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IEP season can feel overwhelming for new teachers. These strategies smooth the path, providing step-by-step instructions for making the most of the end of the year.

The first year of teaching involves an overwhelming number of new things: work environment, curriculum, coworkers, and students, not to mention figuring out how to make the copier work after it’s jammed in three places. 

For first-year special education teachers, the busiest time of year is often the spring, when students’ individualized education programs (IEPs) are due in quick succession. 

Don’t Overestimate The Power of Scheduling

From there, determine the week when each meeting will be held. For any specific student, identify three times when the whole team is free, including service or administrative team members who need to be involved. Reach out to the parent or guardian and offer the most preferred date/time. If the parent or guardian is not available, provide the next two options. In most scenarios, having three times when all team members are free ensures that the family member has some choice and minimizes back-and-forth.

Create a System to Monitor Progress Toward IEP Goals

Choose one day per week to monitor progress, and be sure to get students excited and involved. Create systems for independent work within your room; for example, in a resource room setting with students working on academic goals, you might create a “Show What You Know” day. Students can choose an independent reading level book to read in the classroom while you work one-on-one with each student, monitoring their progress toward reading fluency.

Prepare General Education Teachers

You can be sure that new general education teachers are ready for IEP meetings by showing them the meeting agenda and indicating which sections they will be responsible for discussing. Share insight into the types of questions they might receive about accommodations or student progress to give them time to prepare. 

Protect Prep Time 

It is crucial to ensure that you are completing compliance work during the school day to avoid overwhelm during this busy time of year. As a special education teacher, you can easily lose precious prep time responding to student behavior or supporting a student in another teacher’s room. If you want to avoid writing IEPs at 9 p.m. or on a Saturday, work hard to protect your prep time. If there are paraprofessionals on the team, utilize them to support students in other classrooms. Alternatively, inform the leadership team of your heavy compliance workload, and request additional support with student behavior. 

If needed, move to a different space in the building to have privacy to complete your work. You might need to get creative here; I have written IEPs in a back stairwell or a hidden corner of the school library! 

Finally, be sure to batch your work. IEP season requires a significant amount of parent contact; complete these communications via email or text if possible during your prep time. Perhaps your district requires signed IEPs to be uploaded to a specific website; wait until you’ve held a few meetings, and then scan and upload all of the documents at once.

The spring semester can feel turbulent, but by taking a few proactive steps to organize and streamline work, special education teachers can spend their time and energy writing clear and legally defensible IEPs that truly showcase students’ abilities and needs, as well as indicate the services and programming needed to ensure students’ success. 

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Replacing Filler In Special Education Documents

Special education teachers want to celebrate the achievements of their students, but doing so can be difficult for those students who struggle to make progress. Consequently, teachers have a tendency to inflate the smallest successes. For some students, finding these successes takes some reaching.

Wanting to praise students is understandable. Most special education teachers enter the field with a desire to help. Self-esteem can be fragile in students with special needs, so praise can be as vital as food. Their parents might need support as well. If nothing else, those parents might like to hear something positive that interrupts the stream of disappointing news about what their children can’t do.

Praise does indeed have its place. It can be specific or general, verbal or written, public or private. Deft teachers create opportunities to praise, even when the praise is for something trivial. But as helpful as it might be for students to hear it, this type of thin and insubstantial praise doesn’t belong written into special education documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs.

Too often, special education documents include descriptions of students being “hard workers” and “enthusiastic about learning.” Such statements lack specificity. The performance data in these documents must be detailed and norm-referenced. Stating that a student is “a pleasure to have in class” might make a parent smile, but this isn’t helpful in planning future instruction.

The reevaluation report is meant to indicate whether or not the student continues to need special education services. Teachers need to report how the student is performing compared with non-disabled students of the same age. For services to continue, a gulf between actual and expected performance should be obvious. This might force teachers state what a student can’t do. Though possibly uncomfortable for all parties, this is necessary.

Collecting Data

Present-level statements in the IEP must coincide with the reevaluation report. The IEP can go farther for students of transition age. Present levels under transition can include detailed narratives about highly specific abilities. Statements can include a student’s ability to give personal information, use a phone, or describe his or her disability.

To help ensure worthwhile reporting, teachers can use a checklist of age-appropriate skills. Generic versions of such lists are readily available by searching for developmental or life-skills checklists. Commercial versions are available through publishers such as Curriculum Associates. State standards can be used as guides as well. Teachers can track what each student on a caseload has accomplished by a given age. The results can become a student’s present levels. Though time consuming, compiling mounds of data on special education students is essential. Not only does it substantiate educational placements and planning decisions, but it also serves as indispensible evidence if a case is being heard for due process. The longer the checklist, the more data will be available.

Such a list should include whatever assessments the district uses (KeyMath, Brigance, CareerScope, and so on) along with state-level results, if available. Other items to include on the list will vary by age or disability. Lists for some students could include money handling or dressing skills. Registering to vote or completing FAFSA forms might be appropriate for other students. The point is to have a collection of measurable abilities that can appear in relevant documents.

Measurable Goals and Explicit Information

Presenting this information clearly is equally important to having it. Teachers can include positive statements about skills, such as, “Juan can correctly pronounce 15 of 25 words selected from the Dolch list,” or “Jennifer can write her Social Security number correctly in three out of five consecutive trials.” These statements easily can be rewritten as measurable goals matched neatly to present levels. For example: “Given 25 Dolch list words, Juan will correctly pronounce 20 words in three consecutive trials.”

If anecdotal information is included, it should be specific. Perhaps a student is helpful in the classroom. This should be quantified. A student might be assigned five daily chores, and the teacher can use the list to record how many chores this student completes, or how many redirections are needed. The records can become additional present-level information. If a student has a negative attitude about school and this affects performance, the teacher can quantify this through a survey about school satisfaction. Again, the results would be easy to transfer.

Being explicit is more than a best practice. Documents such as reevaluation reports and IEPs demand specific and detailed information. Filling or padding these documents with unquantifiable praise doesn’t help anyone make or implement plans for students. Contrarily, documents loaded with praise but lacking substance could end up hurting everyone involved. Poor planning tools could affect student outcomes. In a larger scope, an entire district could suffer should a parent wish to use weak documents as evidence in a due process case. Clear and thorough data can protect against legal entanglements while effectively supporting positive student outcomes.

Teacher Preparation: What Schools Of Education Can Do

Education schools determine whether teachers walk into their classrooms prepared or are likely to drop out from the profession in the first few years because they feel overwhelmed. Here are some steps education deans and faculty can take to ensure a high-quality teacher preparation program:

Make sure teacher candidates get plenty of opportunities to observe, tutor, and teach in real K-12 classrooms. One way to provide hands-on experience is to establish professional development schools in partnership with local school districts. Teacher candidates learn and practice-teach at the classroom site, receiving instruction and feedback both from classroom teachers and university instructors.

Send education professors out to the K-12 schools

Their presence enables them to provide better feedback to teacher candidates at their universities and to make sure theory and content taught at the school of education relate to what is happening in real classrooms. They also have an opportunity to work with veteran classroom teachers in determining school of education curriculum and the most effective teacher education programs.

Think diversity

Prepare future educators for the challenge of teaching diverse populations. Schools of education located in areas without diverse populations, such as the one at the University of Northern Iowa, offer teacher candidates the opportunity to student-teach in cities in other states. But video case studies like CaseNEX can prepare students for teaching in large cities and areas with heterogeneous populations without physically going there.

Establish professional development schools

Develop extended, graduate-level teacher preparation programs that provide a yearlong internship in a professional development school. The book, Studies of Excellence in Teacher Education: Preparation at the Graduate Level, edited by Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, profiles exemplary graduate education programs.

Consider dual-degree programs

As a way to ensure that teachers have both subject matter knowledge and teaching strategy know-how, a number of education schools have adopted five-year programs in which a bachelor’s degree in an academic discipline is earned in the senior year and a bachelor’s degree in education is earned the following year. The “Teacher Preparation: A Sampler” includes examples of such programs.

Recruit potential teachers from diverse backgrounds

“Promising Practices,” a 1998 U.S. Department of Education report on teacher quality, showcases some teacher education programs that have been successful in recruiting minority students.

Train future teachers in technology

In the report, “Log On or Lose Out: Technology in 21st Century Teacher Education,” the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education calls on education schools to invest in technology resources and collect data to show the value of the investment, and to monitor the effect of technology integration on student learning. The report also calls for collaboration between local schools and teacher training.

Keep tabs on the federal “Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology” grants

Congress approved grants starting in 1999 that allocate $75 million for schools of education to integrate technology instruction into their curricula. The grants, known as PT3, have helped schools of education train teachers to put the latest technology to best use in the classroom.


Educational Resources Information Center Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education. The center offers an extensive Web library of information about teacher preparation and the status of the teaching profession.

International Society for Technology in Education. ISTE has written technology standards for teachers that fall into three categories: basic computer/technology operations and concepts; personal and professional use of technology; and application of technology in instruction.

National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Besides being the major accrediting board for schools of education, NCATE offers articles on its Web site on teacher quality and other issues of interest to teacher-educators.

Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology. Congress approved grants starting in 1999 that allocate $75 million for schools of education to integrate technology instruction into their curricula. The grants, known as PT3 grants, have helped schools of education train teachers to put the latest technology to best use in the classroom.

5 Tips For Welcoming Your New Student Teacher

It’s that time of year again: desks have been assigned, daily routines are being established, and September is in full swing. The dynamic of the brand-new school year is powerful. The lingering summer allows for a gentle transition into the newness, and positive energy abounds. The school year has started.

Only this year will be slightly different than past years, because this year, you have decided to take on a student teacher. A bright-eyed, eager, engaged young adult who has found education as their calling. Who is looking at you with a mixture of enthusiasm and uncertainty. Whose career is just around the corner, but not quite here yet. You have been trusted by their college or university to bridge the gap between their classroom learning experiences and real world, practical application. Along with the daily rigors of classroom teaching, you have graciously agreed to become a mentor, a guide, and a leader to the future of the profession. Whether you are a seasoned supervising teacher, or this is your first go at it, here are 5 useful hints for making the most of this unique mentoring experience, for both you and your student teacher.

1. Get Connected. The majority of student teachers will enter the experience slightly anxious. Will they have what it takes? Will the teacher and students like them? These questions, and more self-doubting fears, often underscore their first few weeks in the classroom. In our world of constant connectedness, it is important to find a comfortable way to reach out to your student teacher early in the experience, outside of school hours. During the first day, or even beforehand if possible, reach out and ask your student teacher their easiest form of quick communication. Most will prefer text messaging. If this is the case, send them a text that evening: a friendly welcome, making your excitement for their presence known. This will form a positive connection early, and also open an easy and direct line of communication. It can be a quick way for your student teacher to check in, asking questions about lesson plans or content. Furthermore, if a problem arises later, it can be more easily resolved through the relationship you’ve developed.

2. Be Direct. Because of their tentativeness, many beginning student teachers will wait until they are asked to do something before they do it. This is not because they are lazy; rather, they have an innate fear of stepping on your toes early in the experience. Like your younger students, they are also acclimating to the routine and gaining understanding of your expectations. When you’d like them to do something, directly ask them. They will eagerly perform any task you ask of them, and most will begin to come out of their shells quickly. 

3. Be a learner. Enter the experience with an open mind, willing to let go of the reigns a bit. Your student teacher has spent the last 3- 4 years studying current pedagogy and newest practices. They have read countless articles and texts, and been exposed to cutting edge classroom technology. While they are there to learn from your expertise, you may find that you’ll learn from them as well, if you’re willing to step aside at times.

4. Model the reflective process, and give honest feedback. It is critically important for your student teacher to see your mistakes, as this will allow them to better reflect on their own. As all educators know, an enormous part of the teaching and learning process is trial and error, reflection and revision. Let your student teacher be a part of this. Think out loud when your lesson doesn’t quite go as planned. After the lesson, talk to your student teacher about what you will change for the follow-up. This will create a safe space for your student teacher to take an active role in the reflective process after their own lessons. After they teach, tell them your opinion about what they did well, and be positive but honest about improvements they could make.

5. Treat your student teacher like a peer. Unless you have a non-traditional college student who is in the middle of a career change, you most likely have a young adult student teaching in your classroom. This young person is on the brink of true adulthood, and all of the greatness and challenges that come along with it. They want nothing more than to be trusted by you, someone they see as a superior. Confide in your student teacher, set high expectations, and value their opinions and ideas about the learning environment you are co-managing. Treat them like a trusted colleague. The more they feel like a “real” teacher, the more they will actually begin to become one!

Please remember each day that your service to the future of our profession is incredibly meaningful.  Happy School Year, to you and your student teacher!

3 Strategies For Productive Teacher Mentoring

Experienced teachers and those new to the profession benefit from collaboration and learning that goes in both directions.

Teacher mentoring programs, no matter the locale, tend to provide yearlong, one-to-one guidance to less experienced teachers, with mentors and mentees typically meeting at least once a week. Through those meetings with veteran teachers, plus impromptu classroom visits, lunchtime chats, texts, and phone calls, new teachers gain professional knowledge, skills to reflect on the status quo, and a vision for the future.

But the pandemic school year, as we all know, was extremely taxing for novice and experienced teachers alike. From it emerged new strategies that benefit both the mentor and the mentee.

Create Structures for Collaborative Support

School-based new teacher support groups provide a convenient, safe space for newcomers in their first three years of teaching. When sessions are led by a trained teacher-mentor, novices become comfortable sharing challenges and successes, and the group also finds out about just-in-time topics and helpful instructional strategies. New staff members also have the opportunity to get to know the faces and names of colleagues who are going through similar experiences.

For example, if a high school enrolls a large percentage of second-language learners, an ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) staff member can lead September’s monthly support session, providing targeted background information about the building’s student population. The presenter can describe unique challenges that ESOL students often experience, then introduce three ways teachers can offset these challenges to promote student success. Because the session happens at the start of the school year, topics can also include cultural information and guidance about upcoming holidays, and a list of interpreters for parent-teacher discussions can be distributed.

In addition to a school’s newbie learning and support group, “resource clusters” can form out of a need for help with a certain topic, like online instruction. Teachers of all experience levels, across several elementary grades, and even from different schools can work collaboratively to share understanding and to help each other figure out the best way to design lessons. Because the resource cluster grows from an organic need, its membership expands and shrinks based on teachers’ comfort levels and needs.

By creating or joining a resource cluster, teachers are empowered to overcome any challenge they encounter by seeking support and working with like-minded educators.

Cultivate Reciprocal Teaching and Learning

The mentor-mentee relationship is dynamic and fluid, depending on the current topic and each teacher’s needs. Many young, novice educators have a lot of technology experience that older teachers might not, providing mentees with opportunities to guide veterans. Mentors, then, model a learning stance by allowing themselves to be vulnerable, highlighting and tackling knowledge gaps and pushing themselves forward professionally. By reversing roles, mentors expand their knowledge while reinforcing relationships with mentees based on mutual respect, encouragement, and collaboration.

All mentor program participants benefit from taking on the roles of both instructor and student because learning often becomes more powerful when it’s a two-way street. But taking on reciprocal roles has an additional benefit: Professional duos form strong, affirmative bonds when they interact based on each person’s expertise. When colleagues take part in the give-and-take of being both the expert and the amateur, a mutually beneficial, steadfast connection emerges that enhances the mentoring relationship and its outcomes.

Use Live and Recorded Video to Support Visits to Other Classes

Teachers new to their roles benefit from visiting other classrooms, as seeing what takes place when another teacher is in charge can be a robust learning opportunity. Yet during a typical school year, it can be challenging to schedule peer visits because of time conflicts and the expense of hiring substitute teachers. Last year, however, I noticed that teachers’ frequent use of video technologies allowed new hires to take part in more than twice the number of peer observations than I saw the previous year, which exposed them to far more instructional strategies and classroom models.

For example, with live video, incoming educators and experienced ones can join a colleague’s virtual class for 10 to 15 minutes as a deliberate strategy to learn how to incorporate technology tools. Furthermore, they can spend the same amount of time visiting peers on other grade levels or even at different schools to learn about the same strategy or an entirely different topic. Observing in several classrooms broadens new professionals’ experiences and provides them a range of approaches from which they can reflect and choose.

Undocumented Education: A Dream Act Deferred

It’s been a little over a week since I received an email with one of those subject headings you never want to see; “sad news,” it began, followed by a name, “Tam Tran”. Inside, was a link to an obituary for Tran and her friend and fellow activist, Cinthya Felix. They were killed on May 15th, in an early morning accident in Maine, when a pickup truck crossed the center divide and hit their car.

Tam Tran was 27. Cinthya Felix was 26. They were living up to their immigrant parents’ hopes for a better life for their children. Both had overcome poverty and language challenges and excelled in high school. They went on to graduate from UCLA — with honors — and were accepted into graduate programs at two of the nation’s top colleges; Tran was pursuing a Ph.D. in American civilization at Brown University; Felix was studying for a Master’s in Public Health at Columbia and hoped to become a doctor.

But, for all their determination and academic success, they knew there was no chance of finding jobs in their fields when they graduated. Tran and Felix were undocumented.

Let’s take a collective breath here. This isn’t about politics; it’s a memorial for two young women, who were leaders for a generation of students facing the same educational barriers, and whose lives were cut short.

Out from Underground

I never met them in person, but Tam Tran and I emailed often two years ago, when my graduate students at UC Berkeley were reporting on a lawsuit aimed at overturning AB 540, a California law that allows anyone who attends a California high school for at least three years, and graduates, to pay in-state tuition at state universities and colleges. Nine states have similar laws, a few others specifically ban it.

AB 540 made it possible for Tran and Felix to afford UCLA, where they met and were part of an underground organization that helped undocumented students by directing them to private scholarships and supportive faculty. Eventually, they took the organization to other college campuses, and learned the risks of going public.

A Dream Confronts Reality

It happened in 2007, when Tran testified before the House immigration subcommittee in support of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. The bill, which has enjoyed strong bipartisan sponsorship, would create a path to citizenship for undocumented students if they earn a high school degree and complete two years of college or military service.

Three days after she testified, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided Tran’s home, taking her brother and parents into custody. ICE officials said later on — after members of Congress intervened — that it was a coincidence; they said the raid was planned weeks earlier when they mistakenly thought her family had violated its refugee status.

Tran herself had an exceptionally ambiguous status.

Living in Limbo

Tran’s parents were so-called “boat people” who fled Vietnam after Saigon fell, and after her father had been held in a re-education camp for his anti-communist activities. They were rescued at sea by the German navy and Tran was born in Germany, a country with no birthright citizenship. She was six when her family immigrated to the U.S., but, legally, Tran had no home. When she died in Maine earlier this month, she died without a country.

What’s Legal for Illegal Immigrants?

The United States has such a deeply rooted tradition of public education — dating back to Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Constitution — that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1982 granted all children living in this country, legally or not, access to a free public education from elementary school through high school.

The case is “Plyler v. Doe”. And, in a variation of the United Negro College Fund slogan, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” the Justices wrote, “Illiteracy is an enduring disability. The inability to read and write will handicap the individual deprived of a basic education each and every day of his life.”

The high court also said, in essence, that children shouldn’t have to pay for the sins of their parents. But Tran and Felix didn’t see their parents as sinners. When my friend Bruce Fuller, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, interviewed Felix for a brief titled “The Cultural Strengths of Latino Families,” he asked where she found the wherewithal to succeed against the odds. “‘It’s my parents,’ she said. ‘They have sacrificed so much to give us the opportunity to go to school, to grow.'”

I forwarded the email to Bruce, the one that said “sad news,” in the subject line. He responded quickly with disbelief. “This is so terribly sad. I heard them both speak on a panel at Brown last year. They were so dynamic, hard driving, clear. Seems so unfair, they were so young.”


–Kathy Baron, Features Producer & Research Editor, Edutopia

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