Differences in Beginning Special Education Teachers: The Influence of Personal Attributes, Preparation, and School Environment on Classroom Reading Practices

Article excerpt

Abstract. Little research exists to help us understand why some beginning special education teachers of reading engage in more effective classroom practices than others. Factors that may influence these differences include personal attributes, preparation, and school environment. This mixed-methods study examined beginning special education teachers (N = 25) who taught reading to elementary students. Teachers were identified as most accomplished, moderately accomplished, and least accomplished, as defined by an overall classroom practice score. Interviews, observational field notes, and survey data on preparation and work environment revealed that the most accomplished beginners were consistently reflective, resourceful, and relentless and used these attributes to improve instruction, whereas others varied in this regard. Furthermore, while adequately prepared in special education, beginners reported inadequate preparation in reading. The interplay of personal attributes, preparation, and school environment seems to be a powerful determinant of a teacher's level of accomplishment.


Beginning teachers are often portrayed as struggling: scrambling to deal with the complexity of teaching and left to their own devices to maneuver a complex school environment. Specifically, beginning teachers often have trouble (a) with student discipline, (b) engaging

their students in the curriculum, (c) meeting their students' individual needs, (d) figuring out what to teach and how, and (e) navigating the school environment (Reynolds, 1995). In addition, many appear focused on themselves and their own survival rather than on making their instruction more responsive to students. In many cases, their practice can seem mechanical and unresponsive to students (Kagan, 1992).

Not all beginning teachers experience the same struggles in their practice, however, and some appear better equipped than others to deal with the demands of teaching. In special education, three studies have shown marked differences between the instructional practices of beginning special education teachers, with some teachers demonstrating remarkable sophistication in their ability to engage and effectively teach students with disabilities (Brownell et al., 2009; Nowacek, McKinney, & Hallahan, 1990; Seo, Brownell, Bishop, & Dingle, 2008).

At a time when teacher quality is receiving much national attention (e.g., the No Child Left Behind Act, U.S. Congress, 2001; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, U.S. Department of Education, 2004), we need to understand why some beginning special education teachers engage in more effective classroom practices than others. Such understanding of special education teachers of reading is especially important given the preponderance of students with reading disabilities served and the numbers of special education teachers who are likely to enter the classroom through alternative routes.

Most of the research examining beginning special education teachers has examined challenges these teachers face and workplace supports they need to encourage them to stay (Billingsley, 2004; Billingsley, Griffin, Smith, Kamman, & Israel, 2009). Less is understood about the factors that may contribute to differences in their practices. In general education, there is a healthier literature base explaining how differences in individual teacher qualities, initial preparation, and school context explain variations in beginning teacher practice. We acknowledge that some of these findings may apply to beginning special education teachers, but we can only surmise that the complexity of special education makes the struggle to enact their practice more exaggerated. Such complexities include applying their broad-based teacher training to address a multitude of student needs and the multiple roles they are likely to assume in schools (Blanton, Sindelar, & Correa, 2006). …