Professional Learning

When You Don’t Know the Subject: Tips for Special Education Teachers

May 15, 2015

If you teach high school special education students, you likely have to teach some amount of content. You might team-teach with a content teacher, or you might provide remedial instruction for a subject in a resource room. In some schools, you might be the special education content teacher, providing content instruction to groups of students with IEPs. Each of these cases requires a special education teacher to know detailed knowledge of subject area content. You might not have signed up for this.

Before You Start

States have enacted protections against having special education teachers teach out of certification areas. Many special education teachers must hold certifications in content areas before teaching in them. Provisional certifications based on existing college credits suffice in some states. In others, no additional certification is needed if the special education teacher team-teaches with a certified instructor.  

None of this stops potentially inappropriate assignments from happening in schools. Often, principals need to assign warm bodies regardless of credentials. Special education certification might protect you from being cut, but not from being shuffled and reassigned.

Should you find yourself suddenly teaching an unfamiliar subject, you aren’t without recourse. Some options are strategies more than resources. Before beginning your new assignment, you should find out if your assignment is legal. It might not be. Assuming you have a contract, review it to determine whether or not your assignment gels with it. If you have union representation, inquire about whether or not the principal has placed you legally.

If You Will Be Team-Teaching

Start to get to know your new subject area. How you go about this depends on your assignment. If you will be team-teaching, establishing a relationship with your partner teacher as soon as possible is vital. While you don’t want to appear to lack confidence, you should be transparent about your lack of knowledge. Ask to see previous or current syllabi as well as any texts or notes used. Study these.

You might also want to see tests and quizzes and try taking them yourself to determine what you need to study. Discuss with your partner what the most important information to know will be, tips for presenting it, and suggestions for remedial resources (you know, for your students). Frequent and clear communication is necessary for team teaching. Start it early and maintain it.

If Teaching Content in a Resource Room or a Dedicated Special Education Class

Approach department personal. If you share mutual students with a content teacher, make contact as you would with a partner teacher. This person will rely on you for accommodations and strategies for the special education students in his or her class. The relationship is symbiotic. Don’t merely ask for assistance. Ask how you can assist and offer your expertise. You can do this with several members of a department. You might find someone eager to help you.

Though tricky, you might need to be involved subject area department planning as much as in special education team planning. If you are teaching in a dedicated content class, you should ask to take part in subject area professional development. This can conflict with special education planning, but you can request notes, handouts, or slides from the meetings you miss. Connecting with the staff in your new subject area and being part of their team should be a priority.

Other Places to Look for Help and Timing

Of course you can seek resources outside your building. Your school might be able to send you to subject area workshops. If not, you can go privately, cost permitting. Online resources abound, from message boards to wikis to YouTube channels. Entire units and specific lesson plans are available on dozens of sites. Simplified guides such as one-page crib sheets and GED texts might streamline your studies. Web or software resources recommended for your students could help. For verification, check with your own children, nieces, nephews, or neighbors about what they’ve studied.

Start in the summer if you can. Learn throughout the year, regardless. If you know the progression of material, try to keep one or two months ahead of the class rather than learning it all at once. You might be able to have your students teach you. Depending on their abilities, using inquiry learning can make you a facilitator rather than an expert. This isn’t a copout. It’s a worthwhile strategy.

Final Thoughts

Don’t fake it. If you don’t know something, admit this to students, but follow with how you (and they) can find out. With parents, don’t emphasize your lack of expertise, but don’t deny it either. Explain that you’re in your position because of your expertise in providing specially designed instruction. You’re partnering with your department for support. Avoid publically blaming your administrator for your placement. You don’t need that rift.

Your situation could be overwhelming, but you owe it to your students to know the material. You might be their only gateway to the subject. Some of your students might advance to post-secondary education. They’re expecting you to prepare them. So are their parents. Just know that even if the opposite seems true, you’re not alone in this endeavor. 

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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  • Professional Learning
  • Special Education
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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