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Q&A with Dr. Frances Stetson

, Primary Category: SPEDAhead Webinars

Dr. Frances Stetson

Our fourth Special Agents of Change webinar “5 Easy Ways to Fail in Education” with special education expert Dr. Francis Stetson focused on five major shifts in the thought and practice required of today’s school leaders. After the webinar, our co-founder and co-CEO Clay Whitehead sat down with Dr. Stetson to address a few questions submitted by the webinar participants.

CW: We’ve had thousands of sign-ups and many questions from our audience. Let’s dig right into the list. The first question is about full inclusion. Full inclusion seems impossible to do completely. Given that, what are the most important steps that we can take to move toward that goal?

FS: Clay, I’m glad this question came up and that we’re putting it first because we have to go back and define full inclusion. One of the things we have to understand is that the term “full inclusion” is actually going away because it implies it’s not individualized for student needs. So, I agree that it seems impossible to do, and it’s actually not very student-centered. So if we defined full inclusion as everyone goes into the general education classroom 100% of the day, then I think we’ve overstepped the boundaries and moved away from what some children need. We have to make certain that we’ve done everything we can do to make the general education classroom appropriate for all students, if at all possible.

CW: The words co-teaching and inclusion are being used interchangeably in many conversations. Are they the same strategy for special education, or are they different?

FS: Some people have used the terms synonymously. However, inclusion is a much broader concept under which co-teaching is one of the options, but it’s not the only option for supporting students in the general education classroom or across the continuum. Co-teaching is an excellent model, but if we use it exclusively, we are actually in danger of over-supporting students who don’t need two teachers in the classroom all the time. It may be that they need support in the general education classroom only three days out of the week instead of five. Or they may benefit immensely from really good accommodations, such as lesson scaffolding, in the general education classroom.

CW: Thanks for differentiating between co-teaching and inclusion. What are some resources or advice you would give for developing and gaining support for team and collaborative teaching?

FS: There are tremendous rewards for students and teachers of classrooms led by more than one adult. Teachers ultimately report less stress because they have a partner in the classroom, which has tremendous advantages. If they are ill one day, there is somebody who knows the classroom. I think the thing we have to deal with more than anything is our own adult issues when we are faced with the opportunity to serve in a collaboratively taught role. Anytime we put two adults in the same classroom, there are some predictable problems. One example would be having teachers understand each other’s role. They need to remember that they are both certified and qualified and that one is not going to automatically act as an instructional aide instead of a teacher. One of the things that I find important when I go into collaboratively taught classrooms is seeing a teaching model in which one of the teachers is conducting the lesson and the other observes, assists in a very simple way or even sits out on the lesson.

It’s important that teachers understand the six models of co-teaching. This is critical for co-teaching classrooms and even less formal collaborative teaching classrooms. If I enter a classroom as a second teacher and I don’t know about all the different techniques we can use to work together, it will impede our effectiveness. For example, if we decide to divide the classroom in half, I know I can do parallel teaching. I can also do smaller group interaction, station teaching and more. Teachers have to keep these six models in the back of their minds as they plan instruction. To learn more about these models, I recommend any written or video resource by Dr. Marilyn Friend. She is a leading expert on collaborative teaching.

CW: So many times it is hard to realize that we are focusing on the issues facing the adults and not the issues facing the students, right? We have to look at things logistically and practically.

FS: Exactly.

CW: So it’s important to keep the right focus. Here’s another question from the audience: “Differentiated instruction sounds great, but actually doing it is another matter. What is truly differentiated instruction and how do we get there?”

FS: I completely agree with the author of this question. We define differentiated learning as bringing learning within the reach of every student in the classroom. Now of course, that’s just another way of describing the job of teaching because that’s everyone’s role. But if I go into a classroom, I like thinking of this old expression: “If the only tool I have is a hammer, then any problem looks like a nail.”

If a teacher is not that diligent as a teacher, then he or she is not going to have many ideas other than whole group instruction, which may not be effective for the entire class. Some types of differentiated instruction include: flexible grouping, cooperative learning groups, conversation circles, and reading triads. However, if teachers are not constantly building their repertoire of strategies and skills, they won’t know how to implement these strategies in the classroom. Our school districts need to pay very close attention to coaching teachers by modeling instruction and then sitting down and really working with teachers. It’s important for coaches to say, “You don’t have to learn it all at once. You can break it into some bite-sized pieces and begin to add more and more strategies.” This is not something that is done overnight.

It’s also important to reflect and talk about what is working or where teachers are experiencing difficulty. Overall, differentiating instruction rather than delivering something that we decide is one-size-fits-all is an incredible advantage. It is so worth the effort and energy – even if it means leaving our teaching comfort zones.

CW: One of our listeners is working on a district-wide plan for reducing disproportionalities for African American males qualifying for emotional-behavioral disorders. What strategies do you recommend to help our listeners develop cultural efficiency?

FS: I understand cultural proficiency and the challenge of disproportionality are huge issues, but honestly, I think it is something that we have a lot to learn about. We have to read about it, talk to colleagues about it, and be extremely open.

For this reason, I’ve been engaged in some extensive reading about the topic. It has really been incredibly powerful in my personal and professional life to really look at what the white privilege literature is actually saying. It’s not saying, “If you are white, you are automatically prejudiced.” It is reminding us that the system is stacked against students of color and that it’s very important to understand the impact of this both in our schools and in our community. I do think knowing as much as we can about it, talking to others across cultures and races, and then having really open and honest conversations is the best answer.

CW: So much attention is on differentiating instruction for students with special needs. What about finding ways to challenge gifted students?

FS: That’s an excellent question for many reasons. We have to remember: it’s not good instruction if we are delivering instruction that only benefits one group of students, or maybe even harms the other. One of the biggest worries among teachers, and I understand it fully, is that they will have to water down instruction in order to meet the needs of students who are struggling with the content. What we also need to understand is that we can “water up” instruction for students who need to be challenged.

A tool I think every teacher should download is our Instructional Design Tool (IDT) worksheet. The IDT makes it easy for teachers, given their limited time, to plan a differentiated lesson as it helps teachers identify and brainstorm modified or additional activities for students who may not fully benefit from the planned lesson as is. In the IDT, teachers identify the lesson’s objective(s), instructional strategies/activities, and any students who may need extra support or modifications/accommodations to fully benefit from the planned activity. Teachers can then plan for these modifications/accommodations and/or tweak the lesson.

However, let’s say a teacher has a really gifted student who mastered the content of this lesson a long time ago. The teacher would still identify this student as someone who needs accommodations in order to benefit from the lesson. The teacher would then consciously think: What can be added to the student’s task to challenge him or her without coming up with an entirely different instructional activity? There are many ways teachers can pick up the level of rigor in a lesson – teachers can add a research component to the lesson, ask the student to conduct teacher interviews for more understanding of the topic, or even conduct community interviews. So there are all kinds of ways teachers can serve gifted students, as well as support the students who aren’t quite at grade-level instruction – all while still remaining engaging.

CW: Should I be scared you are going to give me homework now, Frances?

FS: You bet! We give gifted children a whole lot more homework and that might solve the problem!

CW: Learning instructors are very overwhelmed by meeting the needs of the Common Core on top of supporting students in the classroom, participating in PLCs and building teams, managing EAs , and completing assessment eligibility and individualized education programs (IEPs). What once was just a very busy job is quickly feeling like an impossible job. Burnout is very real. How do we best step back and regain a vision for what we do?

FS: I’m always talking about things we need to do better. However, there are so many things we do right. I think it’s important for all learning specialists and others in similar roles to stop for a minute and say, “I’m doing a really good job. I care about kids and I’m really working hard.”

When it comes to burnout, sometimes we don’t abandon the things that no longer work. So often we are adding jobs, roles and ways to accomplish a task, yet we seldom let go of things. You may have heard the term “organized abandonment.” What this means is, “What can I take off my plate that is no longer that effective or that useful, that takes up a lot of my time, or keeps me away from the important task?”

Here’s my recommendation: it’s all like closet cleaning. At least once a year, look over your roles and tasks and decide which of those are really paying off for you and your kids and which of those are distracting you from being productive. If possible, ditch them. Sometimes we can’t, but many times we can.

Another thing leaders need to do is attend to the morale and the climate of schools. When someone was really down, my husband used say “they have an empty bucket.” I’ve found that a lot of people in schools have empty buckets, so they have to find ways to “fill” those buckets. Leaders can do this through rewards, recognition, appreciation, and just being mindful that individuals can’t do their jobs without reasonable time or resources. Sometimes it may require restructuring.

CW: What creative ways can you recommend for improving collaboration when there isn’t common prep time between special and general educators?

FS: First, go online and search for planning time options or planning time strategies because there are thousands of them.

But let’s talk about the real problem. The first thing a really good principal does is look for who absolutely needs a common planning period, and they put this into a master schedule first, but the reality is that you cannot have a common planning period with everybody. So, we’ve coined another phrase: protected planning time. This isn’t the planning time as we know it, but it’s using creative strategies to find ways for two teachers to collaborate.

For example, let’s say a teacher is out sick and needs a substitute for the day. A teacher that need some planning time with another teacher can ask the substitute to cover her class so they can meet with the other teacher during his planning period and plan, thus creating a make-shift common planning period.

Another creative strategy is identifying a cadre of people – like a media specialist, an assistant principal, a curriculum coordinator – and then setting them up on a rotating schedule of planning periods. Once a week or once every two weeks, one of those people will rotate and join their colleagues during this common planning period.

So do the research. I’ve used this phrase forever, but missing planning time – whether it’s common or protected – is like being given a luxury car with four flat tires. You can’t get that car down the road. It is not effective or enjoyable for the teachers and students.

CW: I love that analogy. Alright, one last question from a district administrator. “Our model seems outdated and we would like to restructure how we meet students’ needs. Where do we start updating our system?”

FS: Let’s look back to the first way to fail in special education: losing your vision. We have some outdated practices so we have to keep working and developing new models. If our vision is to help students with special needs, then the first step to doing that is deciding what is not effective. For example, our system consists of a lot of pull-out programs and self-contained programs. We visit maybe hundreds of classrooms every year to conduct program evaluations, and there are students in pull-out or self-contained settings that really shouldn’t be there. Some students have to repeat IEP goals over and over again in order to accomplish them. So I think the first step is to recognize that the current traditional system may not work for the majority of our children. These students may benefit better from something like inclusion. Inclusive practices can be very powerful and important. It’s research-based, reasonable and it’s not an “all-or-nothing” proposition. I want to encourage people to get excited about it, know how beneficial it is, and how it can really provide night and day effects for students.

However, the bottom line is that it’s the law that children with disabilities shall be educated to the greatest extent appropriate with their non-disabled peers. So I think people start inclusion programs because it’s the right thing to do and we’re excited about it, but I think some folks have to revisit the idea. While there will still be some children who need time outside of the general education classroom for part of the day to meet some very specialized needs, the great majority of our students blossom and do so much better in a general education classroom.

To watch Dr. Stetson’s entire 90-minute webinar, click here.

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