By Karen Kaplan, MS
Did you know most school districts in California that serve a larger population of students with neurodiversity are searching for enough teachers to offer effective and appropriate classrooms for special needs students? In addition to a lack of certified special education teachers, there is a lack of paraprofessionals to support those classrooms. Why? That is the question I ask myself.
Why don’t individuals want to become teachers in the field of neurodiversity? I think we must identify those reasons to understand how to recruit, train, and support a long-term commitment on the part of these much-needed teachers.
Some say it is because classroom sizes have become too large to address the modifications and accommodations that are truly needed to offer a program of benefit. Others say designated services have been cut, and while some students may do well in group sessions, there are many who truly need individual support first. Another reason reported is the overwhelming paperwork accompanying educating those with special needs.
Some teachers feel that they need some para-professional support, and funding is not always there to support additional staff in the room. Some teachers say they are stressed by the negativity of advocates and attorneys brought into the picture with their special needs students. There is also the thought that COVID-19 increased fear due to the challenges some special needs students have with maintaining good hygiene or wearing a mask. Most say that teachers' and paraprofessionals’ salaries and benefits do not support the necessary wellness and cost of living.
All the above needs to be evaluated by each school district and private schools to create hiring and recruiting solutions that can be more positive. However, I believe that we need mentor programs put back into the system to truly create effective hiring and recruiting solutions. I believe that when we support the emotional well-being of people when we help guide them, show that we believe in them, and reinforce the fact that they are trying, we give them the guidance they truly need and want. We will see the interest in teaching individuals with challenges become more of an opportunity in our workforce.
Oprah Winfrey says, “A mentor allows you to see the hope inside yourself.” Perhaps our teachers would feel better when challenges occur if our teachers were more hopeful. J. Loren Norris said, “If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.” So, imagine when a teacher feels lost, that they do not know where they are going with a student but wish they had someone who had been in a similar place to ask what they did. A mentor is someone who has that experience.
A mentor listens. What teacher does not need someone who is willing to listen to their challenges? They need more than someone telling them what to do. The mentor knows what questions to ask. A mentor shows empathy and understanding and can offer support and encouragement. A mentor helps the individual believe in their ability to overcome the challenge and get on the other side.
I am sure most credentialing programs are no longer offering mentoring. I am also not sure all teachers are practicing how to accommodate and modify to support neurodiversity in their credentialing programs. I wonder if behavior challenges are even discussed in these programs and if the instructors are providing a variety of cases and what they did to reduce or eliminate those behavior challenges. I wonder if instructors bring in speech and occupational therapists to talk to teachers during their credentialing program. These two professions can truly help teachers address most challenges before they occur. I know instructors rarely visit teachers in their programs. I am unsure if they even encourage teachers to call them with questions or concerns to help get them through a challenge. Did these instructors teach them how to interact, communicate, and problem-solve with advocates, parents, and their attorneys? I think most BITSA programs have also been eliminated or reduced, so these new teacher programs are rarely supported anymore.
So, where is the emotional support for teachers? Where are those who help teachers make it through their early years of trial and error? Perhaps if teachers had these mentors, they might take a chance again in the field of teaching. In addition, when districts revisit salaries and benefits and provide scales that help teachers live on their own successfully, they might see more young people wanting to enter the field. I hope colleges and universities offering credentialing programs might re-think how they build effective skills and problem-solving for those who want to teach individuals with neurodiversity.
Let us call upon all those experienced teachers, therapists, and administrators who want to continue to do meaningful work, but not full-time. let us bring back those who experienced back to mentor, guide, and help teachers feel that they can do it too.
We just all need to help our teachers be like The Little Engine That Could. We need to install the mantra, “I think I can, I think I can,” in their minds, and if you believe in me, then cheer me on. We need to reinstate mentor programs.
Karen Kaplan, MS, is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in speech pathology and audiology. She minored in special education and obtained her speech therapist and special education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges.
Karen founded a non-profit, Offerings, which helps cultures globally to understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an annual Autism Awesomeness event. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. Karen has authored three books: Reach Me Teach Me: A Public School Program for the Autistic Child; A Handbook for Teachers and Administrators, On the Yellow Brick Road: My Search for Home and Hope for the Child with Autism, and Typewriting to Heaven… and Back: Conversations with My Dad on Death, Afterlife and Living (which is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love).