Special Education Teachers Adapt During Pandemic
Special education teachers who graduated from the Anderson University College of Education are finding ways to support their students during the COVID-19 pandemic. For these recent graduates, the pandemic has been front and center in their educational career so far.
While the pandemic has disrupted education in general, it has especially affected children with disabilities who must rely on more personal, individualized instruction. Teachers are faced with re-thinking instruction, much of which has to take place virtually as well as through materials sent home. At the same time, teachers must partner closely with their students’ parents to achieve learning goals.
“Across our state and country, educators have been innovating to meet the unique needs of their students during this pandemic,” said Dr. Mark Butler, dean of the Anderson University College of Education.
Cadie Hall, a 2019 graduate, originally intended to enter elementary education. Growing up with a cousin who had cerebral palsy and taking special education classes at Anderson University were factors leading Hall into special education. Hall, who teaches students with moderate intellectual disabilities at Palmetto Middle School in Williamston, S.C., said, “I’ve been very lucky to have really awesome parents that are very supportive and are very good at getting what (students) need. We usually do Zoom once a week to keep up and make sure that everything is going well. Some parents like to be more involved.”
Adrianna Lee, a 2018 graduate teaching at East Clarendon Middle School in Turbeville, S.C., remembers being paired with students with disabilities in her high school’s Project Unify program, and of how the project’s teacher influenced her towards pursuing a career in education. Lee and others face many challenges to teaching special education in a virtual or even a hybrid face-to-face schedule. Lee spends much of her time making phone calls and delivering packets, Chromebooks, lunches — whatever her students need at home. Added to her routine are late night and early morning text messages, but she does whatever it takes to keep her class on track.
“I would say one of the main challenges while teaching virtual is keeping students' attention for my higher functioning students. For my lower functioning students, it has been establishing a new routine at any given moment if numbers quickly rise and we have to transition to virtual instruction,” Lee said. “I teach in a small district that contains fairly high poverty rates, which means access to technology and the Internet has been difficult, especially in a district that does not have technology one-to-one yet.”
Special education teachers also see their students’ time at home as opportunities to practice life skills such as folding clothes, washing dishes or feeding themselves. Hall feels blessed to be able to work with “awesome” parents as she works to ensure her students meet their goals each week. Some skills, such as self-feeding, seem to be more of a natural activity at home than at school where their teacher or assistant models a sequence showing them what to do.
“Many students want to use their hands,” said Cheyenne Barber, a 2019 graduate teaching students with moderate intellectual disabilities at Powdersville Elementary School in Powdersville, S.C. Barber noted that her students’ self-feeding progress at home has been “awesome.”
When the pandemic interrupted in-class learning, Barber was still in her first year as a special education teacher. Her eight students, who have moderate intellectual disabilities, range from ages 5-11. She says that working with students at the elementary level is a big challenge, considering the face-to-face, hand-over-hand nature of instruction with her group. She asserts that there are areas where students are helped in school that don’t look the same at home.
“They can’t get the occupational therapy, the physical therapy or the speech therapy, which is the team we have here at school. When you go virtual, you’re just getting packets of speech therapy and occupational therapy sent home. It’s hard to do what we do at school.”
On the other hand, Barber has been making use of Seesaw, an educational application where she can send parents videos of her modeling lessons and activities, while parents can easily send back videos showing the students’ progress with skills they are learning.
“I am very nurturing as a person and as a teacher,” said Barber of her role in reassuring and encouraging to her students’ parents who juggle a virtual learning environment at home with their jobs and caring for their other children. Lee said she is “incredibly proud” of her students for maintaining their attained skills, and the progress they have made despite the circumstances.
“Every single day is a new adventure and a blessing to be able to do what I love,” Lee said.
"These new teachers are exemplifying what it means to model Christ. Each of them depends on God's infinite passion for the teaching profession and love for people with disabilities. This passion fuels their determination and gives them the strength to overcome barriers, COVID and others, to meet the individual needs of their students," said Dr. Joanna Stegall of the College of Education.
“It is an unprecedented challenge, and yet, it gives me such hope and confidence to know that teachers like Cadie, Adrianna and Cheyenne are out there, among so many other AU graduates, doing the critical work of building knowledge, values, and community by any means necessary,” Butler said.