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The consulting teacher: a reply to Marleen Pugach.

The Consulting Teacher: A Reply to Marleen Pugach

If I understand her correctly, Marleen Pugach expressed the following views in response to my February 1988 article in Exceptional Children (Vol. 54, No. 5, pp. 403-414):

1. The Holmes and Carnegie reform proposals do not support the position that master consulting teachers can emerge from a background that does not include substantial experience as a regular classroom techer.

2. Regular education experience is required of all consulting teachers because of the broad range of situations they must address.

3. Special education is usurping general education functions and creating schizophrenic and confusing goals for consulting teachers by urging the use of traditional special education skills on the one hand and of broad general education skills on the other.

Lurking behind these views is a concern that special educators believe they have a "superior commitment to children and youth" and can or should dominate the education reform movement. She sees my article as part of a broader trend within special education to view itself as "the standard for the concerns and activities of master teachers in particular and all teachers in general" (quotes are from Pugach, pp. 273-275, this issue).

As a preliminary matter, it is a mistake to assume that master consulting teachers would be the only kind of master teachers in a school. My article did not say that, nor did its recommendations presume that. If there was ambiguity on this point, it was unintended. Consulting teachers can be one kind of master teacher--a kind to which dually trained educators can aspire. The article was written with the view that some special educators could attain master consulting teacher status, just as could some regular educators. There will need to be other kinds of master teachers to which singly trained educators can aspire and whose role is not to focus on children at risk for a handicapping label. The particular goal of a master consulting teacher, however, is to improve the lot of handicapped students or those at risk of being so labeled, as Pugach herself points out. Though the article mentions other benefits that could follow in the consulting teaching wake, it does not infer that special education should dominate the universe of master teachers. Rather, it suggests that special educators, too, can play a role in professional reform, something neither the Holmes nor the Carnegie reports addressed explicitly. There need be no conflict between the article's view that some special educators can join the ranks of master teachers and the descriptions of master teachers in those reform reports. Indeed, I see the article's thrust as a logical extension of those reports.

As to the proposed preparation requirements for consulting teachers, Pugach is correct that these requirements are less than some would consider ideal. It may not be realistic, however, to urge all states to require consulting teachers to have had both regular and special classroom experience because at least some states may lack enough teachers with dual experience and will need to tap both promising regular and special educators for the role. Then, too, it is a mistake to believe that those without successful regular classroom experience (or those without successful special education experience for that matter) cannot succeed in a master consulting teacher role. To insist on dual classroom experience may elevate form over substance and prevent some gifted and experienced teachers from being recognized as excellent prospective consulting teachers. Additionally, some teaching-background differences among a cadre of consulting teachers may create a richer set of experiences to be shared with one another.

Pugach's point seems to be that it will be riskier to have special educators without regular education experience than vice versa. Such an assumption is unwarranted. Comparable but different risks arise in both situations. Special educators without regular classroom experience would not reflect any more of a "narrow band" of experience than would regular educators elevated to the role without special education experience. Experience in both settings no doubt would be helpful. To the extent that either a regular or a special educator lacks such dual experience, each will be comparably narrowed but not necessarily critically so.

One means of reducing the risk of what can be seen as compromise experience levels for a consulting teacher is to require graduate-level certification as a consulting teacher in addition to regular and special education certifications. Alternatively, or in addition, the article suggests that candidates be screened and recommended by their principal or colleagues as possessing the skills to be an effective consulting teacher. Through use of such a screening mechanism, regular educators are given an important say in whose skills are acceptable to them.

On balance, it seems to me that the risks of less than dual classroom experience can be minimized, and offset by the possible gains.

As to Pugach's point that special education cannot decide if the role of the consulting teacher is to perform general or special education functions, I would have thought she would embrace the move to have the consulting teacher employ more than "traditional special education techniques." She apparently sees role confusion where I see a marriage of roles--combining the narrower skills of special education with a set of broader general teaching and consulting skills. Such a marriage will not be easy; marriages take work. In fact, one of the major points of the article is that such a union will be possible only if the role is correctly defined, understood, structured, and supported.

Special education has much to contribute to a consulting teacher. Special education techniques such as behavior management, task analysis, and continuous measurement of progress are useful in the regular classroom. Alone, however, they are insufficient for the consulting teacher. As my article explicitly states, the consulting teacher requires more than narrow special education training and must possess "communication and teaming skills," "collaborative problem solving skills," "familiarity with the regular curriculum [and] the demands of large group instruction," and perhaps the ability to design "whole curriculum units." These consulting skills would seem to fall within the kind of broad-based skills that Pugach envisions and describes as "teacher education dynamics accompanied by demonstration of instructional and management expertise," whether acquired by classroom experience, a consulting certification program, or both. Both special and regular educators need to combine the broader and the narrower skills to become successful collaborators with a regular classroom teacher, who, by the way, also has knowledge, skills, and experience that a consulting teacher must be comfortable tapping. To allow both special educators and regular educators to expand their functions and skills, to be trained together as consulting teachers, and to collaborate effectively with classroom teachers could be a step toward the reduction of turft battles and a means for some interface btween the two disciplines.

Finally, I agree with Pugach that "special education as a profession is still unclear regarding the scope of consultation." That was a major reason for writing the article. My primary premise is that if we do not carefully define the model and our expectations of it, it will fail. Much more dialogue, thuoght, experimentation, and evaluation are needed still. The article, however, does not espouse Skrtic's view that "more than any other profession in education it [special education] has placed its clients' interests over its own." There is nothing in the article suggesting that regular educators lack commitment to their students' interests, nor that special educators continually champion their students' interests. To the extent that both groups are asked to teach too many students with inadequate financial, professional, and administrative support, members of both groups feel the pressure to assure their own survival first and that of their students second. But it has been my observation that despite that pressure, an amazing number of teachers in both disciplines engage their students with a fierce loyalty and caring.

If one reads the article through spectacles colored by regular-special education tensions, one could read into it an elitism that is not there. I agree that special educators must recognize the value of the contributions of general education. Both special and regular educators need to recognize that diverse disciplines and perspectives have legitimate contributions to make to general educational reform. Special education is among the contributors. I am tempted to go beyond the scope of the article and suggest that a training program in the consultation model be developed and delivered by both special and regular education as an integrated consultant-teacher-training model, distinct from certification sequences within special education or regular education. It might please us both.

DIXIE SNOW HUEFNER is Clinical Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.
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Author:Huefner, Dixie Snow
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Nov 1, 1988
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