Rachael Beekman - Mentor Teacher

By: Rachael Beekman

This month's mentor teacher, Rachael Beekman, is just completing her internship in a Washington, D.C. public school special education program. Rachael graduates this month with her BA in Psychology. She will be moving to California in July to begin her career as a special education teacher. She will then begin to earn a graduate degree in special education.

Rachael's interest in special education teaching comes in part from listening to her father talk. He is a special education teacher in New Jersey. In addition Rachael has worked extensively in volunteer position helping children with special education needs. One of those programs was EPOCH (Educational Programs of Children Handicapped), an afterschool recreation and enrichment program serving developmentally disabled children ages 8 to 12.

Our discussion with Rachael looks at both the positives and negatives of a special education program in an inner city school. Though Rachael's supervising teacher defined many of the same problems it is important to remember that this month's mentor teacher, though not new to the field of special education since her father is a special education teacher, is new to the process of providing special education services. Her story is important to tell, however, since it outlines some of the concerns expressed by many in the field today. She also gives a glimpse at what teachers in training may see as they consider a career in special education.

Rachael, you seem to have great motivation to work with children with special needs. At this school you are working with children with learning disabilities. Does working as a special education teacher's assistant meet your expectations? Is the process what you thought it would be?

I was so excited about the chance to work under direct supervision of a trained special education teacher in a classroom. I have watched my father teach and really knew I would love to do the same thing with my life...that is work with children with developmental disabilities or learning disabilities in some capacity.

Student's writing 1

My supervising teacher has been fantastic. She has helped explain the process involved under special education regulations. She has helped me learn how to work with individual students and she has helped me develop lesson plans that engage students in the learning process. One of the lessons we worked on involved developing letter writing and editing skills. This was to help the students get ready for the standardized assessment tests that are being given this week.

This spring some of the students were really interested in the news and the war in Iraq. This was especially the case since they knew that my boyfriend is an airforce pilot on one of the ships in the Gulf. For the project we worked to write letters to members of the crew on his ship. This took quite a while to develop. We began just getting ideas down in a brain storming session. It was really difficult for some of the kids to think about the types of things they might want to say. After we did that, the students were asked to write a beginning letter. That did not go too well but we eventually got to the point of a "rough draft."

Here is an example of one of the rough drafts. We then worked on these through several edits and steps. Once the student had a handwritten version that did not contain too many errors I typed the essay as dictated to me into the computer. We looked at the story again and then decided what revisions were needed.

Here is a sample of the next step. We then revised and I typed a final version of the letter. We then sent them to the aircraft carrier. The students are now eagerly awaiting a reply. As we developed the project we also spent some time "aboard ship" by going to the Web site about the USS Carl Vinson.

You seem surprised that the assignment took so long? What surprised you?

There were many things that surprised me. Some of them had to do with the abilities of the students. Some really with the special education process itself and still others with the things that I saw happening in the school that I thought made it even more difficult for the students. I guess the best way to answer your question is to talk about the students. I really enjoyed working with them but there seemed to be so many different grade and ability levels in one room. I found it hard to try to design a lesson that I thought would work for each student at his or her ability level. What made this more difficult, though, was that I thought the special education process was one that was set up to individualize to meet a student's learning needs. That was really hard to do. There were students who I knew could do the work but who had a learning disability. There were other students who really seemed to lack the basics of reading and writing. Some also seemed to lack the experiences in the real world that could give them ideas about the types of questions to ask or the things to write about in their letters.

Student's writing 2

At first I thought maybe it was my lack of experience teaching students with learning disabilities that was the source of my difficulties. When I discussed the concerns with my supervising teacher, however, she confirmed that my observations were correct. Some of the students were in the class because there was "no other place" for them to go. Some had learning disabilities, and one student really had significant emotional difficulties but his parents did not want him in a program for children with emotional disturbance. This student seemed to have more ups and downs than the other students and would often lose the content of ideas before even really beginning assignments. Due to the severity of his problems I did not work with him as often as the other students.

I think we finished with letters that the kids were proud of. I hope they really enjoy getting the letters back from the ship too.

You said you were surprised about the special education process. Can you tell me more about what surprised you?

There were many things. First in the room that was supposed to be a room for children who needed services due to learning disabilities, all kinds of things were going on. The social worker met with kids sometimes in the back corner of the room. The speech and language therapist was working with children in another corner of the room. The lone computer in the middle of the room was used by administrative staff who might stop in to check information but it was not really available to the kids. All of these things really suprised me because I thought the room was to be set up to really help the children with LD but there was a lot of other noise and interference going on.

Even more surprising I think was the total lack of supplies for the children in this program There were no textbooks or materials to help the classroom teacher work with the students. We had to copy materials from textbooks if the students were to have materials in the classroom. Equally surprising was the fact the mixture of students within the one room with only one teacher. If I had not been there as an intern I am not certain how my supervising teacher would have handled the class. As I said before there were students who truly had LD and others who had emotional or other problems that limited their ability to learn. Students from different grade levels were also sent in to the classroom at the same time.

There was supposed to be an paraprofessional aid for the room. Though he was assigned to help he really was rarely in the classroom. He was assigned elsewhere in the school.

There is a question I think you should really ask related to this.

What question do you think I should really ask?

I think you really ned to know how the special education program fit into the overall program of the school. Maybe the question you should ask is whether there was collaboration between the general education and special education teachers.

OK. That is a great question. It is especially important since a focus of the new IDEA is inclusion and classroom teacher collaboration. Did the programs work well together?

No. I did not see any real collaboration between the programs though I did see my supervising teacher try to work with the general education teachers. I was alarmed that the general education teachers seemed to view this as a time when the student would not be in his or her class period. That is time when they would not have to worry about this child's learning needs. It seemed as if "special education" was a place the children go not something included in the general education classroom.

That means if they were scheduled to be in the special education room they had to be there even if that was impossible due to the school's schedule. For example, after preparing for the standardized tests (The teachers were spending much of the spring teaching to these tests.), the students at the school were rewarded with a movie. When my students, who also had studied hard to take the tests, were sent to their home classroom to see the movie they were sent back down stairs. The teacher told them that they could not see the movie because they were to be in special education at that time.

On another day when there was an IEP meeting in the special education room and there was no one to work with the children with special education needs. The children from one class were sent down any way. I took them back upstairs to their teacher and explained the problem. I had to go back by that room a little while later. I found the children that I had taken upstairs sitting in the hall doing no work. When I asked the teacher she said they were not supposed to be in the class at that time so she had them wait out in the hall. So the kids were really the victims. They could not be in an over-crowded, understaffed special education room and they could not learn with the general education kids during that period because "they were not supposed to be there."

A form of discipline that I saw in the general education class for our students really bothered me. This probably happened for students in geneal education too but I was more focused on the kids I worked with. If a child was not able to stay on task or pay attention he was sent out of the room to sit in the hall to the Kindergarten room with the "little kids." This was to embarrass the child to get the child to comply. I did not see how that really helped. Again the child was not being taught and at the same time his self-esteem was being diminished. I think the real problem here is that the general education teachers really did not understand the learning needs of children with learning disabilities.

It sounds as if this experience was quite different from what you thought it would be. Were there other either strengths or problems that you saw?

Two things really did impress me. One, I was really impressed with the dedication of my supervising teacher. She really was trying to work to make the best of what seemed to be a very difficult situation. Since my father is a special education teacher I do have some perspective from which to assess her abilities. She also seemed to have good rapport with the students and there were no discipline problems that I saw when I was there. She also seemed to be very patient with some parents who could be very challenging.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the overall ability level of some of my students. They seemed interested in learning and they seemed capable of learning if the system would really provide an approach that they could follow.

On the flipside, I think there needs to be a lot more staff training for the general education teachers about the learning needs of children with LD. I also think parents need to think more about their role in the child's education. Too often students arrived at school really tired. When I asked them what time they went to sleep I would hear 2 or 3 in the morning. These 3rd and 4th graders could tell me what was on the late shows and the shows after that. I knew they were not getting enough sleep.

It is good to hear that you saw positives in the programs. Earlier you started to discuss a specific concern about special education programs that seemed to indicate different students may get different services. Can you discuss that more. What did you mean?

That may not have come out exactly as I intended it. I think my supervising teacher did a great job with the limited resources she had to provide a good learning environment for all the children in her classes--no matter what their diagnosis or ability level. What I meant was that there seemed to be a difference in access to programs based on the parents' knowledge, or financial resources, to access other services outside of the DC schools. Parents who knew more about the regulations and litigation seemed to "push the envelope" to get private school tuition for the children. Too often I felt my supervising teacher was worrying about litigation that might arise from these parents while children who may have also benefitted from private schooling, but whose parents did not have financial resources needed for lawyers, or who did not know the specifics of the laws, could not access such services. I guess I would agree to some extent with issues currently expressed about IDEA. Issues of compliance took predicent at times, for some parents who were intent on finding any infraction, so that they could get their children into private school. The question was not how well students in general were doing in the program but how I can get my child out. Rather than closing the achievement gap this really seemed to create a system that has the potential to significantly widen it.

I need to be careful here since I have only seen how the system worked for the time I was at the school. It is possible that there has been a significant improvement in program implementation throughout the system that was not evident at the school I was at, or that did exist at the school I was at but that was not really documented.

What's next for you? This week you are graduating? Are you going on to graduate school in the fall?

I leave this summer for California where I will join my boyfriend when he returns. I am interviewing for positions as a special education teacher out there. I also will begin graduate school this fall. I want to earn a Master's Degree in special education.....I am not certain yet whether I want to go on the PH.D...that's a lot more school and this week I just graduated. I may need a break before I begin the really long time commitment needed to that level of study. But I do know that I am really excited about the chance to continue working with students with learning and other disabilities.

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