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When I sat down to write this blog, I wondered what the heck I was getting myself into. Collaboration is my thing. I’m good at it — but how do I explain what it is that I do every day at my school?
Long before I was a special education teacher, I started my career as a paraeducator. I probably learned more in that one year as a para than I did in my first five years as a teacher. The most important thing I learned was that special education doesn’t work without purposeful collaboration between all stakeholders. Students with individualized education programs (IEPs) who stay in class grow more than kids who are constantly pulled out of the general education setting to meet some arbitrarily set goal created to meet the requirements of an antiquated special education system. Sadly, I have yet to see the statistics that prove me wrong.
All too often our model in special education has been an all or nothing affair; when in reality, we need to look at our service delivery on a continuum. How do we do this? The first step is effective collaboration. Collaboration between special education and general education must happen beyond the obligatory IEP meeting in order to make an impact on students’ learning. When teachers collaborate, the stigma of special education disappears and the student becomes OUR student. Not mine, not yours. Goals become more meaningful because there is no longer an “IEP” goal on top of general education demands. Education becomes a fluid and more effective process.
To understand the how of collaboration, we must first look at the why. Collaborative teams share more than resources and ideas — they share energy and a desire to see all students succeed. This benefits not only students with learning disabilities and other special education needs but also students in their general education. After all, “none of us is as smart as all of us.” This requires a different mindset for all teachers involved and ultimately, an entirely different delivery of services.
Successful collaboration requires:
- Knowing your strengths and weaknesses as a teacher and team member
- Maintaining a growth mindset and an open mind
- Believing that all students CAN succeed
- Sharing your time
Planning is at the heart of successful collaboration. Personally, I attend each grade-level planning team meeting weekly so that we are all on the same page. This enables me to suggest resources, identify potential obstacles for my students and determine what skills I will pre-teach or reteach. This significantly improves my students’ abilities to transfer skills between the resource room and the general education classroom. Maximizing my time with a student by providing specific, targeted services is more effective than extended removal from the classroom. By teaching collaboratively, I maximize the likelihood that the student will be successful meeting grade-level standards. We all work on the same goal and become much more efficient and effective in the process.
The one caveat of the collaborative model is that it takes a significant amount of time and flexibility. Collaboration requires an incredible amount of preparation and planning! Is it easy, perfect and seamless? NO! There are days when plans change and we miss the mark completely. But when I watch my students grow, I realize that even on my worst days of teaching I’m still making lasting changes in their lives and increasing their success. By taking the time to collaborate, listen to and support my general education colleagues, I also strengthen that relationship, which further improves my ability to serve my students. And to me, and my students, this has made all the difference!