Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Becoming a Positive and Effective Special Educator: Lessons Learned from a Special Education Mentor

Academic journal article Journal of Thought

Becoming a Positive and Effective Special Educator: Lessons Learned from a Special Education Mentor

Article excerpt

I will never forget the day my principal walked into the copier room and inquired,

   Can you come to the office with me for a minute? There's a retired
   teacher that wants to meet you. She would like to volunteer.

Stunned, I jumped up and headed toward the office. In my four years in special education, no one had actually requested to volunteer in the resource room. Is she sure she wants to help in special education? Could this be someone I know?

Waiting by the office was a short, gray-haired woman with a bright smile on her face. After introductions, we walked to the single-wide trailer that served as my classroom and talked through the rest of my lunch. That day was the beginning of a very special friendship that blossomed into an unforgettable mentorship.

Mentors affect our lives from the earliest of days. Often, the first mentors who we have are parents and other family members. As we enter our school-age years, we find mentors in our friends, teachers and administrators. Mentors serve as a guide and as an advisor. The role of an effective mentor in the life of any educator, and particularly in special education, can make the difference between a teacher that stays in the field, and one who leaves.

The role and purpose of mentors will be outlined in this article as well as a few of the simple, yet powerful, lessons learned about teaching from one such mentor, Miss Lynn. Each lesson is first illustrated through a brief example that is based on my teaching experiences in public schools. Finally, each teachable lesson is then supported with current research from the field.

What is a Mentor?

Mentor relationships are most often formed in the work environment with a more experienced or higher ranking person and a less experienced person (Bierema, 1996). Within education, this wisdom and knowledge from years in the classroom serves as the mentor's foundation. Rooted in social constructivism, the process of mentoring allows a new teacher to grow as a professional in the classroom, school environment, and as a person through the auspices of a veteran teacher (St. George & Robinson, 2011).

Mentors, whether in formal roles that have been assigned, or in informal relationships that have developed, provide pedagogical, emotional, and mental support to their mentees (Anderson & Shannon, 1988; Iancu-Haddad & Oplatka, 2009). Often serving unpaid and voluntary roles, mentors have a desire to give back to their profession and share what they know, in hopes that it will help the next generation of teachers.

Why a Special Education Mentor Matters

The role of a mentor in the life of any educator, and particularly in special education, can make the difference between an average teacher and an outstanding one. With one of the highest rates of attrition, the struggle to hire and maintain special education teachers has been well documented for a number of decades (Boe & Cook, 2006). While the demand for special education teachers has continually increased, approximately 8% leave during their first 3 years of teaching (Boe, Cook, & Sunderland, 2008). Compared to other beginning teachers, special education teachers are 2.5 times more likely to leave teaching (Smith & Ingersoll, 2004). Commonly cited reasons for leaving the special education field include limited professional development opportunities, lack of support from principal and teachers, and stress due to the job design (Gersten, Keating, Yovanoff, & Harniss, 2001).

The special educator faces demands unique to the field (Billingsley, Israel, & Smith, 2011; Gehrke & McCoy, 2007). The newly-minted special education teacher must wear many hats, including: teacher of multiple grade levels and subjects, disciplinarian as well as behaviorist, facilitator of special education meetings and advisor of legal requirements, supervisor of paraprofessionals, and collaborator of curriculum and goals (Billingsley, 2002; Billingsley, Carlson, & Klein, 2004). …

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