Aligning Teacher Educators’ Instructional Practices Around a Shared Vision for Special Education

Alder Graduate School of Education’s Special Education faculty members Dr. Troya Ellis, Dr. Ilene Ivins, and Yumi Lifer had the privilege of attending the 2018 Annual American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference in New York City in April. The trip was funded through Alder’s Instructional Development Mini-Grant program, which aims to encourage innovation and the improvement of teaching and learning at Alder. We wrote the mini-grant with the hope of building a knowledge base around special education teacher preparation.

Recurring, relevant, and urgent matters in the area of special education teacher preparation are as follows: having a shared accountability of all student learning and inclusive teacher prep, addressing the dichotomy between the equity tenets inherent in disability studies and the ableist methodologies prevalent in special education programs in practice, and recognizing the need for a grounding ethos or vision to inform special education teacher prep programs.

We began our thinking in this work by attending a session called “Enacting Inclusive and Culturally Relevant Practices in Special Education Teacher Preparation,” where researchers Dr. Srikala Naraian (Teachers College, Columbia University), Dr. Sarah L. Schlessinger (Long Island University), and doctoral candidate Chris Bass (University of Illinois at Chicago) explored collaboration between general education and special education teachers as a lever for inclusion. Joyce Melissa Gomez-Najarro (Azusa Pacific) discussed dual-certification in both special education and general education; she found that dually certified educators were more likely to integrate creative practices in response-to-intervention programs as compared to their single-certified general education counterparts. Such findings point to the need for shared accountability and/or a stronger disability-rights education for general education credentialing programs.

Dr. Molly Siuty (Portland State University) investigated the role of a GSE in preparing special educators to “disrupt” systems of racial bias and ableism. Her research suggests that a graduate preparatory program can partially mediate such dominant thinking, but that exposing students to theory was not enough to sustain the disruption. This study resonated with us as we reflected on our roles in either disrupting or advancing systemic bias toward “normalized” ability.

Zooming out, we turned our focus from evidence-based studies to the more theoretical as we built curiosity of how disability studies intersect with critical race theory. The session “Cultural-Historical Approaches to Study the Teaching and Learning of Students with Dis/Abilities” was chaired by Patricia Martinez-Álvarez (Teachers College, Columbia University) and Federico R. Waitoller (University of Illinois at Chicago). This session was related to a seminal paper written by Dr. Waitoller and Dr. Kathleen King Thorius titled “Cross-Pollinating Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy and Universal Design for Learning: Toward an Inclusive Pedagogy That Accounts for Dis/Ability,” which calls for an interdisciplinary dialogue that recognizes and addresses the interrelated forces informing ableism and racism in public schools and, in particular, in special education practice. In the session, researchers illustrated the urgent need for special education to move away from a medical model to the more asset-based pedagogy of cultural-historical approach theory (CHAT), based on the early works of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. While the conversation in the room was cerebral and based on obtuse learning theory, we knew that this was a collection of thinkers whose work set the groundwork for disability studies in 2018. We remain excited to follow the evolution of this critical conversation.

Our final day in New York City brought us uptown to visit Sue Carbary, Program Director of Early Childhood Special Education at Bank Street College of Education, to discuss their special education teacher prep model. Sue discussed Bank Street’s overall structure for student teachers’ fieldwork and shared syllabi for several core courses. She described evaluation methods and the strong emphasis placed on developing such “soft skills” in special education teachers as empathy, active listening, and being fully present with children and families. Bank Street’s commitment to engaging families was especially noteworthy. For instance, Bank Street’s early childhood student teachers are required to take a fieldwork course incorporating weekly family visits. Because Bank Street GSE focuses on teacher reflection as a means to build relationships between teachers and their students, fieldwork students are asked to journal seven to 10 pages weekly about their field experiences. Each student entry receives detailed feedback from the instructors. The frequency and rigor of both journal reflections and the instructor feedback resonated with our team as we considered how to bring such practices into our work.

Sue further described Bank Street’s developmental interaction approach, a theory that grounds their teacher prep approach and focuses on the developmental needs of both students and early career teachers. She tied her work to the greater Bank Street credo, which was written with the participation of student teachers at the outset of the school’s founding nearly a century ago. Bank Street leaders have clearly tapped into the mission and credo to craft a pedagogically and technically rigorous program for its special education student teachers.

The Alder GSE Special Education faculty left New York City inspired and better prepared to continue building Alder’s special education program while aligning instructional practices around a shared vision. The pedagogical/theoretical stances presented at AERA as well as the practical/technical learnings from Bank Street will undoubtedly lead to exciting developments within Alder’s special education praxis.