Dara Sklare, Educating for All Abilities: Speaks with a Special Education Teacher

Apr 12, 2011

Dara Sklare teaches special education at Vaughn Occupational High School in Chicago, Illinois. recently caught up with her to find out what it's like to work with this special population, and how all students can gain access to the education they need.

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By Megan Driscoll

Dara Sklare What is your educational background, and how did you become interested in teaching?

Dara Sklare: I got an undergrad in psychology and a master's in special education before I started teaching. I am currently finishing up a master's in reading. I've wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. What led you to working with special needs students? Is this a field you were interested in all along, or did you come to it as an education professional?

DS: I became interested in special education while participating in CEC (Council for Exceptional Children) club in high school. Through that club I volunteered in a special education classroom and assisted students in the class. Besides special education, is there another subject in which you specialize? Are you able to bring this expertise to your special needs classroom?

DS: I am highly qualified in English/reading and math. I am also finishing up a master's degree in reading. I think the classes I took in reading are very useful in both the English and math classes that I teach. What age groups and types of disabilities do you have experience working with? Do you find that your approach to special education differs between different types of disabilities, or that you're able to take one general approach that you tailor a bit to each student?

DS: I have worked with students in grades 9-12, all of whom have mild to moderate cognitive disabilities. Under the umbrella of mild to moderate cognitive disabilities there are various levels of ability. Therefore, I have to tailor what I teach to each student because every learner is so different. Please describe a day in your special education classroom. In what ways is it like any other classroom, and in what ways does it differ?

DS: Every day follows a pretty similar routine. The kids begin each period with a bell-ringer problem which is used as a transition from the hallway into the classroom. Students then break into different learning groups determined by skill level and what they are currently working on. In my English classes I always have one group working with my assistant. The other students work on other English-related activities, such as writing, developing reading comprehension and other basic English skills.

In both my English and math classes the focus is on life skills. For example, in math, students generally spend the bulk of the year doing money-related activities. Most activities are hands-on and require active participation, as opposed to traditional paper and pencil activities. What do you find most rewarding about working with special needs children? Most challenging?

DS: The most rewarding thing about my job is the relationships that I am able to develop with the students. It's always nice when a student who has had negative experiences throughout school can come into your classroom and feel that it is a positive, safe place.

The most challenging part is differentiating every lesson and activity to meet the needs of every learner. Additionally, every day and every period is always a little bit different. Sometimes, after planning out my lessons for the week I will discover after just one period that my lesson plan is no longer valid. This then requires me to quickly reassess what I am going to do. What are the most common misconceptions about students with learning disabilities that you encounter? If you could dispel one once and for all, what would it be?

DS: I teach students with mild to moderate cognitive disabilities. Frequently, parents will come to the IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting still believing that their children can be 'cured' and can go on to live a typical life. While it can be heartbreaking to tell a parent that their child will never get 'better,' it is important to provide them with a realistic outlook. What advice would you offer to someone who is considering becoming a special education teacher?

DS: I would probably tell a new teacher to listen to your students. By observing and paying attention to your students as they work in class you can generally tell how they learn best. Frequently, after observing students work through a math problem I discover a better and more efficient way to teach those types of problems. Additionally, by watching your students you can discover what parts of the curriculum engage them and what parts do not, and therefore need to be changed. Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about students with learning disabilities and your experience as a special education teacher.

DS: It is important to be open-minded and to accept the students who are put in front of you. You can't choose what students you get and what type of disabilities they have. You just have to be help every child who comes to your classroom.

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