The need for special education teachers is vast. Fourteen percent of public school students receive special education services (NCES 2018) that includes an individualized education plan (IEP) designed to help each student succeed in school. In the 2015–2016 school year, 48 states and Washington, DC reported shortages in special education (Learning Policy Institute).
We spoke with two NYU Steinhardt faculty members who lead the NYU Teacher Residency’s special education content area: Tamara Sewell, residency director in New York, NY; clinical assistant professor, special education content mentor, and Shane-Anthony Smith, residency director in Washington, DC; clinical assistant professor, special education content mentor. They shared insights about the need for special education teachers, how diversity can support students, and the types of lessons that teacher residents learn.
How did you get involved in working with students with disabilities?
Tamara: I became aware of exclusion based on differences in elementary school. We all have something valuable to contribute to society and deserve the opportunity to thrive. I was drawn to get to know those students who were “othered” in school and began to advocate for inclusive practices both in school and in the community.
Shane: I started my career as a math teacher, which I thought was my first love. But after struggling to teach math to a class where over one-third of the students had an IEP, I realized that I could not be an effective teacher if I was not able to promote success for all my students, particularly the students with disabilities. As a new teacher, I realized that this was also a struggle for many of my more seasoned colleagues who themselves needed coaching on how to meaningfully engage students with disabilities. It became apparent that I needed to be better prepared to teach students with disabilities and, equally important, to be able to help support other teachers in this role. The rest is history, as they say.
What is special education?
Tamara: Special education is a focus on the learner. All students can learn if given access to content and experiences that are engaging, responsive to their learning strengths and challenges, and relevant to their experience. Knowing our students holistically and understanding who they are as learners is the key.
Shane: For me, special education is simply a mechanism for helping students succeed – particularly students who others might think are not able to succeed.
What is the need like for special education teachers in communities across the US?
Tamara: Let’s first look at the stats: one in every six kids 3-17 years old goes to school with a physical, mental, learning, or behavioral disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that from 2000 to 2016, the number of students ages 3-21 receiving special education increased by approximately 400,000.
When I started as a content mentor in the Teacher Residency, we had 10 special education residents during the first year we offered that specialization. The reason that we started offering this area was based on the need that districts and charter organizations expressed to us. Our growth over the years (we had 39 residents in 2020) is specifically related to demand from our partners, combined with the fact that there’s a lot of people who want to do this work.
Shane: I’ve lived and worked in four different states, and special education is always among the subjects designated by each state department of education as a teacher shortage area. This need is amplified in urban schools and in cities, which are areas that have a long history of being underresourced.
What are some ways to ensure that diversity in the field of special education supports students?
Tamara: This year in particular, the Teacher Residency faculty are really looking at what anti-racism looks like in practice, not just theory. We’re examining what this looks like in our instruction and advocacy. While we ask the residents to do this reflection, we are doing this ourselves [as faculty].
We are also reflecting on our procedures for how we select candidates who align to the philosophy of the Teacher Residency. We are looking for those who are willing to do the self-reflection and the work. For this year’s incoming cohort, we instituted face-to-face interviews in the selection process where we watched candidates have a conversation about cultural competency and understanding. It gave us – and them – great insight into how they handle difficult conversations.
Shane: We have to be intentional about how and who we recruit. The Teacher Residency has done an amazing job recruiting from nontraditional pools. For example, we have a lot of male applicants, which is not traditional. We also have many Black and Latino individuals. When you look at traditional teacher preparation, the population looks very different from the Teacher Residency population of residents, and I believe that’s because we’re intentional.
In terms of how candidates work with diverse populations, we have to work to understand the history. We have to understand issues around racism and biases, which have historically been associated with disproportionality. Regardless of a teacher candidate’s background, they must have an understanding of the structural issues that have contributed to these historical inequities. They then must ask: “What’s my role in chipping away these issues?” I’m glad to be part of a program that’s helping residents answer this question, and in the most honest and transparent way possible.
How does the Teacher Residency ensure that special education teachers are well prepared?
Tamara: We are not compartmentalized. We connect the curriculum with what residents are doing in the classroom. Residents are often in small groups with the general education students (those specializing in science, social studies, English, and math). Special education residents learn strategies for meaningful collaboration with other teachers and families and how to engage with students on an individual level.
Given the essential role of the IEP in special education, residents learn about the IEP as a process and instructional program, and its legal and practical application, to advance the success of students with disabilities. Special education residents study learning theories and characteristics that make each student unique, and how to ensure all students succeed. They also learn about high- and low-incidence disabilities, the functions of behavior, development of executive function, and evidence-based teaching strategies to support all learners’ success.
Our residents also support one another in this work, which is unique to our program model. This past year, we had someone in our content group who was having a baby. We threw them a virtual baby shower and just were generally supportive during this monumental life moment.
Shane: It’s holistic. First and foremost, we must be responsive to the needs of schools and needs of residents. We recognize that residents come in [to the program] excited about doing the work without knowing how demanding it will be. We help them process and gradually prepare, and should they get to a point of feeling nervous, we point them toward the lessons they’ve already learned. We don’t just throw them in the school and their work with teacher mentors and say “Implement these lessons in the class.” There are wraparound systems of support. In the moments of anxiety, we can remind them how to address various circumstances in the classroom.
Residency directors, content mentors, and teaching mentors are there to make connections between supports and requirements. With special education residents, for example, they learn about different aspects of the IEP in their module classes, have further conversations about this in their content meetings, and then are asked to carry out related tasks at their school. During the practical phase of the residents’ learning, residency directors work with school-based special education coordinators and teaching mentors to ensure that residents have appropriate access to students and IEPs to put into practice whatever residents are learning.
What skills and knowledge do residents learn in the Teacher Residency that help them be effective with students with disabilities?
Tamara: Residents learn about the legal policy and practice that grounds special education services in this country. They learn about the different types of learner characteristics they may observe. They learn to focus on student strengths in order to overcome challenges and they learn strategies to facilitate learning. But, above all, they learn that relationships are the foundation of all that we do and that they must collaborate with teachers, therapists, families, and leadership in order to create an environment of success for all students.
Shane: Residents will leave with a fundamental understanding of what special education is. Residents will have a year-long opportunity to activate these fundamentals in practice. With ongoing mentorship and support from various people and perspectives, residents will understand what it means to truly care about students and how to activate this knowledge in their practice.