There are many teachers who make the move from mainstream teaching into special schools. The reasons for this vary and can range from a wish to experience working in a setting where achievement and attainment-based learning share equal status, through to teachers developing a passion for special educational needs and disability in their mainstream schools and having a desire to extend their knowledge and skills in a more specialist environment.
Teachers who have made the transition often comment on the professional development opportunities that special schools offer them, particularly when it comes to working within a multi-professional team and in developing a more holistic approach to meeting a wide range of children’s needs.
However, teachers can also find transition difficult and struggle to cope with the management and coordination of larger class staff teams. In addition, the wide diversity of needs that are often present within any given class poses a real challenge to the pedagogical, technical and creative skills of even the most experienced teacher.
The following are 10 tips from a range of special school practitioners, which aim to support those colleagues who have recently made the transition or who are contemplating doing so in the near future:
Organisation skills are even more important
Clear and defined systems – such as colour-coded baskets and folders, clear labelling of key areas of the classroom and providing individualised communication books – will create a calm and ordered environment.
Communication skills need to be expanded
Teachers should be able to use and interpret a range of communication methods including body language, signing, picture exchanging and symbols.
Creativity is key
Teachers must be able to include all children in the learning process, which may involve teaching the same material in several different ways. To be prepared, a teacher must call upon new and varied teaching techniques on a regular basis.
Highly intuitive teachers thrive
Some children may find difficulty expressing what they are feeling due to their level of communication skills. Teachers need to have the intuitive skills to sense underlying issues behind a child’s behaviour, along with the ability to support them as challenging situations occur.
It’s crucial to have an eye for small details
Pupils make very small steps of progress and identifying this requires detailed and in-depth knowledge of the individual pupil. Teachers in special schools are constantly and consistently assessing pupils through formal and informal methods, where little details make a big difference.
Spontaneity is not necessarily a good thing…
Sticking to a clear schedule helps children to stay calm by creating predictable and visible expectations through a daily routine.
…but you do have to be flexible
Teachers must be even more adaptable than in mainstream, as one never knows what might happen in the classroom. A teacher has to be able to maintain order, keep to their schedule and yet be flexible at all times.
Modelling adaptability is important because children with special needs often need to learn how to adapt to their surroundings in line with their disability. A teacher who demonstrates this effectively teaches the child how to do so in different situations.
Every teacher is a leader
Teachers should be prepared to lead a team of learning support assistants who also need to be highly skilled and effective in supporting the learning, care and health requirements of each pupil. These groups of colleagues are likely to perform different roles to their mainstream counterparts.
Get used to working with other professions
Many pupils in special schools will need input from a whole host of other professionals – including speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, creative therapists, healthcare workers, specialist teachers and psychologists.
It’s important to remember that the assessments and programmes written for the pupils by these specialists will need to be integrated into the classroom routine, as well as the pupil’s personalised curriculum.
Parents are an even bigger part of the learning picture
When pupils are unable to communicate themselves, it is important to liaise with parents in relation to the basic care routines, as well as ensuring that parents have news of what the pupil has achieved in school.
John Ayres OBE is principal of the Eden Academy, a family of five schools