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Forming relationships: supportive & collaborative.

Abstract

The importance and influences of multifaceted relationships are highlighted as the author describes the pursuit and challenges of implementing an effective program for students with special needs. While discovering how to combine new learning with acquired and developed skills within a new teaching position, successful results in student learning manifest due to supportive and collaborative efforts. Based on her first hand experiences, observations, and review of research literature, this teacher/researcher provides a perspective of and for teachers engaging in an experience for the first time.

Introduction

This examination of a first year teacher's experiences in the Resource Specialist position at an elementary school is unique in that the teacher is not a beginner, but an 18-year general education veteran. The exploration of and inspiration from narrative research, influences from supportive/collaborative relationships, student learning, and personal learning combine to create this story. The thread of relationship is woven throughout. The goal: To incorporate current learning with a new role, sharing critical components with other Resource Specialists. To record this journey, a double entry journal was used to note observations and reflections. Daily occurrences, questions, frustrations, insights, surprises, and ideas for doing things differently were recorded. The chance to stop and reflect over several months duration was extremely valuable. This documentation served, as in Pinar's (1988) words, a precondition for knowing and a "concomitant condition to the understanding of others" (p. 150). Self-reflection provided opportunities to understand the needs of students and make adjustments in my teaching as well as reflect on interactions with others, resulting in the development and building of relationships necessary to be more effective in this new position.

The school district's plan for duplication of an existing collaborative program at its other elementary school involving the Reading Specialist and Resource Specialist (RSP) teacher sparked enthusiasm and influenced my decision to apply for the available RSP position at my school site. In addition, it seemed a perfect opportunity to implement the teaching strategies for reading/writing that were gained throughout my Master's program. As noted by York-Barr and Kronberg (2002), because of the diversity and complexity of lives of our student population today, it is necessary to have a more varied perspective and approach for creating successful educational experiences. Sharing instructional responsibilities in a collaborative effort can provide a source to meet that need. The Reading Specialist and I were able to meet the needs of more students and classroom teachers through our collaborative efforts with a group of third grade students. The safe environment created by addressing their needs resulted in students making progress in their reading abilities.

Support, Collaboration, and Learning

The theme of relationship surfaces repeatedly throughout this experience. It is present from the beginning of the school year as I moved into a classroom with a new roommate (Reading Specialist) and a full time instructional assistant. Developing a relationship with students was also needed as I escorted them to my room to administer assessments and/or teach them for a portion of time each day. In addition, there were the countless collaborative relationships with classroom teachers, the school administrator, other specialists, and students' parents.

Personal Learning

While holding onto the idea "... that knowing self and others is central to teaching the child" (Gallego, Hollingsworth, & Whitenack, 2001), an attempt to discover answers to the query of How will I learn to become a Resource Specialist Teacher and incorporate what I'm learning in the Reading Specialist/Master's program into my role? Jersild (1955) states, "A teacher's understanding of others can only be as deep as the wisdom he possesses when he looks inward upon himself' (p.83). I focused a great deal on knowing self through the use of my observation/reflection journal. My personal notes relate to self-awareness regarding attitudes and adequacies. Concerns focusing on self-adequacies are also reported in Whitaker's (2003) investigation of the needs of beginning special education teachers in which he surveyed 156 teachers after their first year teaching.

In other instances through the utilization of a journal, there was recognition of a lack, and therefore, a need to develop the connections with students, which had been a natural and familiar occurrence as a general education classroom teacher. My theoretical notes reflect concerns for knowing and connecting with the students in and outside of the resource program. Similarly, a three year investigation by Kilgore, Griffin, Otis-Wilborn, & Winn (2003) of the problems of beginning special education teachers reported obstacles that included knowing what students are working on in their classrooms and what is expected of the students in their classrooms.

A majority of my methodological notes have to do with frustrations regarding efficient means to organize records, ways to keep track of how students' were working towards their goals and objectives as well as writing Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Echoing personal frustrations, the beginning teachers in Whitaker's (2003) study reported that they needed most assistance in learning policies, procedures, and paperwork.

Support

Another area teachers indicated that the most assistance was needed, according to Whitaker (2003), was emotional support. Contrary to what others have indicated as their experience, I was feeling more supported than at any other time in my career. Beginning with the principal's enthusiasm for me having the position, the school psychologists being very welcoming and offering assistance, other Resources Specialists in the district offering suggestions, and the speech & language specialist providing pointers, all afforded a sense of inclusion and ease with this new position. In addition, words of encouragement were received from the general education teachers and instructional assistants. My new roommate, the Reading Specialist, was making sharing a common space an enjoyable experience.

A study involving the perceptions of a first year teacher of students with learning disabilities by Busch, Pederson, Epsin, & Weissenburger (2001) reported similar experiences of support that this teacher/researcher was receiving. Other studies (Carter & Scruggs, 2001; Kilgore, Griffin, Otis-Wlborn & Winn, 2003) reported challenges that included lack of support and isolation from others. According to a New Teacher Project Advisor of the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, California, lack of support is one of the top reasons special education teachers quit (M. T., personal communication: telephone, November, 2004).

To determine the amount of support provided to Resource Specialist Teachers (RSP) in our county, a survey of a sample that ranged in experience from being on the job for 3 months to 4 1/2 years was conducted (see Table 1). Seven of the 30 questions addressed their perceptions of having support from various professionals in their environment. Results indicated that the teachers felt most support from the school psychologist followed by other special educators on site, next their site administrator, and then general education teachers. Only half of the teachers responding had mentors, and those teachers indicated strong support from them. Support from other district special educators ranged evenly amongst the RSP teachers from none to strong support. Support from the district special education director partially existed for half of the respondents. See issue website http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/win2005.htm

Collaboration

Life-long learning, trust, and respect are what collaboration is about. It is also a means to accomplish the multifaceted goals of schools and a way to build community (Bronwell, & Walther-Thomas, 2002). Building effective relationships is essential for both adult and student learning (York-Barr & Kronberg, 2002). There was a benefit to being a veteran teacher in our district, having familiarity with so many people on whom I would now be relying. This teacher/researcher discovered that one of the most striking aspects of this new position was the number of people needed to develop relationships with in order to learn and accomplish tasks at hand. The Resource Specialist position is dependent on a number of collaborative relationships, most of which intersect with one another (see Figure 1). There is a large amount of interaction as well as effort needed to contact individuals in order to communicate about student needs. As a result, a great deal of reliance on writing notes to individuals and leaving messages on answering machines was done due to time constraints. See issue website http://rapidintellect.com/ AEQweb/win2005.htm

From the beginning of the school year, the collaborative relationships that seemed most supportive were with the school psychologist, speech and language specialist (LSH), reading specialist, other RSP teachers in the district, and the principal. The LSH is on site tire days a week providing access possibility. The LSH made herself available for help with procedures and paperwork. She led my first IEP meeting and provided a great model. What this teacher/researcher noticed most about her style was how she spoke so positively of the student as well as providing information regarding goals to be addressed for the upcoming year. Fellow RSP colleagues were within walking distance or a phone call away. Each one reached out, offering assistance wherever needed. Calls were made to the RSP teacher at the Jr. High for advice about caseloads and conversations took place with the elementary RSP teachers regarding assessment procedures and record keeping. The other specialists assigned to my school site depended on me for information on the students shared in common and to organize the annual and triennial IEP meetings, informing them with dates and times. Interaction with the school psychologist was essential and ongoing because of the system for qualifying students for special education services. Both of the part time school psychologists were extraordinary in their mentorship for the skills and strategies needed to implement immediately.

My experience is similar to other RSP teachers in the area. Those who responded to the survey (see Table 1) agreed that collaboration is an important aspect of the position and indicated a lot of support from the school psychologist, principal, and other site specialists. Those responding also indicated support from general education teachers and agreed that general education teachers at their site were interested in collaboration.

Obstacles to collaboration with general education teachers have been reported in studies such as Kilgore et al. (2003). One obstacle that this teacher/researcher encountered was when making an attempt to work in a collaborative push-in model with an upper grade teacher. Schedules were developed and plans were made but it never manifested due to the upper grade teacher's growing concern for the number of students and adults in the room at the same time (the grade level is impacted with 35+ students per class). Our ongoing communication was limited due to time constraints and mainly consisted of the teacher's periodic request for her students in RSP to work on special curriculum projects and communication at report card time regarding student progress.

Kilgore et al. (2003) indicated that special education teachers were overwhelmed by the amount of organization required to coordinate with the number of general education teachers. They also mentioned the lack of joint planning time of shared professional development opportunities for the general and special education teachers. A modification of the ratio of general education teachers to specialists at the third grade level was possible for me due to the collaborative efforts with the Reading Specialist. We visited our colleagues at the other elementary school in our district to observe their model and collected data to help establish the students' needs. Discovering that a significant number of third graders performed at the below basic level on the English Language Arts (ELA) of the California Standards Tests (CST) as illustrated in Table 2, we decided to make that the starting place for our collaborative efforts. We designed a plan that would include rotating groups of students through guided reading, systematic phonics instruction, and independent reading with written response to reading. Our plan would provide scaffolding during guided practice, fluency development during independent reading, development of decoding skills as a result of explicit instruction, and opportunities for metacognition while responding to reading in writing. See issue website http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/win2005.htm

The Reading Specialist, Lois, approached the third grade teachers to seek recommendations for names of students they felt were reading below grade level. Knowing that our instruction needed to be driven by assessment, as emphasized throughout all of the coursework in my Master's program, Lois and I shared the task of administrating the San Diego Quick (SDQ) assessment (Ekwall & Shanker, 2001) and the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) (Beaver, 1998) to help establish students' reading levels. We determined that the cut off for service in our program would be students who were reading at level 20 (early second grade level) and below. Twelve students from four different third grade classes qualified for the collaborative group. Table 3 provides a sample of the students that were recommended to receive instruction in our collaborative group based on their results on the three assessments (DRA, SDQ, and CST). See website http://rapidintellect.com/AEQweb/win2005.htm

Next we met with the classroom teachers to provide the assessment results and share our ideas for the structure and schedule for the reading group. The issues the classroom teachers needed to consider were how that would coincide with their established ELA program, fitting the pull-out schedule with theirs, being able to feel comfortable with their students receiving different instruction than what they were providing, and grading report cards. Our job was to listen, empathize, and reassure that we were there to support them as well as their students. In their discussion of the importance of developing communication techniques, Radenich, Beers, & Schumm, (1993) mention attentiveness, sincerity, collegiality, and thoughtfulness as some of the key traits. Following our discussion that addressed the teachers' concerns and students' needs, a decision was made to put the idea into action.

Lois and I were very enthusiastic about our collaborative endeavor and excited about the fact that we were meeting the challenge provided by the district. We shared the perspective that explicit instruction at the students' level was critical to making strides in their reading abilities. Lois and I felt that our combined trainings could meet the students' needs evident in the assessment results and that student learning would assure the classroom teachers that collaborative efforts paid off.

Student Learning

The third grade collaborative reading group included 2 RSP students and 10 Title I students. Students were grouped according to assessment performance resulting in three reading level groups. Every student indicated progress between the fall and winter assessments (see Table 3). Lois and this teacher/researcher are certain the progress was the result of meeting the students where their needs were and providing materials and instruction at their appropriate level.

The collaborative third grade group is only a portion of my caseload responsibilities as the Resource Specialist. A weekly schedule also includes working with students 1:1, groups of students in grades 2-6, and a few students enrolled in the district home school program in grades 2-5. Although this teacher/researcher believes that the instruction provided in a pull-out program can be more directed towards the students' needs, it has become more and more apparent the importance of collaboration with the students' general education teachers and the need to observe in the student's classrooms. Having ongoing communication with teachers and more knowledge of classroom instruction would enable me to better help students make transitions between programs and target my instruction accordingly. Unfortunately, time constraints are a large issue.

Critical Components

The original question now transforms to "What have I learned to share with other Resources Specialist Teachers?" My response is based on an accumulation of observations, first hand experiences, and a review of research literature. The critical components of this position, include:

* Self reflection

* Communication skills

* The development of relationships Existence of ongoing supportive relationships

* Skills in effective literacy instruction Organizational skills/strategies

* Incorporation of collaborative models

The role of an RSP teacher is interwoven into a number of aspects involving the whole school. Considering that the students served range across the grade levels, and school and community wide relationships are necessary to implement the designed program, it's easy to recognize that the more one pauses to inventory, evaluate, and adjust, the greater the success of achieving desired results. An RSP teacher needs to implement the quality of honesty not only for self-reflection but for interpersonal communication skills as well. Other principles of effective communication, as mentioned by Bos & Vaughn (2002) include mutual respect and trust, acceptance, listening, use of plain language, questioning strategies, and encouragement.

Skillful communication leads to ease of relationship building. Effective skills are necessary when professionals who haven't worked together before now find themselves in a position dependent on their interaction. York-Barr and Kronberg (2002) state that relationships are a crucial channel for learning and emphasize throughout their reported research on effective partnerships, the importance of building effective professional relationships.

Conclusion

Self-reflection helps unite one's experiences and brings awareness to thought processes, therefore building relationships between ideas. It is also the essence of building connections with others. As teachers share reflections and listen to one another, not only ate perspectives multiplied but a sense of trust is developed as well. The benefits of incorporating time for self-reflection and sharing within program schedules are numerous. Evidence illustrated by this teacher/researcher's experience, survey results, and research literature, indicate the importance of supportive relationships and how crucial they ate to individual success. The guidance, encouragement, and expectations of supportive relationships create a secure structure in which to work, teach, and learn. Collaborative relationships ate crucial to meeting the needs of diverse student populations and provide a more efficient means for reaching goals. Collaboration provides opportunities for continuous learning for everyone involved, but doesn't just happen. Time, training, and nurturing are the foundations for creating collaborative efforts, and thus student success.

References

Beaver, J. (1998). Developmental reading assessment. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Company.

Bos, C.S. & Vaughn, S. (2002). Teaching students with learning and behavior problems (5th Ed.). Boston, MA: A Pearson Education Company.

Bronwell, M.T., & Walther-Thomas, C. (2002). An interview with Dr. Marilyn Friend. Intervention in School and Clinic, 37 (4), 223-228.

Busch, T. W., Pederson, K., Espin, C.A., & Weissenburger, J. W. (2001). Teaching Students with learning disabilities: Perceptions of a first year teacher. The Journal of Special Education, 35, (2), 92-99.

Carter, K.B., & Scruggs, T.F. (2001). Thirty-one students: Reflections of a first year teacher of students with mental retardation. The Journal of Special Education, 35 (2), 100-104.

Ekwall, E.E. & Shanker, J.L. (1999). Ekwall/Shanker reading inventory (4th Ed.) Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gallego, M., Hollingsworth, S., Whitenack, D. (2001). Relational knowing in the reform of educational cultures. Teachers' College Record 103 (2), 24-266.

Jersild, A.T. (1955). When teachers face themselves. New York: Teachers' College Press.

Kilgore, K., Griffin, C., Otis-Wilborn, A., & Winn, J. (2003). The problems of beginning special education teachers: Exploring the contextual factors influencing their work. Action in Teacher Education, 25 (1), 38-47.

Pinar, W.F. (1988). Whole, bright, deep with understanding: Issues is qualitative research and autobiographical method. In W.F. Pinar (Ed.), Contemporary curriculum discourses (pp. 134-153). Scottsdale, Arizona: Gorsuch Scarisbrick.

Radencich, M.C., Beers, P.G., & Schumm, J. S. (1993). A handbook for the K-12 reading resource specialist. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Whitaker, S. D. (2003). Needs of beginning special education teachers: Implications for teacher education. Teacher Education and Special Education, 26 (2), 106-107.

York-Barr, J., & Kronberg, R. (2002). From isolation to collaboration: Learning from effective partnerships between general and special educators. In W. Sailor (Ed.), Whole-school success and inclusive education: Building partnerships for learning, achievement, and accountability (pp. 163-181 ). New York: Teachers' College Press.

Georganne Schroth-Cavataio, San Lorenzo Valley Elementary School, Felton, CA

Schroth-Cavataio is a beginning Resource Specialist Teacher and recent graduate student in the MA/Education program at San Jose State University, San Jose, CA.
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Author:Schroth-Cavataio, Georganne
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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