4 ways to maintain special education teachers’ morale during COVID

One educator said the idea of teaching special education students online seemed impossible at first
By: | February 17, 2021

2020 was a challenging year for everyone, but teachers have widely been acknowledged for their creativity and commitment to students amidst all the sudden changes.

John Watts, a special education teacher at Alternative Paths Training School & Programs in Virginia, said that the idea of teaching special education students online seemed impossible at first. “It was interesting for our confidence,” he said.

Watts, who is a functional academic teacher of nine 17- to 22-year-olds, started by only teaching half hour sessions with breaks, so as not to overwhelm his students, he said.

As time has gone on, he’s gotten up to sessions that last two to three hours straight. One thing that helped Watts’ morale in the beginning was being able to send pictures and share cool things, such as virtual museum and zoo tours, he said.

“That gave me a little bit of peace of mind,” he said.

Keeping teacher morale high is important, as many districts face a special education teacher shortage. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires that all teachers and paraprofessionals meet applicable state certification and licensure requirements, making it that much harder to find and retain quality qualified personnel.

Here are Watt’s suggestions for keeping up the morale of special education teachers during COVID:

Partner with parents: With the initial shift to remote learning last March came insecurity and skepticism from teachers, Watts said.

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Teachers were not used to partnering with parents for an entire lesson to teach their children. Parents were not sure how their children would do with virtual learning.

“At first it feels like you’re being observed,” Watts said. “Then you learn to be like partners, fellow educators together.”

He came to appreciate having the parent’s feedback on things such as how the student was sleeping at night or what shows the student liked.

Parents prompted students to speak louder so Watts could hear their answers and told him what their child did if he missed something outside of the camera frame. Students were also more involved when their parents were sitting there with them during the lesson.

“It was a huge help,” Watts said.

Point out how these relationships and communication skills have grown over time.

Avoid burnout: It’s easy to not separate work life from home life when you’re working from home, Watts said.

“The things I enjoy looking up, I end up wanting to put in the classroom,” he said. “I don’t separate the two that much.” As a result, Watts sometimes found himself looking up things online for his classroom until 8 or 9 at night. “You can burn out from that,” he said.

Have a hobby to combat potential burnout, Watts said.

“Something you can do that’s a good morale booster for you,” he said. “Have something set up so you get a break away from the computer.”

You might also decide to turn off your school laptop over the weekend. “Make a decision not to use it all Saturday,” he said. “Only use it Sunday night to send in your lesson plan for next week.”

Have backup lesson plans. Lesson plans are quite different in remote learning, Watts said.

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It’s so in flux because one day you might have two students with technical difficulties and another one who just doesn’t show up for the online lesson. Suddenly, the lesson you’d planned to do Wednesday at 10 a.m. won’t work because you have to end up highlighting a different student if the one you were going to focus on is absent.

“You have to have a lot of backup stuff,” he said.

Don’t get discouraged: There are many times when you might feel like online teaching won’t work, Watts said. You may have an echo, or a student’s face won’t show up on the screen, for example.

“There’s so many glitches that happen along the way,” he said. “Don’t take it too personally. Keep trying and hanging in there.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for LRP Publications.