Feliciea Jibson and Josianne Pisani discuss the need for professional support tools for SEN learners, to help reduce the high turnover in the teaching profession and provide more fulfilling learning experiences for pupils.
We can all agree that every parent wants the best teachers and the most effective teaching for their children, and rightly so. But good quality teaching doesn’t happen by magic. As in all professions, it takes years to gain the skills teachers need to be effective in their roles. Yet on average, this profession loses around 8% teaching staff every year.
Education is very complex. Even experienced teachers are confronted with big challenges. They not only need to deal with changes in the content for the subjects they teach and with new instructional methods, but also get to grips with the constant advances in technology and changes to laws and procedures. Add to this the extra support they are expected to give their peers, parents and students and it is easy to see why 1 out of 3 teachers leave the profession within their first three years and half leave within their first five.
The effect that teacher turnover has on education is far reaching. Naturally, hiring and training new teachers is an expensive process. More than that, schools lose out on experience and programmes get disrupted, not to mention the risk of burnout and fatigue due to the extra responsibilities that teachers that stay will need to take on. Ultimately, it is the learners who suffer the consequences.
Teacher retention is a global issue that is spread within all sectors of education, but studies show that in the field of special education there is a 46% higher predicted turnover rate. The demands are high but the formal training teachers receive does not reflect it. Could professional support make a difference?
Education should be about providing a curriculum that meets the needs of the children in today’s world. Yet, teachers face an overwhelming number of issues ranging from those related to behaviour to those associated with school culture and learning difficulties. Why is this happening?
It is no secret that there is a shortage of teachers. The number of neurodivergent learners in mainstream schools is also on the increase. Sometimes it’s because parents feel that a special needs school is not suitable for their child; at other times it’s because there is no space available. Yet, the staff in this type of educational setting often don’t have the knowledge, resources and funding available to adequately meet the children’s needs. As a result ‘accessing the curriculum’ and ‘differentiating outcomes’ are loosely used – there are so many misconceptions surrounding these terms.
In most cases there is a significant discrepancy between the SEN learners’ targets and those of their peers. Teachers try to find activities for the learner that are related to what they are doing in their planning and curriculum, but struggle to find an adequate way of working with such children. So, more often than not, children are given work that is below their age level to avoid overwhelming the child or are made to complete numerous colouring sheets with a lot of cutting and pasting of pictures or photos. At the end of the term or year the child’s parents have some academic work to look at and lots of artwork they can admire, but is it meaningful to the child’s educational and life experience? Do such activities really help the child to develop the skills they need?
Let’s consider a group of year 3 students who are learning about forces ie ‘push’ and ‘pull’. While the class is learning about the different factors that affect these forces, a SEN learner could be colouring a push and pull worksheet. But wouldn’t it be more effective if the child actually experiences pushing and pulling then goes on to identify situations when they need to push and when pulling is required. To get the child to use simple sentences, they can then describe a picture of someone pushing a car or pulling a rope. The child is now in a better position to process the information and apply their newly acquired knowledge to everyday life.
Devising such activities, in which the task rather than the content is differentiated, requires us to identify what the child’s strengths are and where the learning gaps lie. Only then can our learners be given a meaningful learning experience, enabling them to move forward at a pace and in a way which is appropriate to them.
In this sense, effective professional support can go a long way. It allows for more effective practices that can be applied to different situations and enables higher quality instruction. This will translate into better learning outcomes for learners. As teachers become more competent, they also become less susceptible to stress and burnout.
Support can come in different shapes and sizes, be it as a mentor, coach, through face-to-face sessions or an on-line course, through workshops and conferences, or through whole school programmers. It is vital that it reflects the needs of the educators though.
We are lucky that we live in both a globalised and digitalised world that not only gives us the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills we need to address the learners’ challenges, but also the tools to deliver the right teaching to our learners and meet expectations.