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

Elijah Gonzalez does the class handshake his students created, Aug. 24, 2016.
Nicholas McVicker
Elijah Gonzalez does the class handshake his students created, Aug. 24, 2016.
We're Following A First-Year Teacher To Learn About Special Ed's Challenging Changes
We're Following A First-Year Teacher To Learn About Special Ed's Challenging Changes
We're Following A First-Year Teacher To Learn About Special Ed's Challenging Changes GUEST:Megan Burks, education reporter, KPBS

You may have heard the statistic him half of all teachers quit within five years. That number has been disputed but what is not is that teaching is hard. And teaching special education is especially hard. Special-ed teachers are twice as likely as their coworkers to leave the profession. So we will follow a brand-new special-ed teacher this year to see how things go. Megan Burks introduces him. Meet Elijah Gonzalez. But we will do right now -- what we will do right now is give each group a chance to present. He is young, easy to miss in a room of high school students if it weren't for his thick beard. He's the kind of guy teenagers would want to talk to. Here he is fielding questions from his ninth grade homeroom kids about the tattoo on his forearm. It's a three linked hearts with symbols inside. This represents my sisters. My two older sisters and myself. The firstborn, Second Ward, third born. That's cute. I'm from Chicago. I grew up in Humbolt Park. Is a predominately Puerto Rican community. On the west side. Gonzalez is 27 and moved to San Diego this summer to teach special education at a charter school in Rolonda. The school serves seventh through ninth graders and will become a full-fledged high school in the coming years. Gonzalez is just getting started too. He graduated with an industrial engineering degree. When I graduated I was looking for jobs in my field and I wasn't getting a lot of traction at interviews. They were entry-level positions but with three years experience. I had no experience yet. The student loan bills starting arriving. Gonzalez took a friend's offer to work as a special ed aid at a Chicago middle school. I grew to love the kids. And love teaching them. Not just academics but socially. How to be a productive citizen. I felt like that was missing. I realized how much they needed a role model. So Gonzalez took the leap and became a special-ed teacher. But that's not the end of his story. There are a few challenges ahead. First, Gonzalez arrived in the classroom by way of Teach for America. The nonprofit recruits people from outside the education world to help solve teacher shortages in low income communities. They get their credentials on the job. Teach for America has been criticized because many of its teachers drop out after their two-year stint. After all, they are heading into some of the nation's most challenging schools with limited training under the belts. Gonzalez is arguably heading into the most challenging teaching gig, special-ed teachers experience the same stress and low pay at third general Ed counterparts plus they had to manage special learning plans for each of their students. It's estimated special ed teachers spend about 20% of their days doing what they love helping young minds develop and a third thing, the system for helping students with special needs is a leading with minefields right now. The state and federal governments are urging school districts to include those students in general Ed classes. Districts and parents are trying to make that happen but there are a lot of disagreements. But on Gonzalez's first day of school, those challenges are far from his mind his focus is on his students. I hope they want to come back. That's the big thing. That they feel that they can build a community here. That this will be a good school. That they are excited for the year. And that they are looking forward to tomorrow. We will be back throughout the year to see what lessons we can learn from his experience. Teach for America, for instance, has made strides in ensuring its first year teachers are supported in Gonzalez school may offer lessons Tulsa. Is using a method many schools are transitioning to for special education. In the meantime here is an unexpected lesson from Gonzales' efforts to make a student feel welcome. It turns out Bob Marley is not so cool anymore. The Jamaican guy, Bob Marley. That story by our KPBS Education Reporter, Megan Burks. They can joins me in the studio. Thanks for being here. Thanks, Allison. Tell us why you wanted to take on this project a following a new teacher in the classroom. I will be straight with you. I may new Education Reporter and we are starting out on a beat there is a universe of information you don't know yet. It's an exciting place to be but also a very scary place to be. My thought was if I could connect with a teacher and follow them, I can learn alongside them. Gonzalez, who you follow, is a really being faced with some tall challenges right off. He's being thrown into special education. Did you talk to him about how prepared you to handle that? I wanted to give listeners a sense of who this person is that we will be following. I did not grill him on those details but he definitely trust that it will all work out. He was talking with the students about the need to trust the good intentions of their colleagues around them. I think he is doing the same thing. I think he believes and feels that his colleagues are going to do great teaching and that he's not going to run into a lot of the challenges that a lot of special ed teachers do. While the premises of you taking on the story is that a lot of teachers, not to mention special-ed teachers, don't last very long in the classroom. Are you hoping to discover some of those dynamics? I'm hoping to discover the solutions to those dynamics. I know that with special education teachers, well with all teachers, there is stress and low pay. Was special education teachers there's also a ton of paperwork. That paperwork has legal binding to it because it is required by federal law. It has an added layer of stress. There's just a lot of extra work that has to be done outside of working with kids. I'm interested in finding what are the solutions that teachers are finding so they can spend more time into warming for work with the kids. What did Gonzalez tell you about how he was prepared to get into the classroom? His background was not teaching. That's right. His schooling was an industrial engineering. He has spent some time working with a special ed kids. He was a one-on-one aide at a middle school in Chicago. He does not have a credential and special ed teaching. He has what you call an emergency credential which is what they give Teach for America teachers as they are embarking on the first year. Then they get their true credentials during the year. If you want to talk about formal training outside of the classroom, he has about one month of summer school teaching and about a month of instruction from Teach for America. Emergency credentialing. So, in terms of him being in the classroom. Thrown into the soup, as a work, what support does he have? That's what I want to find out. But what I understand he may have more support than other teachers would have which is why we may be able to learn from him. Teach for America do professional development on a weekly basis with their recruits. They are also in the classroom getting their credentials survey have those professors they can ask questions to. Bright charter school is this darling of education magazines because it is trying a lot of innovative things in partnering with coalitions. Part during with Facebook and all kinds of folks to figure out how to make education better. Is the kind of school where development and evolution is in the blood. And so I get the sense he may have some supports there. And you as the reporter, will you be attending some of these sessions that the teachers are working on in the school? I would very much like to. -- To get a glimpse of how they are attacking this. What are some of the reasons you think that teachers give for leaving so soon? How would you characterize the problem that teachers are facing these days in the classroom? I think it's -- it's just a lot of work. Schools are more toward blended learning and so there's really a focus on meeting kids where they are in the lesson. And adapting to them. So you are making these different adaptations. There is a ton of work. And in addition to that, there's a lot of paperwork. It's just a tough job. Special education has been the subject of much controversy over the years as to whether to integrate or separate into their own classrooms. Where is that controversy at at the moment and what direction may he going? I think that all schools, if they haven't already moving toward integrating special ed students in their general Ed classes. Where they are -- I think what we're looking at now is this transition, this messy transition to schools that have gone all the way in that direction. They still haven't figure out how to help teachers coteach together and run that relationship smoothly. Maybe they haven't quite found that sweet spot as to how many hours a certain child should be based on their special needs everybody is trying to find that sweet spot. There are also schools that haven't really done this transition yet. They will be doing that. It's more important that they are doing it now than before because the California government is requiring that the academic progress of special education students is included in schools outcome measures. That's pretty challenging it sounds like a Liza did pretty well in his first day. How long will you follow him? The idea is to follow him the whole gear and to be there for all the ups and downs. Hopefully we will check in with him quite often. We look learning just forward to learning along with you what it's like to be a teacher in the classroom. Thank you very much. Megan Burks.

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."

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.

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

Corrected: April 24, 2024 at 11:45 AM PDT
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.