Key Takeaway: Special education teachers experience universal challenges when it comes to professional development (PD). Effective PD should be sustained over time, involve coaching or collaborative communities, and include specialized and role-specific content. —Ayla Reau
Sarah L. Woulfin and Britney Jones from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education (2021) conducted a phenomenological study on special education (SpEd) teachers’ experiences with professional development. They found that “professional development (PD) is one component of SpEd teachers’ working conditions which plays a role in building teachers’ capacities and enabling teachers to conduct their work.” However, SpEd teachers in particular encounter some universal challenges while trying to engage in professional development.
Some challenges the authors outlined included:
- Induction programs were not effective due to SpEd teachers not receiving role-specific guidance through the program.
- Portfolio assessments as part of the induction programs felt like “busy work;” these tasks seemed artificial.
- PD sessions were often introductory or repetitive in nature, ignoring any preexisting knowledge. “Generic PD sometimes failed to match the realities of their work.”
- The opportunities regarding co-teaching and how to engage with general education teachers were limited.
- SpEd teachers were often isolated from general education teachers in PD sessions.
Woulfin and Jones (2021) hone in on three tenets of effective PD for SpEd teachers: “extended duration, involving collaborative and contextualized learning, and addressing specialized content.”
- Educational literature states that PD must be sustained over time in order to change the nature of teachers’ instruction. “Extended-duration PD allows for increased opportunities for planning, observing, feedback, reviewing student work, and aligning standards and goals.”
- Schools can use coaches or professional learning communities (PLCs) to support teacher development.
- Research also acknowledges the benefits of specialized PD (relevant content as opposed to generic or content-neutral). “When SpEd teachers receive targeted, relevant PD, they report greater levels of confidence in working with students with disabilities.”
Effective PD for special educators also would include the following elements: “rely on experts from the district; incorporate technology; infuse content standards and special education curriculum; provide useful strategies and sample lessons; facilitate collaboration with general education teachers; create opportunities for reflection; and give feedback.”
The findings from their study suggest that many SpEd teachers felt a disconnect between their daily work and what was addressed in their current PD opportunities. Ultimately, this is why specialized training matters. The study offered suggestions for how practitioners could improve PD for special educators. As Woulfin and Jones summarize, it helps to develop an “understanding of norms, routines, rituals and the language of [the SpEd] profession.”
Summarized Article: Woulfin, S. L., & Jones, B. (2021). Special development: The nature, content, and structure of special education teachers’ professional learning opportunities. Teaching and Teacher Education, 100, 103277. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2021.103277
Summary by: Ayla Reau—Ayla is excited to help continue to grow the MARIO Framework, seeing the potential for it to impact all students across any educational context.