

As educators nationwide get accustomed to teaching students online, those who support students with special needs are expressing concerns with education in the age of COVID-19. We spoke with 16-year special education teacher and California Virtual Educators United member Erin Brummel, who has taught exclusively in the virtual environment for two years at California Virtual Academies, about related challenges and opportunities.

For resources and information for special education teachers, visit cta.org/covid-19 and check a list curated by CTA staff Karen Taylor here.

Q. What are some of the biggest challenges with online learning for students with special needs? How can educators overcome these?

A. The biggest challenge is creating curriculum and lessons that are accessible to all students. Each student comes to us with a unique set of needs, and, as educators, we need to know our students and their strengths as well as their areas of need. Appropriate curriculum includes academic learning (such as math, reading and writing practice), opportunities to practice social skills (by making comments in the chat or using the microphone), fine motor skills (such as typing, handwriting, and mouse activities that include manipulating movables on the screen), and transferring new skills to various subjects and settings (like taking virtual tours).

If we start with a well-rounded curriculum, we can create lessons that are engaging and foster success. Typically, brick-and-mortar teachers have the advantage in designing curriculum, because they have hands-on, face-to-face interactions with their students. If you are new to online teaching, have confidence that you know your students and their individual needs. Create lessons that are engaging, creative and stretch each student’s abilities. Our students are resilient and rise to the occasion.

Q. What kind of advice do you have for special education teachers who are working online with students for the first time?

A. After many years in traditional school settings, the memories and frustration of transitioning from brick-and-mortar to virtual are fresh in my mind! I have never described myself as a “technology person,” so, if I can do it, I know that you can too. My advice to everyone is to remember that you are learning a new way to teach and your students are learning a new way to learn. Allow for some grace and have patience with one another.

I make mistakes ALL THE TIME and my students LOVE to point this out! My students are much faster at picking up new tips and tricks for online learning than I am. Creating a virtual classroom that allows for mistakes and creates opportunities for students to help, fosters an environment where everyone (teachers included) feels safe to try out new things and learn together. I have found that my students love to share their work with their peers and appreciate peer feedback.

Q. How can educators ensure equitable access to education for all students in an era where online learning is a necessity?

A. We need to be creative in making sure every child has an equal chance for success. Students with special needs may have additional barriers, and this is where creativity and reflection are crucial. Every time we deliver a lesson, we need to spend time reflecting on the data from that lesson. In an online session, teachers must be aware of what percentage of students were engaged (for example, responding to prompts by raising their hand, using polling options, chat box, etc.). What percentage of students were able to use the tools provided (for example, sessions that include using a highlighter, textbox, movables, etc.)? What percentage of students were on-task (for example, responding right away to questions, volunteering to read aloud, take notes, model problems, etc.)? Were my students able to engage in the lesson independently, or did they need prompting or assistance from their parent or learning coach?

By keeping track of objective data, online lessons can become increasingly tailored to meet each student’s specific needs. This process does not take place overnight, but by being conscientious observers of our students, their participation and output, we can begin to make sure they are progressing and being provided opportunities to be successful.

Q. What are best practices for supporting students with special needs in an online environment?

A. The best practice is to provide consistency. When students know the expectation, they can engage more readily in the lesson at hand.  I have found that repetition and familiarity are key. For example, my students know what Monday will look like, what Tuesday’s schedule will be, what we will work on for Wednesday and so forth. It is also important to add in something new every once in a while so that the days are not mundane; however, I have found that creating a familiar format and changing out the content as we move from one topic to another has been successful. By doing so, students do not have to worry about taking in any more new information than needed. This also frees up more time to learn new ways to engage virtually in a lesson, like using the microphone, the chat box, whiteboard tools and video.

Q. Are there any issues you see with this subject that nobody is talking about yet?

A. Just like many other families, my own family has been thrown into this unprecedented time of distance learning. I was already working from home, but now so is my husband, and my three children have become online learners overnight! I’m sure many families are facing the same struggle.

Transitioning so quickly from brick and mortar to online learning creates a host of issues. How do we ensure that all students have access to computers and the internet? How do we ensure that students have access to parents or caregivers that can assist in the learning process? And are our expectations during this transition relevant and realistic?

We are all expected to become knowledgeable very quickly in a platform that we did not personally choose (teachers and students alike). Limit the volume of email communications and the variety of teaching platforms in the beginning; this will allow everyone time to develop confidence in the new learning environment. This transition is a lot to tackle all at once, and there are so many, many variables at play. My best advice would be to keep it simple and build from there.

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