Laura Shibles - Mentor Teacher
By: Laura Shibles (2003)
Q. Laura, you have worked in so many roles. For many years you taught as a special education teacher working with elementary school children with learning disabilities. Today you are the principal of an elementary school with a very diverse population of students. Students come from all socio-economic levels in Fairfax County as well as from a very wide international base. Students from your school are doing well academically. What is important to creating a quality school program-especially for students with learning disabilities?
A. A quality program is so dependent on the excellence of the teaching staff that really is the key. It is important to hire really good teachers. Fairfax County hires high need teachers, such as special education teachers, under early contracts to make certain they get excellent teachers. Fairfax County also has a good track record in that our students are doing well compared to national standards as well. This helps attract great teachers.
Q. When you interview a teacher how do you make certain you hire an "excellent" teacher?
A. You need to make certain the teacher candidate is well grounded in grade level expectations. The teacher needs to know when a child is falling behind. I also look for a strong knowledge of best practices in the field of special education. These can be learned in college or from training at workshops or professional conferences. In the interview I also see how the potential teacher for my school would handle a specific problem. I present a case scenario and ask the job candidate to brain storm ways of successfully resolving the problem. I also look for the candidate's views on inclusion. Mosby Woods is a very inclusive educational environment. It is important for all of the teachers who work here to have a very strong inclusive perspective. The teacher must also be able to work collaboratively with other staff. And, whether the candidate is applying for a general or a special education position, it is important that he or she be well versed in both the general education and the special education curricula.
Teachers collaborate on a skit.
Q. LD OnLine recently received a comment from a special education teacher who is being asked to provide services in an inclusive classroom. The teacher asked for guidelines. "The classroom teacher seems to think I am the 'teacher's aide.' I am asked to make copies of materials, run errands, and generally perform other non-teaching chores. Other special education teachers in inclusive settings have expressed similar concerns. How do you avoid this problem?"
A. I really look for teachers who work collaboratively. I do not want a special education teacher who will serve as an "instructional aid." I tell the teachers that I can have two instructional aids for one trained teacher. I really want teachers who are committed to working together to meet the needs of all the students in the classroom. This takes planning and a lot of proactive work by both the general and special education teachers. Special education teachers need to be well versed in the regular education curriculum as well so that they can adapt to the classroom programs.
and work together on other art projects for their students.
Q. What really works in your school? What feature of the school do you really like ..working the children and what?
A. I am especially proud about our philosophy and practice of inclusion. A significant part of the implementation of this model is the teaching of self-advocacy skills. We really work on teaching social skills and tolerance of others. We help the children know more about themselves so that they can become strong self-advocates and good friends to the other children in our class. As an example of how well this works, the president of our student council this year is a student with a learning disability.
Students share their stories and artwork.
Q. LD OnLine often receives emails from parents across the country expressing concern about how difficult it is to obtain special education services. What advice can you give them?
A. Parents need to talk first with the classroom teacher or school guidance counselor. The problem needs to be clearly defined. Our first goal is to see if classroom interventions can help solve the problem. We want all of our students to achieve and know that our classroom teachers are skilled professionals. If the difficulties remain parents need to remember that they can request further screening or review to determine if a specific learning disability or other problem is limiting their child's academic success. I would hope that finding the needed help is not a problem at our school. Our staff are well-trained in recognizing and providing needed academic interventions.
Q. If a child is not making significant gains do you call a meeting of the child's teachers to see if there is a learning disability?
The building is not exciting but what goes on inside really is!
A. That is one thing we might consider but when you have a child who is not making significant academic gains there are a number of things that can affect progress. It is important to sort those things out before referring the child for special education services.
Q. Do you think the proposed revisions in IDEA will have a significant impact on children with LD?
A. I am not as up-to-date on these issues as the current members of Congress who are considering changes. We talked about proposed changes in the disability categories; that is, the change from the current 13 IDEA categories to only 3. LD would be in the developmental delay category. I do have some concerns about this. Children in each of these categories are so different. Their learning needs are very different. I am concerned changes could muddy the waters so that teachers and other professional who work with children in special education will be less clear on the best way to approach the child's unique learning style.
Q. What advice would you give to a person going into special education or to a first year special-education teacher?
A. Be well grounded in current research and practice in both general and special education. Know about guided reading and reading strategies that work. Know the needs of students with LD and learn how to adapt your teaching style to adapt to the child's learning needs.
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