An individualized approach to training special ed teachers

At the Lee Pesky Learning Center, teachers learn how to best understand kids with learning disabilities

The U.S. teacher shortage crisis doesn’t only apply to traditional K-12 classrooms. It extends to areas that require more specific expertise, like special ed.

Special education teachers are trained to work with a diverse population of students with disabilities ranging from learning, mental, emotional, and physical impairments. Typically, they hold a Bachelor’s degree as well as a state-issued certification or license. They can also engage in on-the-job training via internships or residencies.

Yet a shortage of special ed teachers exists. This school year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that special ed teacher shortages exist in 49 states. In a story published in November, NPR attributed the shortage to “long hours” and “crushing paperwork.”

Worse, the need for special ed teachers has never been higher. The number of students enrolled in special education programs has increased by 30% since 2006, according to statistics from the National Education Association.

“There aren’t enough fully licensed special-education teachers to go around,” one Hechinger Report article from 2010 states. “So the [Milwaukee Public Schools] district leans on alternative-route teacher certification programs that allow teachers to work toward full licensure while teaching with ‘emergency’ credentials.”

That means individuals with no previous teaching experience or training ended up leading special-education classrooms. And, the Hechinger Report noted, 22 U.S. states had similar alternative-certification programs that allowed individuals without previous teaching experience to enter special ed classrooms, largely with just a bachelor’s degree and a background check.

Since 1997, the not-for-profit Lee Pesky Learning Center in Boise, ID, has been trying to change that kind of approach to special ed teacher training.

Named after Lee Pesky, the son of Alan and Wendy Pesky who passed away at a young age and struggled with learning challenges, the center has trained approximately 4,000 special ed teachers. It boasts a 90% success rate for their interventions.

So how does it do it?

Its approach is called The Pesky Way, and it relies on asking questions and listening to make sense of students’ individual learning disabilities.

“Learning and attention challenges impact not only academic skills, but can also impact social, emotional and behavioral areas too,” said Evelyn Johnson, the Pesky Center's director. “It [the Pesky Way] starts with the understanding of each person’s learning profile, which looks not only at academic skills but also at the way they process information, and at their social, emotional, and behavioral functioning. Through this comprehensive evaluation, we’re able to individualize interventions that focus not just on the academic skills, but on the needs of the whole person.”

To her, a 360-degree approach is crucial, as certain kinds of knowledge, skills, and preparation are required for long-term success as a special educator.

Learning disabilities are considered heterogeneous and impact children in different ways, Johnson said.

“That means that in addition to understanding reading, writing and math, special education teachers need to understand the factors that impact academic performance and how these factors are specifically impacting each and every student they work with,” she noted. “For example, a child who has working memory challenges will need a different type of intervention than a child who has difficulty with executive functions. Each child may struggle with reading, but they will struggle in unique ways, and will require different supports to help them make progress.”

That means that on top of having to understand those differences, special ed teachers also need to have empathy, patience, and the ability to “believe in the possibilities and capabilities of every student they work with,” Johnson said.

Tech products can sometimes help.

The Pesky Center chooses ed-tech devices and platforms based on functionality. For dyslexic students, text to speech software or e-readers can sometimes help. Students with dysgraphia, a writing disability, can be helped by using word prediction or speech to text software.

“Assistive technology decisions are made consistent with the Pesky Way  that is, understanding the needs of the whole learner, and then developing an individualized learning plan that helps them become the most independent learner they can be,” Johnson said.

Today, the Pesky Center is engaged in a new Special Education Collaborative with Boise State University. The collaborative provides a Master’s degree in teaching with specialized knowledge, skills, and teacher disposition aimed at serving special education. It serves around 20-25 students annually in a one-year cohort model.  



Specifically, Boise State offers the online coursework required to earn a Master's in Teaching in Special Education. The program’s candidates complete coursework that centers around learning evidence-based instructional strategies for kids with disabilities.

The second part is field assignments. Some of those can be in K-12 schools. Three candidates, however, are assigned to do internships at the Pesky Center under the guidance of mentor-teachers who teach the Pesky Way.

"For a career changer like me, having the opportunity to train at the Pesky Center has been amazing," said teacher Jodi Riley.

Last summer, Riley retired from a 24-year career in the Air Force. She wanted to continue to serve by becoming a special education teacher. She is the recipient of one of the inaugural Wendy and Alan Pesky Fellowships, awarded to two students this year.

"​I’m learning to teach from professionals with decades of experience," Riley said. "Every day, I’m learning or doing something that I will be able to use in the classroom when I start teaching next fall." 

Plans are in the works to expand the reach of the Pesky internship program to accommodate a total of 10 interns over the next five years.

And though several centers that provide services to students with learning disabilities exist in the U.S., director Evelyn Johnson said that none engage in the same holistic approach.

“What makes Lee Pesky Learning Center unique is its focus on the 360 solution,” she explained. “We have comprehensive evaluation, counseling and academic services at the individual student level and we work in partnership with teachers and schools to equip them with the instructional tools that will benefit students with learning challenges in their classrooms.”


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Top Image Credit: Courtesy the Lee Pesky Learning Center

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