TFA helps high-need schools and subject areas

As a 2008 Teach For America teacher who taught special education and a current special education specialist for the organization in Atlanta, I wanted to offer an alternate perspective to Levi Cavener’s recent column addressing the merit of our program.
TFA partners with districts and schools across the nation to help address the need for additional educators in high-need schools and subject areas. We find that many of our district partners have high vacancy rates in special education.  We also recognize that special education training and support varies across states and to that end, we work to create localized support.  One of the regions with the highest number of special educators is Metro Atlanta. As such, I thought it might be helpful to share what we’re doing locally to lead the continuous improvement of our SPED training and support.
In Atlanta, we are accredited by the Georgia professional standards commission as a licensing entity for special education teachers. In their first year, teachers attend classes 1-2 times a week and receive the necessary knowledge to be certified special educators. Teachers in our program are trained by seasoned special educators with more than 10+ years of experience in the fields of IEP creation, eligibility analysis, legal protections, and advocacy. Teachers are also trained in best practices to address high and low-incidence disabilities.
Additionally, teachers are assigned two supervisors, a coach and a mentor, that specialize in special education. These supervisors observe and debrief with teachers at least once a month, during which they problem solve around students’ academic and personal progress. Beyond the one-on-one coaching and certification programs, our teachers engage in special education specific trainings that focus on key aspects of their roles.
Each teacher sets individualized goals for students after engaging in diagnostic testing, IEP reviews, and one-on-one interviews with students and parents. They then work closely with their co-teachers and other stakeholders, such as paraprofessionals, speech-language pathologists, occupational and physical therapists, applied behavioral analysis specialists and school leaders to implement individualized goals through differentiated lesson plans, structured progress monitoring, and a variety of strategies aimed at serving students. On a broader level, we prioritize training general educators on how to serve students with disabilities as more than two-thirds of our teachers teach in inclusion settings.
The pervasively low expectations in our country for students in special education are jarring given that almost 85% of students in special education are capable of the same achievement as students in general education and all students are capable of growth according to the National Center on Educational Outcomes.  Across the country our training and support model is rooted in a deep belief in the potential of every child.
Mr. Cavener is correct, we absolutely need teachers who have the knowledge to accommodate students, but beyond that we need teachers who challenge what people believe our students are capable of. We train and support our teachers not just to give students access to grade level material, but fight to help them master it. We work hard to know the legal and advocacy issues state-to-state so we can best partner with families and best support our students. We know that beyond legal and disability knowledge, our teachers must also have strong critical thinking, creativity, communication, patience, and persistence to change circumstances for children and we select individuals with these traits and help them develop.
We at TFA and the profession as a whole have lots of work ahead of us as we learn more about disabilities, advocate for stronger policies, and help build the knowledge base for our teaching force. We know that the best way to continually improve is in partnership with veteran educators, experts across fields, community organizations, families, and our students and we hope to expand our collaborations to include communities in Idaho.

 

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