For special education teachers, the impacts of COVID on special education services extend beyond the challenges faced in the everyday classroom. The changes have been vast and unique for both teachers and students, explained Tom Black, associate professor of special education in MTSU’s College of Education.
“Many students with disabilities, especially more severe disabilities, need direct services that simply cannot be provided online,” Black said. “SPED (special education) services also go beyond classroom instruction. Services such as physical therapy, speech and behavior programs are provided at school. If students are not physically attending school, they are not receiving many of these services.”
The college’s faculty continue to develop best instruction practices to prepare future special educators to walk into socially distanced — and sometimes virtual — classrooms, Black said.
“SPED teacher candidates face some of the same challenges as SPED public-school teachers, not to mention COVID challenges for MTSU faculty,” Black shared. “At this stage of the pandemic, guidance from faculty is based on our own experiences related to virtual teaching. Providing tips for using online methods of teaching, such as Zoom, can aid teacher candidates in planning and instruction. This is new for faculty, too.”
Though there have been challenges, Black recognized a positive, too.
“If there has been any benefit, it is learning to use more online instruction for students in SPED classrooms,” Black said. “Direct instruction will always be the best method of teaching students with special needs. However, the use of technology offers additional tools at the teacher’s disposal.”
The college’s goal continues to be providing the best education for its students by producing well-trained teacher candidates, Black said. The National Council on Teacher Quality recently recognized the College of Education’s elementary teacher preparation program as one of the best in the country.
“Our mission for preparing candidates to become effective teachers does not change,” Black said. “We need to be able to adapt instruction and clinical experiences in ways that ensure candidates attain the same level of proficiency regardless of the teaching environment.”
Corinne Keane, a Smyrna native, graduated from the College of Education in May 2020 and began her first year as a special education teacher at Wilson Elementary in Murfreesboro last fall.
“I was a peer tutor in middle school and high school, and that is where my passion grew to (teach) children with special needs,” Keane explained.
In March 2020, closures across local school districts made Keane’s — along with all other student teachers in the area — second student-teaching placement impossible.
Instead, “We watched videos, completed lesson plans off of scenarios they gave us and implemented what we learned from the videos into the lesson plans,” she said.
Keane has done her best to navigate challenges created by COVID.
“You have a wide range of students with different disabilities, and some present more of a challenge than others to meet their needs when they are not in your classroom,” Keane said. “Some kids may not have the complete ability to sit in front of the computer and do lessons. It is so important to communicate with the families and figure out what is going to work best for them and their student to meet their needs.”
In one case, Keane gives schoolwork to her student through a parent to ensure it does not get lost. In another, she Zooms daily with a student to instill a familiar, set routine, she said.
Even with a routine, there are still virtual-classroom realities to contend with when presenting material, she said.
“You do not have the distance-learning kids in front of you as long as you would if they were in your classroom, so you have to pick what you think is the most important thing for them to learn at the time,” she shared.
“You just have to remember that everyone is navigating through this unique time of teaching like we have never had to before,” she added. “Everyone in your school is there to support each other, share resources with one another.”
A ‘worthwhile’ profession
Black, the associate professor, said there are a number of reasons for students today to choose a career in special education.
“It is a challenging profession but one that is worthwhile and rewarding,” he said. “Special education teachers can have a profound impact in not only a child’s education, but in their life and well-being beyond school.”
Special education teachers are also in high demand, he explained.
“The job market for new SPED teachers is great,” Black said. “There is always a need for qualified special education teachers in public schools, and the MTSU College of Education has a reputation for being one of the best teacher education programs in the state.”
— Stephanie Barrette (Stephanie.Barrette@mtsu.edu)