Monday, March 10, 2008

Nothing Replaces Knowledgeable Teachers

In a variety of ways the past week or so I have been reminded that nothing can replace a teacher who is well-educated, well-prepared and willing to learn and research more to be a better teacher.

First there has been a discussion among some people I correspond with about how to teach reading. Within the conversations there were so many myths floating around that my head was swimming. First there was the idea that all it takes to teach any aspect of reading (or anything else) is a "curriculum". Curriculum in this conversation meant an off the shelf book, series of books or software. Thus teachers were speaking as if they could suddenly teach reading if only they had this or that "curriculum". There was little knowledge behind what some people were saying. Nothing indicated that people understood what research says actually works to teach students to read. Maybe I was privileged to have attended the college I attended to prepare to be a teacher, I know I was privileged to have had the professor I had for reading methodology (thanks Donna), but I don't understand how teachers can be in the classroom everyday and NOT know what scientific research says about how to teach students to read.

Science is actually pretty clear on the issue and has been for many years. The problem is that many teaches did not learn how to read themselves using science based techniques, many teachers never studied science based reading research in college and many teachers think that phonemics, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension are boring to teach. Yet that is exactly what science based reading research says we need to teach - phonemics, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Not "whole language", not "balanced literacy", not "four blocks", we need to use programs created using science based reading research. There is a great article on Ed Excellence that explains all of this (and why those programs are NOT based on science).

Maybe I did luck on where I went to college and who taught me about reading instruction, but even if I hadn't I would still be responsible for teaching reading, which means I am responsible for knowing how to teach reading. That means I would have to hit the library and be willing to self-educate myself about reading instruction. Perhaps I could sign up for a workshop or a class, but somehow I would need to be self-motivated to learn what I need to know because that is my job. Yet I don't know very many teachers who hit the books when they feel unprepared, though many take workshops and to a lesser degree classes. Instead I hear about teachers who order materials or "curriculum" to replace the learning what they need to know or I hear about teachers who just don't bother doing anything. (Chances are if you read this blog you aren't one of those teachers, based on the fact that you are seeking out information on your own.)

As this reading debacle has been going on with around me I have also meet with or heard from many learners or families of learners who do not have access to appropriate assistive technology or alternative/augmentative communication. Someone I know questioned me today about why a student would get to high school and not have a speech generating device if she needs one. Although the reasons behind that may initially look like funding issues or some other reason, the true reason is someone wasn't the well-educated, well-prepared and knowledgeable teacher they needed to be. Some teacher didn't push and press and prove that the student needed AAC and didn't find a way to make it happen.

I'm not saying that all teachers need to be AT or AAC experts (or step on the toes of people who are experts), I am saying that all teachers need to know what is out there, how to get it funded and who is supposed to be doing the work within their school, district or agency to make it happen.

Maybe some of us didn't take the assistive technology or AAC course in college (if there was one), it doesn't matter, we still have the responsibility to learn about it now. Teachers are the team leaders; we are the one thing that schools can't cut (after all speech, OT and PT can be dropped from IEPS, but not having a teacher) and we need to know what our students need and how to get it for them. There is no reason, in this day and age, when children in developing nations are getting lap tops, for our special needs students not to at the very least have someone fighting for them to have what they need in terms of tech, AAC or anything else, but first we need to know what we are talking about. We need to be knowledgeable.

We teachers in the field of multiple special needs have a unique role. A role that very few other educators have. We have even more power to make a difference in our students lives than many other kinds of teachers. I think that is why many of us choose this field, yet when we don't do everything we can to be as knowledgeable as possible we don't make a difference; we end up babysitting.

P.S. I have a feeling this may be my first truly controversial post in nearly two years of writing this blog. Do try to keep the comments civil and productive.


  1. From the perspective of a parent...

    I would like to say that I agree it is a teacher's responsibility to be knowledgeable in regard reading, as well as other topics in the education "domain."

    When it comes to things like AT and ACC, however, I think you can let yourself and fellow teachers off the hook a bit. A child with significant needs likely has a slew of doctors, therapists, and other "experts" working with them outside the school. So when you are asked how a student can make it to high school with out a needed device, some blame can surely go to them as well.

    And there is also us parents. In this day and age, when so much information is at one's fingertips, a parent has no excuse for not being educated enough about their child's condition to at least inquire about the possibility of AT or ACC.

    Just my thoughts... JG

  2. Just my opinion....

    As another teacher, I have to say I agree with you whole-heartedly! There is nothing that takes the place of a knowledgeable teacher.

    Teaching is a dynamic process and I make decisions during every lesson based on what I know about my students, what I learned through experience, what I learned from other teachers and what I learned from research and study. This is why I believe teaching is an art or a craft. There are specific skills we must have as teachers, but the art or the craft is how we synthesize the knowledge that we have and apply it to our practice on a daily basis.

    I don't have to be the most creative person. I don't have to know every detail about every specialized area of special education (and there are a lot of them!) I don't have to know all of the answers when it comes to AT or AAC or the student in my class who is visually impaired (VI) or all of the muscle development and hierarchy of skills for my students who receive PT.

    I DO have to think! I have to observe! I have to question and hypothesize. I have to know where to access resources. I have to be willing to acknowledge another person's expertise and apply it in my room.

    I also agree with JG's statement " much information is at one's fingertips..." There is so much information available that all of the stakeholders (teachers, parents, therapists, etc.) need to take responsibility in our children's education.


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