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Are Educators Prepared to Teach Students with Disabilities?

Many teachers feel they were not prepared to teach students with disabilities before their first year of teaching. How can we better prepare new educators to teach special education?

Do teachers need to know how to work with students with disabilities?

Pie graph showing the percentage of students with disabilities served in different educational settings

A recent report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities states that 1 in 5 students have learning and attention issues in the United States. “Many teachers are concerned about their level of preparedness in teaching the 1 in 5. Only 17% of teachers surveyed feel very well prepared to teach students with mild to moderate learning disabilities.”

According to another report by the U.S. Department of Education, almost 95% of students with disabilities spend at least part of their day in a general education setting. Of those students, 63% receive instruction in a general education classroom at least 80% of the time.

Thirty- two percent spend less than 80% of their day in a general education setting. Only 5% of students with disabilities spend their entire day in a separate setting.

What this means is that almost all teachers work with students with disabilities, whether they were prepared for it or not. Without proper training and support, teaching can become tiring and stressful, causing teachers to burn out quickly. Teaching multiple levels in one classroom can seem daunting without preparation ahead of time.

What preparation are teachers given to work with students with special needs?

In order to become a teacher in the United States, one must complete some sort of teacher program. This can be traditional route or alternate route. Either way, preservice teachers are required to take education courses and complete field work.

Once a teaching position is obtained, the teacher goes into a mentoring program. Then, the novice teacher is teamed up with a more experienced teacher to help navigate daily teaching challenges.

According to a recent survey, teachers generally feel that their college coursework and mentoring programs are helpful. However, they reported that experience and field work prepared them the most for their first year of teaching. According to this survey, educators feel that being in the classroom is the most valuable training for new teachers.

Novice teachers want more support… Before they start teaching.

Before they step into the classroom, teachers should know the traditional basics. Sure, they should know the general foundations of education, the history, laws, the famous educational philosophers, etc. But they also need to know what’s going on right now. In addition to the traditional basics, teachers need to know about current topics like political movements, recent studies, and current trends regarding education. They need up-to-date information to prepare them for an actual classroom in today’s society.

Novice teachers are interested in learning how to teach. But unfortunately, they aren’t always provided with that type of information until they receive the keys to their classroom. They need to know how to handle students with behavior issues. They’re figuring out how to navigate parent relationships. They’re not sure how to handle cell phone usage in class.  They don’t know what to do when a student is bullied online. They have no idea how to differentiate their lessons.

These are the things teachers need to know ahead of time. Novice teachers want to know what to do …without having to figure it out the hard way. Teachers are expected to know all of these things. But they aren’t always given this information before they begin teaching.

Do teacher preparation programs provide enough support for novice teachers?

A stack of books against a red background with the text In theory, a teacher preparation program would provide more than enough support for preservice teachers. Teachers spend a minimum of five years of their life to obtain a master’s degree in education. In that time, you’d think they would graduate having learned the one thing they attended college for: To learn how to teach.

While teacher preparation programs provide adequate training about education and teaching, many teachers feel that they do not offer enough preparation for actual teaching.

All of the teachers I spoke with felt that they were underprepared to work with students with disabilities. Some of my teacher friends reported that they had never taken a single course that addressed special education.

Reflections of an College Education Course Instructor

As a college instructor with a background in special education, this topic hits home for me. I teach education courses to prepare future teachers for life in the classroom. Often, I wonder what I can do to make their experience in my course more valuable.

Surprisingly enough, teaching at the college level isn’t as different as one might think. Similar to teachers of younger students, I’m often torn between sticking to the textbook and offering more “real world” content. In response, I design my lessons to include a healthy mix of both. This helps ensure that students leave my class with the basics along with current and realistic information. I know that what I teach them matters and that providing the right tools will help them to become successful teachers.

What can we do to better support teachers who work with students with disabilities?

1.  Provide more fieldwork opportunities and information regarding special education as a mandatory step in earning a teaching degree. According to a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, “teachers cite ‘on the-job training and trial-and-error learning’ as the ways they learned how to teach the [students with disabilities].” Teachers feel that fieldwork experiences were the most beneficial part of their training.

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2.  Increase collaboration between general education teachers and special education teachers. A the end of the day, teachers are their own best resource. Establishing a supportive system between special education staff and general education teachers helps to create a collaborative environment. A collaborative team can better support student learning and development effectively and consistently.

3.  Provide educators with resources to help them navigate teaching dilemmas. Teachers who feel unsupported often cite lack of resources as part of the problem. As a result, they end up purchasing materials out of their own pocket without compensation. Ultimately, this only places more strain on staff morale and can contribute to teacher burnout. Educators need a supportive environment with basic teaching supplies provided for them.

Free Online Resources for Teachers

Since so many teachers cite lack of resources as one of their biggest problems, I’ve put together a list of free online resources for educators. Do you know any others that I should add to the list?

Did you feel prepared to teach students with special needs?

Do you feel you were provided with adequate preparation to teach students with disabilities? What do you wish you knew before your first year of teaching?

Drop a suggestion in the comments below and I may write a blog post about that topic to help future teachers!

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