How professional associations like CEC can help special educators succeed

By Danielle Kovach

I did it. I didn’t want to, but I did.

While my students were at lunch, I closed my classroom door, turned off the lights, and cried.

I felt the weight of the world come crashing down on my already burdened heart.

Through my tears, I mentally calculated my days to retirement and realized the road is way longer than I thought.

Even after 22 years of teaching, the stress of being a special educator still gets to me every single day. There are individualized education programs (IEPs), quarterly reports, behavior plans, goals and objectives to attend to. State testing, district initiatives, teacher evaluations, professional development plans and lesson planning add to the mix.

Above all, there’s the constant, self-imposed pressure I put on myself to meet all the academic and emotional needs of my students, combined with the fear of failing them as their teacher.

This alone seems to be more than one person can bear, but when combined with the stress of my other jobs—taking care of my family and three boys, (two with exceptionalities)—the pressure is bound to break even the most tenacious personalities.

Just thinking about it brings on my ever-present eye twitch. But behind the facade of having it all together, I’m in my classroom, behind closed doors, crying by myself.

In spite of the stress, I still love teaching. My classroom door reads, “no challenge too big, no victory too small.” I love the challenge each day brings and the joy of helping my students reach their goals.

But I am led to wonder that if I, an accomplished, experienced teacher, am affected by stress in the teaching profession, how do novice teachers handle it? I also think about our future teachers and my own son who is studying to be a special educator. What stresses will they encounter? It doesn’t surprise me that new teachers in the field are not staying in what should be a rewarding and noble profession.

Education Week analyzed federal data and found the number of special education teachers nationally dropped by more than 17 percent during the past decade, which it called “a worrisome trend in a career path that has seen chronic shortages for years.”

During a “Classroom Close-up NJ” segment titled “Front Stage,” special education students from Tulsa Trail Elementary School work with Hopatcong High School students as they learn about theater production. The goal is to build confidence and self-esteem while fostering social and emotional growth. Teacher Danielle Kovach helps students with their scripts.

Issues facing teachers

The 2019 State of the Special Education Profession Survey Report, published by the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and authored by Susan A. Fowler, Ph.D., Mary Ruth B. Coleman, Ph.D., and William K. Bogdan, Ph.D., identifies some of the issues we must confront.

The 1,500 special education teachers who responded to the survey said the top three factors influencing their success are:

    Adequate resources to meet IEP requirements.

  Smaller class size/caseloads.

    Administrators who support the IEP process.

Teachers were asked to self-evaluate their competence levels for a range of practices using a rating scale of 1 (not competent) to 5 (extremely competent).

Most respondents rated themselves as very to extremely competent in the use of most practices used in specialized instruction. Respondents’ rating of competence with assessments, instruction and classroom management shows solid self-efficacy for teaching students with exceptionalities. Respondents also reported high levels of competence in the use of discipline strategies, perhaps as a result of increased use of evidence-based practices and positive behavioral supports.

This demonstrates that teachers have self-confidence—a critical component to succeed as a special educator.

Teachers were less likely to rate themselves as highly confident around family engagement, especially in meeting the needs of families who differed from them demographically. Only one in five respondents indicated high levels of confidence in meeting the needs of families who spoke a different language and about one-third rated themselves as highly confident in meeting the needs of families who differed from them in terms of ethnicity or culture.

Respondents paint a mixed picture of district support for using recommended practices for collaboration and enhancing their instructional skills. Nearly half of respondents reported frequent use of collaborative approaches by their school for teaching students with exceptionalities.

Fewer respondents rated their general education district administrators or building principals as being very prepared to support them in their work in comparison to their special education supervisors and administrators.

Support and professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals

We need to support our special educators to keep our best educators in the field for our students who need them most.

Professional organizations—national and local—are integral to this process. They provide the professional development, networking support, and resources to help teachers succeed.

National-level resources

The CEC is the largest international professional association of educators dedicated to advancing the success of children with exceptionalities. The CEC accomplishes its mission through advocacy, standards and professional development. Core values reflect visionary thinking, integrity and inclusiveness.

Founded in 1922, CEC is represented in 49 states, with provincial units in Canada. There are also 18 Special Interest Divisions that bring together CEC members based on their professional role, practice setting or interest in a specific exceptionality.

Teacher retention is at the forefront of the CEC strategic plan. By promoting best practices and advocating for policies favorable to keeping special education teachers in the field, teachers will be equipped with the tools they need to aid them in the classroom and prevent burnout, which causes them to leave the profession.

For novice teachers, CEC offers publications such as “The Survival Guide for New Special Education Teachers” and “What Every Special Educator Must Know.” These books offer practical guidance on such topics as roles and responsibilities, school environment and culture, classroom organization and management, collaboration with other professionals, and individual professional development.

CEC also offers webinars on hot topics in the field of special education such as co-teaching, working with administration and building effective family involvement.

Reading Recognition – Reading scores are soaring at Buena Regional Middle School thanks to a Reading Recognition Program. Reading specialist Sandra Peart sees 64 students every other day for 45 minutes. She introduces a concept, then the students take over – they take ownership of their own learning. Regular and special education students work together to improve their reading skills.

Local resources

The New Jersey Council for Exceptional Children (NJCEC) is the state unit of the Council for Exceptional Children. NJCEC offers an annual conference, professional publications, and newsletters that keep members aware of national issues and current teaching strategies, professional and student recognition programs including scholarships for high school seniors with special needs.

The NJCEC 2020 Annual Spring Conference, “Embracing the Whole Child: Promoting Social Emotional Learning,” will be held on Monday, March 16, 2020, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Ramapo College. Participants can choose from over 40 sessions that support special educators, both new to the field as well as those with years of experience.

This year’s keynote speaker, Haley Moss, is a South Florida native who was diagnosed with autism at age three. Upon receiving her autism diagnosis, her family was told that she would be fortunate to make a friend, graduate high school or obtain her driver’s license.

Haley has defied the expectations set forth in her initial diagnosis. Today, she is an attorney, author, artist, and autism advocate who writes and speaks publicly about her journey and gives hope for other people with autism, their families, and their friends. Her powerful story will uplift and inspire you. For more information on joining NJCEC or the 2020 Annual Spring conference, visit njcec.org or contact NJCEC President Julie Good, jandcgood@msn.com.

Why professional associations matter

I hope the information in this article demonstrates the value of professional associations.

For me personally, my involvement in CEC and NJCEC has been rich and rewarding. Beyond the many services and resources mentioned above, some of the strongest value has come from the relationships I developed. I now have a strong network of people I can turn to in any number of situations where I need help.

To build these relationships, you must engage in organizations like these. I encourage all of you to do so and take advantage of the many opportunities that will flow from them.

Dr. Danielle Kovach is a special education teacher at Tulsa Trail Elementary School in Hopatcong, an adjunct professor at Centenary University, and an NJEA PDII Consultant. She is also a member of the CEC Board of Directors. Kovach can be reached at dkovach@njea.org.

Why Join the Council for Exceptional Children

The Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) is a professional association of educators dedicated to advancing the success of children with exceptionalities. It can be your professional home. Visit cec.sped.org/membership to learn more or contact CEC at service@cec.sped.org or 888-232-7733.

CONNECT
Join professional discussion forums through the CECommunity and share ideas, post content, get answers to questions about your practice, find classroom tips, and more. Join a CEC special interest division and/or state unit.

GROW
Tap into CEC webinars for online professional development tailored to your needs. The CEC Convention & Expo will further your professional growth, keep you up-to-date in the field, and provide local and international networking opportunities. You have access hundreds of publications and professional development products.

LEARN
Get professional development and professional development hours (PDHs) to meet recertification requirements. Read research articles in the Exceptional Children journal and research-to-practice articles in the Teaching Exceptional Children journal.

SUCCEED
Strengthen your expertise with access to CEC’s research-based collaborative process that ensures its standards are current and fully address the knowledge and skills special educators must master.

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