“Special education students have different strengths and gifts that are not necessarily the ones our society accepts,” says Melissa Fettrow, recent Marygrove Master in the Art of Teaching (MAT) graduate. “I love Special Education, because you may work with a child who is unusually talented in music or art− or an extremely sensitive or perceptive child− qualities you can’t typically put on a grade card.”
It is that diversity of talent and ability that attracts teachers to Special Education. And the best teachers are the ones who appreciate uniqueness, and who can draw upon a child’s individual strengths. Fettrow found the Marygrove MAT EDU 622 course Meeting the Needs of all Students invaluable in sharpening her skills with special populations.
“You might think it sounds like common sense, but learning how to teach responsively is a skill that must be practiced.” Fettrow adds. “This course helped me realize my teaching strengths and how to improve on my weaknesses– I am so much more effective after taking that class. I have always been a patient teacher, but this course helped me learn how to really listen to my students and get the most out of them.”
She found the information on time management very helpful. “Teachers who are effective time managers, especially in Special Education, are able to carry out clear and focused lesson plans,” Fettrow says. “Everything we do in the resource room is in 15-20 minute increments—that way, when I shift gears, my students are still engaged and have not ‘tuned out’ yet. You want to change activities before they get bored, since it is much harder to redirect a bored child.”
Fettrow uses her i-Pod alarm to get students accustomed to staying on task. But she admits that the alarm actually benefits her more; helping her keep track of time. “Teachers have so many content standards to achieve, we must be aware of time to fit it all in.”
Another strategy she uses daily is building community in the classroom with student-led morning meetings. Allowing students to direct the dialogue sets the tone for the day, and helps children feel like they are part of the group. “My students can share whatever they want with their class—personal things, achievements, challenges they face in and outside of school. Every student gets a chance to share if they want to –and by the end of the year, even the most introverted student will have the confidence to get in front of the group. You can see the confidence build over time in the child…as a teacher you just know.” It works.
“My MAT coursework also showed me the need, especially in Special Student Populations to tailor my lesson plans each year to my students. There is no “cookie cutter” lesson plan anymore—teachers must be flexible and innovative to reach each and every student, as all classrooms become increasingly diverse.
On a national level, diversity in the classroom is gaining increased importance. Whether they’re cultural or cognitive—we are embracing student differences in our inclusive classrooms, rather than excluding students who don’t fit the mold. Inclusion generally refers to teaching students who have disabilities or special needs within the general education classroom. The concept of inclusion has been widely adopted in the United States.
Fettrow cautions that while special education inclusion is an ideal to strive for, there should be ample support in place for it to work properly. The reality for many districts across the country right now is that budgets are tight. Incorporating an inclusion program when there is not enough staff to support it, can result in a poor use of valuable resources. She believes that part of the school day should ideally include special education students in small learning groups with other similarly challenged peers. These students need to find acceptance in both worlds; so striking the right balance between regular classroom inclusion and intensive, individually-focused resource rooms is key to a successful program.
“Diversity is just a healthy thing every classroom should strive for,” Fetrrow says. “It is what balance is all about in education.” She personally appreciated the opportunity to collaborate and problem solve with a diverse online group of educators through the MAT program. “I could exchange information and share successes with teachers from a wide range of settings, urban and rural areas, public and private, large and small.” The program connects students with mentors and teaching professionals from all educational backgrounds and experience levels. “I recommend Marygrove MAT to all of my colleagues,” said Fettrow.
It’s a great program for finding the master in every kind of K-12 teacher.
Melissa Fettrow is a 4-year teacher in the Groveport Madison District, Columbus. She teaches third grade special education at Glendening Elementary. She earned her MAT from Marygrove College in May, 2011.