HELP! There’s no special education teacher on my staff, BUT I have kids with special needs in my class!

Lisa Krenz Reaching Every Child 4 Comments

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You just graduated from an esteemed Lutheran college (or maybe some other fine institution of higher learning). You were so excited to get your first call (or contract) to this great school in a far-off land (or maybe just far from your own familiar territory). You’ve spent the summer planning projects and bulletin boards, making things for your classroom, and preparing your discipline system. You’ve spent the last few weeks moving to a new city, getting to know the new people at your new congregation and on your new faculty. It’s a very exciting time. You’ve spent hours getting your classroom ready, sometimes in the suffocating August heat with the air conditioning in your school not yet turned on. Finally, you get to share the Gospel as a Lutheran Day School teacher! You’ve been waiting a long time to be in this place in your life.

Now you’re about a month or six weeks into the first quarter. Some of the shiny newness has worn off, but you’re still feeling pretty enthusiastic, albeit a little more tired. You’ve been with your new students long enough to move beyond just trying to remember their names, and you’re starting to get a solid feel for who they are as individuals. You spend extra moments in your classroom, driving in the car, and at meal times thinking about them and trying to puzzle out how they learn. Most of your students are doing very well. Some are even excelling beyond your expectations. But there is also that handful of kids who are really struggling. They just don’t seem to be catching on to the new material, and they struggle to remember old skills. Perhaps some are struggling with behavioral or attention issues. You took a basic class in college on exceptional learners, as the textbook called it, and you sort of remember talking about adapting lessons for students with special needs in your methods courses, but now you’re dealing with very real kids in your very real classroom and you wish you’d paid more attention in those college classes.

If you were teaching in a public school (and some Lutheran schools too, but that’s a topic for a different post), this is when you might start talking with the special education teacher in your building about ways to help these students. Actually, if you were in the public schools, you would already have several students in your class with IEPs (Individual Education Plans, by which they receive special education services). You would have started off the year forging a positive working relationship with the special education teacher. As mandated by law, all public schools should be implementing a program called Response to Intervention, whereby students who are not meeting benchmarks in reading receive immediate interventions as part of a three-tier system. Many Lutheran schools are also implementing this model for early intervention in reading.

But you are saying to yourself, “That’s not going on in my building.” And you’re thinking to your first-year-teacher-self, “I was sure wrong when I thought there weren’t kids with special needs in Lutheran schools.” What’s next? You can’t wait until next summer to take a class. You need to do something now.

Here are a few dos and don’ts to ponder as you strive to meet the needs of the struggling students in your classroom.

Don’t ignore the problem. Hoping it will go away once everyone gets in the routine of the school year will not solve the problem. It will only prolong it.

Do ask for help. Insight and suggestions from your building principal and other trusted teachers are invaluable. Teaching is not a solo event. Asking for help doesn’t demonstrate weakness—just the opposite. It shows that you are a reflective and deep-thinking professional seeking to find the best ways to teach your individual students.

Don’t hide the problem from the parents. Communicating and collaborating with parents is key to building success for everyone. Sometimes it’s scary to talk to parents, especially when you are a brand-new teacher and all the parents are older than you are. Remind yourself and them that you are all on the same team, the team that cares about their child.

Do collect work samples and behavior data. Is this child’s behavior masking a learning problem? Is the problem really “all the time” or is it just at specific times that fall into a pattern? Be a detective. Collect the hard evidence.

Do reflect on your own teaching style. Are you teaching the way you learn best or are you employing all modalities, senses, and learning styles in your teaching?

Do consider your assessment practices. Are you giving students a chance to show their understanding of concepts in a wide variety of ways? Does the child’s demonstration of understanding change if he or she writes the answer or tells you the answer?

Do pay attention to whether you are looking at an input problem or an output problem. Is the child struggling to process the information coming in or is the child struggling to get the information back out to show you how much he or she knows?

Don’t call the child’s name over and over and over throughout the day. While all children love attention, and you certainly want to give the child all the attention he or she needs, resist the urge to harp on the child and throw a negative spotlight on him or her in the classroom. Find other, nonverbal, ways to get the child’s attention or check for understanding. Resist the heavy sighs and groans that are fighting to come out of your throat. They don’t help anyone. Resist the eye roll, the cocked hip, and the crossed arms. Such combative stances never helped anyone.

Do strategize. Identify the most important issue and come up with a few manageable ideas to implement. Keep a log somewhere, either electronically, in your teacher planner, or in the student’s file. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation, just a few sentences to help you track progress of strategies. You could do something as simple as jotting comments on Post-it notes and assembling them later.

Don’t give up. Know that teaching and learning is an ongoing process. If one strategy doesn’t work, switch to another—and so on and so on. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.

Don’t assume that someone else can do it better. God put you in this place to love, care for, and teach these children. He will work through whatever difficult situation presents itself. Learning problems will come and go, but the Word of the Lord that you are sharing with these children through your teaching and actions will indeed endure forever.

Do go to the Lord in prayer. Start the day with prayer and end the day with prayer. Pray specifically for this child and all the children in your charge. Pray with and for parents when you meet with them. Ask the Lord to guide you and give you discernment and wisdom in teaching this child. He will not disappoint, but will answer your prayers in remarkable ways.

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.   Mark 11:24


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About the Author

Lisa Krenz

Lisa Krenz is an editor at Concordia Publishing House. She has almost thirty years of experience in Lutheran schools as a special education teacher, consultant, and parent. Even though it’s taken many forms, reaching every child with the Gospel has been her passion from the beginning. She lives with her husband, Stephen, and two teen-age children, Joel and Anna, in Hoffman, Illinois, where her husband is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and School. You can read her latest posts here.

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Virginia Alford
Virginia Alford

Thank you, Lisa, for putting theses things into words. This is new only to the new teacher as he or she meets the new situation. When I entered the field, the comment was that all teachers should have of these basic explanations and I believe it has enhanced all teachers. Keep up the good work!

Dawn Mueller
Dawn Mueller

Thanks, Lisa. I might come to you for more ideas!