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Most people, even those in the online education community, are surprised when they hear that I’m an online special education teacher at Michigan Great Lakes Virtual Academy (MGLVA). They question the efficacy of teaching special education students online, many of whom function several years below their chronological grade level. My message on this Teacher Appreciation Day is the online environment is the best environment for special education students!

In a brick and mortar setting, special education goes something like this – students are taken in and out of their main classrooms causing them to miss lessons. This forces special education teachers to become glorified tutors, trying to get their students up to speed on the curriculum rather than the basic functions they are supposed to be learning. This lack of time for basic skill lessons makes it even more challenging for these students to cope in their regular classrooms, causing an unfortunate downward spiral. At MGLVA, there aren’t these challenges, as we schedule basic skills sessions that don’t conflict with lessons.

Additionally, many of my special education students come from brick and mortar schools where they encountered severe bullying. Bullying crushes a special education student’s confidence in the classroom and makes them not want to go to school. In virtual schooling, special education students are able to interface seamlessly with their nondisabled peers. Many of my special education students are so low functioning – I teach 5-8th graders that function at a cognitive level of a student in Kindergarten-5th grade – that it can be difficult to be in a classroom setting. Online they feel comfortable.

All year students on my special education caseload have been working on building reading, writing, and math skills, but recently I shifted the focus to making inferences using reading, charts, graphs, and other resources. I was so amazed by their ability to reason at such a high level, especially when their academic skills are at such a low level.  The students are really engaged in the work, which is amazing to see.

I was especially struck at a recent lesson that I conducted.  We were reading a book called “I Funny” by James Patterson, and the main character was in a wheelchair. The main character’s sense of humor about his situation really stuck with the kids, despite his situation. I used this character to teach my students about polio, which was something that they didn’t know anything about. Many of the students brought in their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles that were old enough to remember what polio was, and I held a lesson that both the students and the learning coaches participated in. It was without a doubt one of the best moments that I’ve ever had as a teacher. The book not only taught my students about something meaningful, but it allowed them to think critically about the character and identify with his disability. And it turned into a family affair!

Being a special education teacher isn’t easy. However, we have an incredible team that works to help put students first. We spend a great deal of time at meetings examining student progress to uncover what we need to do better as educators. We identify what we need to modify and change so our students receive the best possible learning experience, which is something usually not done in brick and mortar settings.

On this Teacher Appreciation Day, I am honored as our nation pauses to reflect on our contributions to society. However, honestly, to see my students engage in a lesson they have previously struggled with is the greatest gift of all. In the eighteen months since I began at MGLVA, I’ve seen so many students surpass their wildest academic dreams. I’ve seen students previously terrified to come to school regain their excitement for learning. Without a doubt, online schooling is the best possible avenue for special education students.

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