Special education teachers are often tasked with teaching small groups of four to six students. Response to intervention (RTI) is the terminology used for supporting struggling learners, and special education teachers are being asked to teach these groups in addition to their regular student caseload. This poses a problem when the special needs children don’t get the individualized instruction that the IEP is trying to address. The other problem is the students in these groups are often the bad apples, the slackers, and the students who conceal bringing large black sharpies to your table.
I was teaching three special needs students at my table when I was told by the RTI coordinator that I would have Eric and Ryan join our group. Eric and Ryan had reputations of mischief. School supplies went missing. Bugs mysteriously materialized in desks. On the playground playful fighting and dares were the lay of the land. The P.E. teacher had Eric’s and Ryan’s parents on speed dial. Sometimes the playful fighting got out of hand.
Ms. Sumpter, Eric and Ryan teacher, had thrown in the towel. “We can’t teach these ones; send them to Henderson. They are driving me nuts,” Ms. Sumpter complains. Eric and Ryan have frequently called out statements to derive a laugh during class such as “This lesson brought you by spray on hair because you’re that ugly.” The whole class erupts in laughter leaving the students disinterested in Ms. Sumpter’s lesson and her own will to control the class seriously demoralized. Ms. Sumpter needs to provide evidence that Eric and Ryan should join an RTI group, she has to show they were behind academically. Ms. Sumpter willingly provides data to prove these students are behind in the grade level standards. I believe the lack of behavior management was reason these students were behind, and in terms of intelligence prior grades showed no warning signs. No matter the reason, if a student is behind academically, they are put into a RTI group. Today that intervention group is with Mr. Henderson and in dimly light hallway next to the stairwell.
I go to Ms. Sumpter to investigate the interventions that have taken place and discover behavior management is the issue. I offer strategies, but the response is many shaking hands to signify your strategies won’t work Mr. Henderson. Ms. Sumpter debated gloriously with the RTI coordinator knowing if she could provide evidence of their failing grades she would gain a 30 minute of reprieve from Eric and Ryan each day.
I make one last ditch effort to recommend an intervention strategy, loaning my collection of Rocky movies. I envision Ms. Sumpter rewinding the scene where Rocky has just won the match and yells “Adrian!” and instead she yells, “Lesson Plan!” Diligently she types up her lessons on Sunday, spitting in a bucket next to her desk while her husband Mickey makes her some raw eggs. Alive and enthusiastic Rocky has inspired her to try new strategies to teach Eric and Ryan next Monday. Alas, my DVD collection idea was rejected and for collaboration, well that would have to wait.
I gather my herd of second grade students from their respective classroom. Ms. Sumpter smiles when I come as if I were removing a hang nail or eliminating a pesky bug for at least a moment. Thankful for the 30 minute relief, Eric and Ryan were always lined up ready to leave promptly at 1:30. I would march my group including Eric and Ryan to the hallway. We would huddle around a small kidney shaped table outside the hallway tucked away from the noise of wandering students. Our isolation which usually proves to be an advantage to eliminate distractions would prove to not always be valuable.
Eric’s and Ryan’s RTI group was a guided reading lesson on a reading level that closely matched all students at the table. My other three students know my routine and immediately get out a whiteboard and marker behind their chairs. Two days of teaching goes by, and I can see Eric and Ryan kicking the table and staring at the ceiling. I separate Eric and Ryan at opposite ends of the table. Little did I know about the black sharpies in their pockets.
I ask the group, “Write the word smart on your boards and then show me that it is correct.” Eric turns his board around and has written smart ass on his board. Ryan falls out of his chair laughing and grabbing his stomach to control himself.
“Eric, that is inappropriate, and if I see words like that again on your board, you will miss some of your computer time.” When the snickering stops, I escort them back to their classroom and I tell the teacher of the incident. The teacher does not act surprised and also gives me a worried look that says what are you teaching these kids.
The next day I escort my learners to our table of knowledge. Eric and Ryan are already laughing as we come down the stairs. Teachers pass us and shake their heads in disapproval of Eric, Ryan, and possibly me. Our group settles down at the table. After we cover vocabulary and a brief introduction each student begins reading. I hear a scream down the stairwell and then a female voice yells, “help, help” in a very panicked voice. I quickly scan the halls, but no one is around. I hesitate. Can I leave these kids alone for two minutes? I hear the voice again, “help, help” and quickly rise accidentally knocking over my chair.
I point at Ryan and Eric sternly to command, “Stay in your seats and do not go anywhere. I need to go see what is going on. If you finish the book, read it again. I will be back in two minutes.”
I run down the hall to the stairwell to find my co-worker Penny sprawled on the floor grabbing her shoulder. Penny was in her forties and had a slender build. Penny was an avid runner. If she was in pain, it was serious.
“Penny, what happened!” I yell from the top of the steps.
“I think I dislocated my shoulder. It hurts. I can’t even move,” she moans as she lays on her other shoulder trying to gain comfort.
“Just stay still; I will get some help.” I rush to the security guard by the front of the school.
“Out of my way.” Students part nervously as they see me barrel through the halls to run to the front of the school.
Winded, I told the security guard of the situation. I ran back up the flight of stairs. I could not have been gone for more than five minutes. I turn the corner, and I see Eric and Ryan rolling on the floor in a congealed ball. They both have sharpies. They are writing obscenities all over their faces and whatever they can etch. It’s a sharpie war! I pull Eric off of Ryan, and his face is completely covered in black sharpie marks. My other three students were unaffected, but clearly Ryan had won the battle.
“Eric…. Ryan are you crazy? I go to help Ms. Penny because she dislocated her shoulder and I come back to find you writing curse words on your faces!” I yell still gasping for breath after my recent sprint.
“We were just playing.” Ryan said earnestly handing me the sharpie as remorse.
“Your computer time is gone today and for the rest of the week.” They sulk, and the excuses cease.
I take the whole group back to class and tell Eric and Ryan to wash the sharpie battle marks from their faces and arms. I take Eric and Ryan back to their teacher to inform her that I will have to call their parents. However, before I can explain the story, I get a worried look from Ms. Sumpter. As she reads the obscenities that have only slightly faded after they washed their face she states, “Right, I think it might be a good time for us to collaborate so I can tell you what works best for Eric and Ryan.”
“Pencils?” I muse and get a smile from the teacher. I take Eric and Ryan to the principal’s office and prepare myself for the phone call home. I stopped to think how I could of collaborated better with Ms. Sumpter to uncover prior interventions that would work. Over the years I have followed these tips.
The Three Tips
Both teachers need to collaborate on what they will be teaching every week. Although my first year of teaching ended with me learning these lessons the hard way, these tips will help your students have coordinate practice which will bring fluency in an subject.
Uncover prior interventions: What has worked in the past, and what hasn’t? It’s encouraging to know the interventions that have worked, and why should you re-invent the wheel? Talk with the students prior year teacher and create a checklist of successful strategies.
Use scientifically based methods: Use the PRIM ( Pre Referral Intervention Manuel ) or any scientifically proven resource at your disposal with your co-workers. Teachers have a responsibility to use scientifically tested methods that work instead of winging it.
Use the same interventions: What we are wanting to build in a learner is fluency. By using the same templates, comprehension strategies, or steps, both teachers are allowing the students more time to practice. Some students just need RTI or special education services because they need more practice to build fluency.
The real key in collaboration with your RTI group is using the same strategies. Don’t believe me that collaboration makes a difference, check out how teachers in developed nations outside the U.S. with less instructional time get better results through collaboration.
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Email me at [ Dan ] [Henderson ] firstname.lastname@example.org
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If you were considering a career in teaching special education students and read Dan’s stories, you might think twice. After reading about his tools, however, you should see how it can be a rewarding option thanks to his tools and your own hard work and caring.
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-Dr. Doug Green
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*Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect their identity. All specific geographic indicators have been removed from these stories. Additionally, these stories are written about incidents that happened one year or longer from this date. @ That’s Special December 2015