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We’re Following A First-Year Teacher To Learn About Special Ed’s Challenges

Reported by Nicholas Mcvicker

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available. A transcript has been made available.

Ninth-grade students at Thrive Public School in Rolando started their year devising a class handshake. They fumbled through the slaps and fist bumps until everyone got it down. Then they taught it to their teacher, giggling every time the grown man performed the final step, a trending dance move called dabbing.

Meet Elijah Gonzalez. It's his first year as a teacher.

We'll be checking in with Gonzalez throughout the year to learn alongside him. And there will be a lot to learn, because he's just taken what is arguably the toughest teaching gig out there — with only about a month of job training under his belt.

Gonzalez is a Teach For America recruit who's teaching special education.

Lesson One: Special education teacher shortage

Nearly every state has a shortage of special education teachers because, while teacher turnover is high in general, the rate is double for special ed teachers, according to an advocacy organization that tracks the special ed workforce.

Teachers in the field experience the same stress and low pay as their general education counterparts. Plus, they have a ton of extra paperwork.

Special ed teachers must manage Individual Education Plans, or IEPs, for each of their students. These are not just lesson plans; they're documents required by federal law that work kind of like a contract between the parent and the school. They outline the progress students with special needs are expected to meet and how school staff will get them there. They require progress reports and constant updating.

A 2011 study by the University of Kansas estimates special ed teachers spend the largest portion of their day on paperwork and only 27 percent doing what they love — working with students.

Gonzalez, who worked briefly as a special education aid in Chicago before moving to San Diego this summer, said he doesn't think the IEPs will be much of a burden for him at Thrive. The charter school, which recently launched the middle and high school offshoot where Gonzalez teaches, already stresses personalized education.

"That's like their model," Gonzalez said. "They reach all the students at their level, so it's almost like they don't need an IEP if we're doing good teaching."

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Elijah Gonzalez does the class handshake his students created, Aug. 24, 2016.

Lesson Two: Special education policy

In addition to attrition issues, Gonzalez's experience will give us insight into the changing special education landscape.

He'll be using a model for teaching that the federal government is urging all schools to adopt. Rather than teach all of his students with special needs under one roof, he'll "push in" to other teachers' classrooms to assist them there. He'll "pull out" his students in small groups if they need extra attention from time to time.

This style of mainstreaming has long been the goal of most districts, and many of them have already implemented it. But this year is shaping up to be the final push for districts that are lagging. The state is currently drafting school accountability measures that, for the first time, will include the academic progress of students with special needs.

The federal government has twice called out the state for poor academic progress among such students, intervening with resources to help train up staff for mainstreaming.

Even for districts that have made the switch, there's progress to be made. Parents, teachers and union officials have argued there isn't enough staffing to push into every class for every child with special needs. There's also concern some kids are being unfairly isolated in special education classrooms or, conversely, aren't getting what they need in general ed classrooms and shouldn't be there. And for teachers who suddenly must work in tandem, there's often anxiety about giving up control.

Gonzalez said, again, he doesn't think that will be a problem.

"We've built that culture, I think, already within the staff and I think co-teaching will be fine," he said.

Lesson Three: Teach For America

Gonzalez has one other challenge to fight off this year: limited training. He arrived in the classroom by way of Teach for America.

The nonprofit often recruits people from outside the education world — Gonzalez's degree is in industrial engineering — to help improve education in low-income communities. Recruits get some summer training but earn their credentials on the job.

Teach for America has been criticized because many of its recruits leave teaching after their two-year stint in some of the nation's most challenging schools. Data from the organization, however, shows the attrition rate is pretty similar to an oft-disputed rate for all teachers — about 50 percent within five years. A 2015 study suggests teacher turnover is more like 17 percent.

As a result of the criticism, however, Teach For America has shored up support for first-year teachers. Those resources could offer ideas for improving things for all new teachers.

Additionally, Teach For America could provide lessons in diversity. The office in San Diego has shown success getting diverse recruits to teach in the communities where they grew up. And more than 80 percent of Teach For America teachers continue to work in low-income areas when given the chance to move schools.

Gonzalez, who grew up in the Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park, Chicago, could have a similar trajectory. He said he grew to love helping the kids in the middle school where he worked as an aid.

"It was a predominantly Latino community, so I was really familiar with that and I just realized how much they needed a role model," Gonzalez said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Elijah Gonzalez calls on a student, Aug. 24, 2016.

Back in his classroom on the first day of school, you wouldn't have known Gonzalez is up against all that.

His students earnestly participated in team-building activities such as the handshakes. In the background, Bob Marley and Jason Mraz songs set a calming rhythm to the day. Everything was about making the students comfortable.

"I just hope they want to come back — that's the big thing," Gonzalez said. "And feel like they can build a community here."

Correction: Elijah Gonzalez has an intern teaching credential. Gonzalez told reporter Megan Burks that he has an emergency credential and she repeated the information in the Midday Edition interview above. He, in fact, does not have an emergency credential. We regret the error.

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