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Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Learning Lab

Teaching kids with special needs can be overwhelming, emotionally exhausting and incredibly frustrating for people with years of experience and specialized degrees. Without any training, teachers can feel utterly hopeless. At least, that’s how I felt on many, many days of my first year teaching. I had a degree in art and went through a summer long crash course before taking on a third/fourth grade self-contained special ed. class. I can empathize with the special ed teachers here in Grenada who jump head-first into this work with little or no training to guide them. Even so, I was lucky enough to have the support of other teachers going through the same thing and to be teaching in a place where special education has been legitimized by the law, learning disabilities are largely recognized as real, and resources for professional development and classroom use were easy to come by. I thought my first few years were rough but compared to what special education teachers here go through, I had it easy.
Teacher training in general here is insufficient. Some people take a two-week crash course before starting to teach, a few have associates degrees from the community college, a small minority have bachelor’s degrees. The majority of teachers who have been working for twenty years or more started fresh our of secondary school (at 16 years old!)
Special education teacher training is almost non-existent. Unfortunately, there is only one course in special education offered locally. It covers every possible ‘exceptionality’ over the course of a few weeks. Otherwise, the brave special ed teachers of Grenada rely on the monthly workshops held by the Ministry of Education to get ideas about working effectively with their students. Although these monthly meetings are helpful, more training is needed.
In my opinion, becoming a successful teacher comes mainly through experience, trial and error, creative problem solving, resourcefulness, tireless work ethic... and a genuine love of the kids. Many of the teachers I have observed and worked with here possess all of these traits, however, they need more training to reach their full potential. I think a basic understanding of disabilities and instruction on effective teaching methods and strategies are essential for special ed. teachers.
One of the goals of my assignment here is the advancement of teacher training. I’ve been working with special ed teachers at two schools, but from the beginning, I’ve been concerned about the limited impact I would have by only working with a few teachers. So, I recently wrote a proposal for a new, larger-scale special ed teacher-training program. I’m excited to say that the special education chair at the Ministry of Education likes the idea and we are in the planning stage to get ready for implementation in the 'fall.'
My idea for the program came from a course I took at Hunter College while I was working on my masters in special ed. The course, called the Learning Lab, meets twice a week for one academic year.
In the first session, each of the teachers is matched with a student with learning disabilities who they will work with for the entire year. The first half of each bi-weekly session is dedicated to one-on-one tutoring. All of the teachers in the program work with their students in the same large room, enabling the instructors to walk around, observe, give guidance, model teaching strategies, and answer questions. After an hour and fifteen minutes of tutoring, the students are dismissed and the teachers reconvene in small groups with their instructors for another hour and a half. During this time, the instructors ask the teachers to reflect on their tutoring session, give feedback about their observations, teach a new skill or strategy for subsequent sessions, and review lesson plans.
I found this program to be more helpful than any other course or workshop I was required to take. The Learning Lab model pushes teachers to try new strategies, reflect on their teaching and build new skills. The experiential nature of the program makes learning more meaningful by giving participants a chance to experiment with the strategies they have been taught under the supervision of an experienced and knowledgeable instructor. This practice builds confidence and increases the chances that teachers will transfer their new skills to their full-time teaching positions. The opportunity to work alongside and talk with other special educators also provides valuable opportunities for knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving.
The modified version of the Learning Lab that I am planning for the teachers here will reach many more teachers than I can work with one-on-one, and hopefully, all of the participants will take away some ideas that will make their teaching more effective and their jobs a little less stressful and a lot more enjoyable.