From Public School Special Educator to Private Practice
By Brittany Steen, Ed.S, MA
I always felt like they needed more.
In one of my earliest assignments as a special educator, I was given a caseload of thirty students. This means I was in charge of writing, monitoring, and amending Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for thirty students. In addition to this, I taught about 75-90 students each day, and every one of those students had an IEP. My largest class for students with disabilities was 28, and I saw them daily for 50 minutes. I had no assistant or paraprofessional.
I asked myself repeatedly how I could reach each learner and his/her individual needs when given an environment like this. Many days I felt like I was failing them, and deep down, I knew I was given an impossible task. I remember teaching several 7th and 8th grade students who were reading at a second grade level, and feeling like they deserved more. I could not find a way to integrate systematic instruction they needed in a consistent and thorough way.
I felt overwhelmed and frustrated, and I can only imagine how my struggling students felt! I worked with an incredible team of special educators who helped me through those tough days and inspired me to not give up. I believed that with enough time and practice, I could learn how to serve this number of students efficiently and effectively.
Sometimes I told myself the following lies:
At times I believed these lies were the truth.
After several years, however, I finally accepted that I couldn’t provide the needed instruction with the model we were expected to implement. These students needed more than what they were given.
So I sought after other opportunities with a model I believed worked. If given the right environment (one-on-one or small group), the right service time (45-50 minutes daily), and the right instruction (systematic, explicit, and multi-sensory), those same students would make significant growth.
And… Along came David
After about four months of searching, I was offered the opportunity teach overseas in a school for American children from military families, (DoDEA). I accepted, and two months later, I walked into a K-8 school, with 74 total students, and less than 5 students on my caseload.
David became my main man for two years.
I spent approximately half of my work day with David one-on one, EVERY DAY. He had just entered 7th grade, and read at a beginning first grade level. He experienced difficulty with sight words, remembering word patterns, (phonemic awareness), rhyming, and hearing all the sounds in words spoken aloud, (phonological awareness). This directly impacted his fluency (the ability to read with expression, automaticity, and comprehension), and his comprehension. However, if I read aloud to him a story at the 7th grade level, he answered comprehension questions aloud without hesitation. His struggle with reading was not related to his intelligence. (Check out The International Dyslexia Association for details .)
David also came with a guarded heart. He had previously felt pushed aside and like he didn’t matter by other teachers. He felt like others had given up on him. By the time we met, I needed a pick-me-up from the frustrations of my previous job assignment, and he needed a lot of love, encouragement, AND belief from someone that he could learn. (Side note- a large number of children with dyslexia struggle with these same issues in young adulthood, but on a larger scale. See the article, "Perspectives on Dyslexia" for more information).
We did not hit it off. He resisted. I pushed. We practiced the same passages every day at his instructional reading level. He asked why. He told me it was stupid. I made him do it anyway. We worked on phonological awareness. He didn’t want to clap out syllables or number phonemes from left to right. I “strongly encouraged” him to do it anyway, and he did. I showed him how to make Elkonin boxes (boxes which separate phonemes in words on paper). He did this as well. Eventually, over a period of a few months, we got into a rhythm. I timed him. I taught, retaught, and helped him develop awareness of punctuation and expression while reading. It wasn’t about reading aloud as fast as he could, but about reading with automaticity, expression, and comprehension.
The relationship we built was one where I pushed him beyond what he was used to experiencing, and while he initially resisted, once he saw his reading improve, he responded with rapid growth, becoming increasingly motivated. The change did not occur over night, but I recall at some point in the middle of our first year together, he entered my class smiling, wanting to get to work, and feeling confident. In just two years, David made two years growth in reading. But he didn’t just learn how to read at a higher level. David learned STRATEGIES to cope with his reading difficulties. He developed confidence needed to open his mind to more learning. His reading difficulties didn’t go away. He learned how to manage them.
I received an email from David's mother about two years ago, and David reached out to me this past month. He shared that he graduated high school AND college. WOOHOO!
The time I spent with David and his family, and hearing of his successes, gave me a renewed energy to work with struggling learners. He and his parents are one of the core reasons why I entered private practice a few months ago. After working with David, I taught in various settings for several more years, and similar feelings of inadequacy reared their ugly heads. I wanted to do more for my students, but felt pressured by all the other pressures of my job so much, that it impacted my ability to teach with the passion, attentiveness, and compassion that I was able to give to David.
In 2017, after having my first child, I decided stay home with my kids, finish my Educational Leadership degree, and re-evaluate my life and my career. My time with David always came back to me, and I wanted so much to spend that type of quality time with all my students. I LOVED working with colleagues who pushed me to be better. BUT I always felt behind, inadequate, and lacking in what I could give to my students in a school setting. I felt like I could do so much more, if I were given the appropriate setting.
Then I read about Educational Therapy, which is described below:
“Educational therapy is the practice of providing personalized remedial instruction to children and adults with learning challenges, including but not limited to dyslexia, ADHD, executive functioning deficits, and language, visual and auditory processing issues. The ultimate goal of educational therapy is to foster development of self-confident, independent individuals who feel positively about themselves and their potential as lifelong learners.
“Educational therapists understand the social, behavioral and emotional factors that can impact learning. They have extensive training and experience in administering academic assessments, developing intervention plans, and implementing strategies to addresses challenges with reading, writing, spelling, math organization, and study skill. A vital role of the educational therapist is to serve as case manager, working in collaboration with family, teachers, and other professionals involved in the client’s life" (AET's About Section).
Educational Therapy incorporates everything I love to do in the school system:
Educational Therapy supports the school’s standards and curriculum. I work in collaboration with all parties to determine the most effective approach to helping the struggling learner.
I can help fill the gap between school expectations and services, and the individual who may need more than what the school is providing for support. This is why I have JUST applied to become part of the Association of Educational Therapists. This group is a unique set of qualified individuals, many who have either practiced for several years in Special Education like I have, or who have earned a degree in Educational Therapy. (See requirements here).
Ultimately, I want more David Experiences.
If you think your child might benefit from outside support like Educational Therapy, please reach out.
Also, check out the resources listed below to see if your child or someone you know might need to be evaluated, receive additional support, or if you are curious about learning more about learning disabilities and dyslexia.
If you are looking for a person to perform an Independent Education Evaluation (IEE) in conjunction with your child’s school evaluations, please contact me for referrals.
“Perspectives On Dyslexia”
International Dyslexia Association
Understood.org for Learning and Attention Issues
Association of Educational Therapists
Thanks to David and your mother Robbin for allowing me to share your story while also sharing mine. Your struggle and insight brings a depth of hope which is relatable to so many.
The bulk of Brittany's career has been spent working with students with learning disabilities, including Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia, Executive Functioning Issues and Processing Disorders, as well as children with ADHD- Inattentive, Hyperactive, and Combined. Brittany's passion is collaborating with struggling learners, educators, and families to find solutions and strategies for growth in order to thrive long term in school and in community.