A conversation with Kathryn O’Brien, Special Education Teacher
I studied childhood development psychology and started work as an aide in the special education program. From there I received my credentials in general education and special education, and I now work with students with special needs within the inclusion setting in an elementary school. My expertise is working with students who have special needs. In terms of learning environments, it’s one of the groups with the highest needs—most students having some degree of behavioral challenges. Much of the physical environment is made for general education students. I provide the special education perspective on how to adapt it for students with disabilities and make it work well for them.
What makes CCUSD unique? Compared to districts where most initiatives are geared towards general education, CCUSD supports programs and tools for special education. As a teacher, the culture is very welcoming. Many of my peers are open to change and improvement. Connecting to the district office is easy, and the level of support makes the community feel more like a family.
Describe your vision for the special education experience: The district is focusing more on inclusion which means implementing a system where students stay in general education classrooms then go to special education spaces only as needed. We need more planning time, and a dedicated space for teacher collaboration and meetings. We need spaces to plan, write reports and work without interruption. We also need more space for learning center activities including specialized instruction, testing and IEP meetings, and an occupational therapy room where students run around to burn their energy.
How should your environment change or look different in the future? In terms of the indoor environment, we need water and sinks. We need storage and furniture that’s cohesive.
We need access to an outdoor learning area that is somewhat enclosed to easily monitor the activities outside. The students outside are easily distracted, so having the walls to limit the distraction could help students have outdoor time more easily. A calming or neutral outdoor space that we could decorate to fit to our students needs and eliminate the high stimulation would be wonderful. For students with sensitivities, we need tools like moveable acoustical screens to minimize noise. Most important, the classroom should feel welcoming and home-like for students.
Is the current environment preventing you from achieving your vision, if at all?
Some of the current general education classrooms do not yet support differentiated learning or Universal Design for Learning [https://www.cast.org/impact/universal-design-for-learning-udl] because the spaces are not flexible enough. Scheduling is also difficult. Occupational Therapy does have space, but it is very small, and adaptive P.E. space is not available.
For planning, we do our best to meet regularly, but classrooms are limited, and we do not have enough time. Ideally, I would like to go to a designated space where I could work for report writing without interruption. It’s better if this space is adjacent to the classroom but not directly connected to a classroom.