Special Education

‘They Already Feel Like Bad Students.’ A Special Educator Reflects on Virtual Teaching

‘We cannot come back the way we were before. That system was broken.’
By Catherine Gewertz — April 28, 2021 4 min read
Tray Robinson, a special education teacher, sits for a photo at Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos, Calif., on April 21, 2021.

Tray Robinson teaches English/language arts and science to special education students at Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, Calif. During the past year of teaching remotely, he’s seen some of his students struggle mightily to adapt to new ways of learning, while others thrive. His conversations with Education Week have been edited for clarity and length.

Our freshmen are failing P.E. And they are all failing P.E. for the same reason: Because P.E. is using [the video app] Flipgrid. They perform an activity, a workout or whatever, and it records them. You need to be able to record this workout, post it, and upload it for your teacher to view it. At one point, I decided I was going to host my class via Flipgrid. I scrapped that idea after two weeks, because for my students, Flipgrid was impossible.

I could use it perfectly on my own. But whenever I was trying to use it with my students, it derailed the whole class. Everything went wrong. That is the difficulty of just the software. It is not that the kids won’t do the work. It’s not that the kids won’t try. It’s disheartening for them when they fail because they can’t figure out how to turn it in.

There is an idea that students should be able to adjust to anything at the drop of a hat. And there’s this idea that adults perpetuate that young people’s resilience should be never-ending. And then we tell kids they’re failing because they’re not doing enough when they’re not able to adjust to this change in how they learn.

Special education students already feel like bad students. They feel bad about how they learn. They’re sitting home struggling with basic things they think they should be able to do. We’ve expected entirely too much from them and given them too little. The things they’ve ascribed to themselves as their failures in education have not been their own failures. It’s been a failure of the education system that’s been assigned to them.

I have this one student. He’s on the autism spectrum. I have several students on the spectrum, and many of them struggle with changes to their established learning routines.

The digital learning format requires a lot more technological interactivity. He suddenly needed to use the computer for everything, and he couldn’t follow all of the steps. He becomes frustrated. He has many people at home, but there is no one to explain how to do it. The more frustrated he gets, the more he wants to back away from it. He felt like a failure, and I got these alarming messages: I’m gonna drop out, my life’s over. It was terrifying.

And I can’t get my eyes on this kid [because his camera is off], I’ve never seen him in person, and I couldn’t tell, are you serious? Are you just blowing off steam? His six teachers, and counselors and administrators, all have email flying, trying to establish the best way to serve this student because he was not struggling this way in person.

We ended up switching him off of digital assignments to paper. He checks in for the lecture portions and gets whatever it is he’s going to work on. He does that on paper, and he takes a photo and submits it, or turns it in personally on campus.

But some kids are thriving [in remote learning]. If you’re in a classroom [in person], and you asked something, you said it out loud. But if you are in my Zoom classroom, and you need to ask me a question, you can type it into the chat window. And that’s the way that I get most of my questions.

Tray Robinson, a special education teacher, sits for a photo at Vasona Lake County Park in Los Gatos, Calif., on April 21, 2021.

Another of my students has a processing disorder that causes extreme reading and speech difficulty. He struggles with 2nd grade sight words when he reads alone. But he’s just crushing it at school right now. I think it’s partly because he’s at home, so he isn’t embarrassed to have his Chromebook read [aloud] to him, and partly because his family has direct access to see what he’s doing and how to help him.

Now he’s the first one to talk in our sessions. He’ll go, can I talk to you in a breakout room? Can I stay after so you can help me with my reading? For once, I feel like this kid is happy in school.

He came to me today at the beginning of my class, and he said [in a private chat message], I have a question. What happens when two galaxies collide? Like, where did that even [come from]? Let’s all look it up. He said, my mom has been getting me books, and I’m reading them, but the words are too big. This is a kid who doesn’t participate, and doesn’t really speak out in person, because he struggles with reading and speech.

So here, he asked me question after question after question. Because he’s asking me behind the veil of a screen, he doesn’t worry about how he sounds, he doesn’t worry about anybody else seeing this. And he knows if he asks, I will answer him. So he asks me, and I give him an answer. And we look at it together. And there he goes off with his next question. And this made my day today.

[Teaching during the pandemic] has made me reevaluate what it is that I do and what I am responsible for as a teacher. As special education teachers, we tend to say that we are responsible for our own. You know, I deal with my kids and my caseload.

But I’m looking at the greater picture and I see that education needs its special education teachers to work across party lines. I want to be in the room where it happens, at the curriculum table when discussions are happening, so that every curriculum includes methods for every learner and is coordinated with district technology, training, and special education practices.

These kids are going to come back to school in the fall, and school is going to take off at the normal speed. They’re going to be in person. They’re going to have their regular class sizes. They’re going to have the regular class loads. Our teachers are already talking about, how do we come back the way that we were before we left? We cannot come back the way we were before. That system was broken.

Coverage of students with diverse learning needs is supported in part by a grant from the Oak Foundation, at www.oakfnd.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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