Teaching special education classes requires exceptional dedication and the desire to understand and support students with special needs. Teachers typically have strong observational skills and the ability to adapt. They must be flexible, detail-oriented, and capable of multitasking.
But these dedicated teachers will occasionally need a day off. When special education teachers are absent, a well-trained substitute teacher can mean the difference between a predicament and a productive day in the special education classroom.
What Special Education Teachers Do
In order to understand what special education teachers do, it is essential to examine the foundations of the special needs classroom.
The term special education encompasses thirteen categories covering physical, cognitive, social, and emotional disabilities, as well as developmental delays. These can range from mild to moderate to severe impairments, and as such, all students have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) designed specifically to address their unique needs.
Services are typically provided from preschool through age 21 or when students achieve high school graduation. Additionally, some states provide continuing education and vocational services beyond age 21.
When providing these services on a day-to-day basis, a special education substitute teacher must be trained to:
Address the whole child
A special education substitute teacher that supports their students’ IEPs primarily addresses students’ learning needs but also considers communication, mobility, transportation, and other needs as students transition from one level to the next. In this way, students receive supports that promote well-rounded growth and development.
Seek to approximate the general education experience
An IEP will spell out a plan for educating the student in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) or as close as possible to the way the student’s nondisabled peers are educated. Special education substitute teachers should be willing and able to follow this plan.
For some students, this may be receiving special accommodations in an inclusive general education placement, while for others, it will mean learning in a categorical special education classroom. Even students with severe disabilities are expected to spend time with their nondisabled peers at lunchtime, during school assemblies, or in extra-curricular activities, if it is not possible during instructional time.
Support a growth mindset
Special education programming is built upon the belief that all students can learn, and that with appropriate accommodations and supports, students can achieve measurable progress. With the understanding that all students learn differently, special education substitute teachers should be willing to implement individualized activities to help them reach their goals.
Function as a member of a larger team
The IEP team is the “village” that supports each student with special needs. It typically includes the general and special education teachers directly involved with the student, an administrator authorized to make decisions, the school social worker or psychologist to interpret evaluation results, and the student’s parent.
Depending on the student’s specific disability, the team may also include other professionals, such as the school nurse, physical, occupational, and speech therapists, and mobility and behavioral specialists. If appropriate, and dependent upon the age and maturity level, the student may also be included in team meetings. Special education substitute teachers must have the communication and collaboration skills required to work effectively with these colleagues for the benefit of each of their students.
Use the specialized vocabulary
As the plethora of acronyms and specialized terminology indicates, the field of special education has its own unique vocabulary. Understanding the terms and their application is key to the effective implementation of students’ instructional programs and the ability to communicate with other team members.
Be familiar with technology applications
From wheelchairs and walkers to hearing aids and adaptive communication devices, there are many technology applications that may be used to assist and benefit students with special needs. In addition to student assistive devices, special education substitute teachers must be comfortable with a variety of computer applications, which are essential for managing student assessments, keeping records, and making the IEP updates required each year.
The Importance of a Well-Trained Substitute Teacher
While general education teachers focus mainly on academics, special education teachers support students with many additional tasks related to communication, mobility, and activities of daily living (ADLs). And though all students in a given class may have special needs, no two are exactly alike. For these reasons, it is important to have a qualified and well-trained substitute available to cover when the classroom teacher is absent.
Unfortunately, a shortage of special education teachers in many states means that substitutes are also in short supply. Because it is so important to ensuring continuity in special education classrooms, when access to qualified substitute teachers is a challenge, many school districts are seeking the help of educational staffing agencies.
From recruiting the most qualified candidates to providing exceptional general and specialized training, a staffing agency can help schools to resolve their most difficult staffing concerns while providing confidence that all students are in the care of competent and effective substitute teachers.
Contact ESS for help building a pool of substitute teachers dedicated to enhancing student learning. With a toolbox of developmentally appropriate strategies, our substitutes appeal to diverse learners through the application of a variety of engaging learning modalities.
Phil has been supporting school districts across the country for more than 12 years. He works hands-on with districts implementing customized solutions to improve their substitute teacher and support staff programs. When he’s not increasing districts’ fill rates, Phil can be found swinging his clubs on a golf course.