How Master’s-Educated Special Ed Teachers are Changing the Game in Illinois
“[Special needs education] is as much an art as it is a science.” –Jay Miller, Special Education Director at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, quoted by the Daily Herald in 2015.
As the percentage of Illinois students who qualify for special education services continues to rise (13.1% in 2010 to 13.7% in 2014), administrators, special ed teachers and para-educators alike are doubling down on efforts to accommodate students in the least restrictive way possible.
Plenty of schools in Illinois are exceeding the statewide average of 13.7%, with notable outliers like Sunny Hill Elementary School, Edgebrook Elementary, and Glacier Ridge Elementary School with more than 25% of the total student population in need of special learning accommodations in the classroom.
Part of the reason for this uptick is the fact that students with challenges that affect learning are being identified and diagnosed at an earlier age. Another reason is that Illinois’ parent advocacy groups are helping to educate parents about the benefits of the state’s special ed programs.
With so many students taking advantage of special education programs, it’s more critical than ever for Illinois’ special education teachers to be well-prepared to serve a variety of special needs students.
Serving Special Needs Students in Illinois with the Co-Teaching Method
Due to a lawsuit against the public-school system in 1998, Illinois’ schools are required to allow their special education students to participate in more inclusive programs rather than be isolated in special classrooms for most of the day.
One solution, co-teaching, has become prominent in Illinois’ schools. Through co-teaching, special education teachers team up with traditional teachers to teach students in one integrated classroom. The method allows special needs students to enjoy the social benefits of working alongside their traditional student peers while also receiving the special attention they need.
In 2009, the majority of special education teachers in Peoria, Illinois, chose to co-teach with traditional education teachers. It’s a great model for the Peoria school district where 24% of the students qualify for special education accommodations.
Co-teaching has proven, measurable positive results. For instance, when Roosevelt Magnet School began to use the co-teaching model, testing standards increased by an incredible 25 percentage points.
Teachers have praised the co-teaching method because of the ability for special needs students to develop relationships with their peers, and because the partnership between special education teachers and traditional teachers often results in creative teaching methods that are beneficial for all students.
Pam Guderjan, a master’s-prepared special education teacher for 43 years who uses the co-teaching method in Peoria, explained that, “Special education students learn skills faster because they want to keep up with their peers.”
Master’s Degree-Educated Teachers Have Been Influential in the Lives of Illinois Special Ed Students
Although excellent special education programs and teaching methods are important for student success, dedicated teachers are the most important element in education.
Illinois is home to several exceptional special education teachers whose advanced degrees in special education have helped make a significant difference in the lives of their students. Two of these excellent teachers include:
- Debra Thomas, a special ed teacher at Rich East High School in Park Forest. In 2016, she won the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching because she’s shown a determined and consistent advocacy for her students to receive the best possible education.
- Aaron Rucker, a special education teacher at Marshall Metropolitan High School in Chicago, was awarded with the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education in 2011 for his dedication to his students.