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The Preview: Education

Giving teachers tools to overcome fears of inclusion, teaming

(From Giangreco, M. F. (1999). Flying by the seat of your pants: More absurdities and realities of special education [p. 39]. Minnetonka, MN: Peytral Publications; reprinted by permission.)

Many teachers facing the transition to an inclusive classroom eye warily the prospect of change. The general classroom teacher may wonder, Where will I find the time to plan for instruction of a child with disabilities?... I have no training! I’m not qualified... I can barely keep on track as it is. What if the accommodation or the child disrupts my class? In the case of the special educator: Will my expertise be valued?... Will I be supported in my goals for my students? And for both: Will inclusion undercut my authority and, increasingly, What will this do to my test scores?

Telling teachers, This is the way things are going to be, and that’s that, is not the most helpful approach school administrators can take in this situation. What has been shown to help is providing teachers with an opportunity to air their concerns and then giving them the tools and support they need to adapt their program. They need guidance not only in meeting the needs of diverse learners but also in working with other educators.

Martha E. Snell and Rachel Janney, authors of the popular and newly updated book Collaborative Teaming, talk candidly about the barriers to inclusion and offer a blueprint for collaboration that has been shown to actually ease some of the burdens teachers are worried about.

Facing Fear

In contrast with traditional special education where children with disabilities are pulled out of class to receive services or are taught in self-contained classrooms, in inclusive education, students with disabilities receive individualized supports in general ed classrooms. (In the case of students with severe disabilities, at least a portion of instruction takes place in the general ed classroom.) Collaboration between the special and general ed teachers is absolutely critical if inclusive education is going to be successful.

There can be great resistance, however, to inclusive education. According to Dr. Snell, fear is the number one cause of teachers’ negative attitudes toward inclusion. It is important for administrators to understand what is fueling their fears. Some of the underlying causes include:

  • lack of clarity about what inclusion is and why the school is advocating for it
  • fear resulting from limited experience with students with disabilities
  • fears about having students in class who are not at grade level
  • concerns about class size, teacher time, and the impact of inclusion on typically developing students

For teachers accustomed to working alone, and in an environment that typically provides few incentives and little support for teamwork, teachers are naturally cautious about what collaborative teaming involves, especially if, as is often the case, they have had past bad experience with teaming.

It is critical for schools to examine their stance toward inclusion and work with staff to develop and implement a teaming structure for the school. Administrators set the tone by involving teachers and ensuring they have the time and tools they need to productively plan, communicate, problem solve, and teach together. Without that support, any initiative to promote inclusive education will surely wither on the vine.

Creating a functional team

Snell and Janney outline specific techniques for setting up a team structure that turns something initially perceived by teachers as a burden—the necessity of working together—into an opportunity for peer support that actually enhances their ability to instruct.

In a collaborative team structure, Snell insists, the responsibility of planning and implementation is shared, everyone can focus on shared goals, and problems can be solved by discussion and creation of action plans.

"The team can make things happen. They can plan what supports are needed … and through the combination of talents … they can make the needed changes so problems that crop up are identified, studied, and resolved"

—Martha Snell

“The team can make things happen. They can plan what supports are needed for that student in that classroom in that school and then monitor their delivery and adjust these supports depending on their outcomes,” she notes. “They can regularly oversee the constantly changing status of a student newly placed in general education for part or most or all of their school day and through the combination of talents on the team they can make the needed changes so problems that crop up are identified, studied, and resolved.”

Schools that have invested in establishing a teaming structure have experienced firsthand the benefits of collaboration. Researchers have reported pivotal advantages of planning and creating solutions within collaborative teams:

  • Shared decision making yields better decisions and results.
  • Both teachers and administrators are motivated by the advantages of shared decision making.
  • Collaborative teaming enhances teachers’ satisfaction with their jobs; they enjoy the regular exchange of resources and expertise, the sense of belonging, the freedom from isolation, and the intellectual stimulation.
  • Effective communication and the ability to work cooperatively with others are viewed as essential abilities for being effective in most jobs today.

Teacher training and experience

Most educators have not received training in how to work together in an inclusive setting. Though general and special education teachers are using a variety of new approaches—collaborative teaching, pull-in support, and, to a lesser degree, pull-out support with teaming—many of them are learning as they go.

Nontraditional training works best

Besides direct involvement with a child with disabilities, teachers found these experiences most helpful in preparing for inclusive instruction:

• Hearing about the feelings and experiences of other teacher in inclusive classrooms

• Learning about teamwork, ways to interact, what to expect from the students, and roles and schedules of the special education staff

• Learning about successful approaches from experienced teachers including their thoughts on cooperative groups and activity-based teaching, group strategies, ways to use and adapt typical materials, and class activities for students with disabilities

More than formal instruction, Snell and Janney found that what has proven to be the best “training” for working in an inclusive setting is direct experience with children with disabilities who have the appropriate supports in place.

Gordon Myers, a functional skills teacher with Charlottesville, VA, public schools, has learned this for herself. Her requests to have her students with cognitive disabilities take part in a general education class two times a week were initially met with resistance. The teachers naturally were nervous about disruptions to their class, they’d had little experience with students with disabilities, and they didn’t know what Myers expected of them. Guided by the model presented in Collaborative Teaming, she proceeded.

Myers learned that when she asked the teachers to tell her what they were working on so she could create an adapted program, assured them she would be responsible for her students, and invited them to share their worries, the teachers’ fears were calmed. To their surprise, the teachers saw the benefit to their students when they played the mentoring role outlined in Myers’s adapted plan. Based on her own experience, Myers says, “If more people could see a model of success [for collaboration in inclusive instruction], a lot of objections would be overcome.”

Administrators hold the key

Whether any of these attempts at collaboration succeed is really up to the school administrators who can “make or break a solid team structure by their actions,” according to Snell.

Teacher Stress and Benefits of Collaborative Teaming

Documented source of teacher stress (Wisniewski & Gargiulo, 1997)

Potential benefits resulting when schools build a collaborative team structure

Long hours and insufficient planning time to meet student needs

Time for teaming is created and preserved; responsibility for planning is shared

Loss of teacher control for design of programs

Active teacher role on teams and team influence on educational programs

Lack of participation and influence in decision making

Active teacher role on team and team consensus on decisions

Professional isolation; limited interaction

Focus of team members on shared goals, problem solving, and working toward consensus

Stressful interactions to bring about inclusion

Participation of general educators in school planning on inclusion and team planning for students with disabilities

Difficulty meeting needs of diverse special education population

Support from team members who instruct each other on teaching skills; shared responsibility

Dissatisfaction with lack of progress

Knowledge of problem solving and creation of action plans

When principals are aware of special education concepts and have positive experiences with students with disabilities, they are significantly more likely to have a positive attitude toward including students with disabilities in general education. Principals and superintendents in local school systems are further influenced by the philosophical positions of their professional peers and the policies communicated from their state department of education. The administrator’s actions make the critical difference in whether collaborative teaming continues in schools as a healthy, functional process or dies an early death.

“Often the first step [for administrators] is to work with staff to make/identify the time for teaming,” Snell advises. “The second step is to actively regard team recommendations as being valuable. The third step is to provide teams with needed outside consultation to support particularly thorny teaming problems that may arise.”

Perhaps even more important than the administrator’s efforts in getting the collaborative team started is the support they provide once the team is in place. If the administrator is going to initiate this process, he or she must be there for the team once procedures have been implemented. Snell encourages administrators to show support by staying active within the team itself.

“Teaming is not easy—oftentimes it seems like overload with the time required for meeting and the often lengthy problem solving process,” she explains. Administrators make it possible by providing scheduled times for collegial work and planning and giving teachers greater collective responsibility for student learning. When teachers’ work on collaborative teams is strongly supported by administrators, a peer support system is created that can help teachers manage their stress over work conditions, personal interactions, and teaching assignment.

See Collaborative Teaming, for more information on Snell and Janney’s explicit strategies for developing the structure and skills necessary for a functioning team, including proven methods for settling conflict constructively. Download this chart that explains the changing roles of everyone on the team in inclusive education.


Two essential books for successful collaboration...

book coverCollaborative Teaming, Second Edition

book coverA Guide to Collaboration for IEP Teams

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