Excellent Teachers Make a Difference!
Excellent Teachers Make a Difference!

Categories: Education
Arne Duncan and Alexa Posny visiting classrooms during a recent school visit.

By Guest Blogger Alexa Posny, Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

A question that I constantly wonder about is this: what does it look like when someone is truly making a difference in the lives of students with disabilities?

Improving learning starts with engaging students and their families, yet we can’t ignore that the educators themselves make a significant contribution to long-term success in school.

Recently I’ve had opportunities to visit schools and chat with students and teachers about this very issue of a teacher’s impact on students with disabilities. While calling on a school in Maryland, I asked a student, “What is it your teachers did to help you be successful?” His answer was so simple and honest, “They cared. They took the time to figure out what I needed.” With all of our attention in education on programs and policies, he reminded me that this theme is one of the most critical. We must recognize the difference that an effective, caring and competent teacher makes.

Still, his response raises other questions. How do we recruit even more talented people into the profession? How do we train them? How do we evaluate whether or not they are doing a good job and offer them professional learning to strengthen areas that most need improvement? And, how do we keep our best special education teachers in the field?

These are essential questions. As Secretary Arne Duncan has said, “Our ability to attract – and more importantly retain – great talent over the next five years will shape public education for the next 30 years. It is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Unfortunately, current data show that more than 60 percent of teachers feel unprepared by teacher preparation programs and unable to meet their responsibilities in the classroom. Also, the educator preparation programs themselves often don’t attract the most talented students. Fewer than 25 percent of teachers (and 15 percent of teachers in high poverty schools) come from the top third of college graduates.

Some progress in this regard is being made. A handful of colleges and universities are tracking P-12 (prekindergarten through grade 12) student growth and success back to the preparation program from which the teacher graduated. This information can help the institutions to improve their programs and give future students information about which ones can best prepare them for the realities of teaching.

Another change I am starting to see is the alignment of teacher preparation programs with licensure and professional development. The organization of the state’s licensing system can make a tremendous impact on the effectiveness, recruitment and retention of teachers. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) has written, “Alignment of preparation, licensure, and ongoing professional development will be a key challenge of state work. Without corresponding supports in place for the teacher as he or she moves through the career continuum, the changes will not be sustained.” This couldn’t be a truer statement. We need consistent expectations across the board to ensure both teacher and student success.

In addition to accountability and alignment, I’ve tried to think about some ways we can improve recruitment. Some ideas that have come to mind are: developing local recruitment campaigns that include community members and prep programs; using online resources to connect teacher candidates with local district employment opportunities; streamlining application and interview processes; and providing incentives that bring a diverse pool of candidates into the field.

Finally, the critical question is this: how do we keep good teachers in the classroom? I am convinced that many of our most promising teachers leave because they don’t feel supported by the leadership at their schools and districts. Teachers need strong, visionary instructional leaders who create positive learning cultures. They also need effective professional learning and coaching by mentor teachers. In 2009, our Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provided more than $90 million to support personnel development. We need to develop job-embedded professional learning that is in line with the recently-updated Standards for Professional Learning. Examples of some OSEP funded projects are the Personnel Improvement Center (PIC), the State Personnel Development Network and the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality.

The bottom line is this:  I rarely meet a student who hasn’t been shaped in an important way by a teacher. Sharon Draper, the 1997 Teacher of the Year said, “A child, unlike any other, sits in a classroom today – hopeful, enthusiastic, curious. In that child sleeps the vision and the wisdom of the ages. The touch of a teacher will make the difference.” We need to recognize and embrace the wisdom of these words and do what we can to recruit, train and support great teaching. Our schools and our students need excellent teachers to make a difference. 

Alexa Posny was confirmed as assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services at the Department of Education by the U.S. Senate on Oct. 5, 2009. In this position, she directs, coordinates and recommends policy for programs designed to assist state and local education agencies with improving the achievement of students with disabilities, ages birth through 21, as well as adults transitioning from secondary school to higher education, employment or both. She helps ensure equal access to services leading to such improvement for all children, particularly those with disabilities. She fosters educational improvement at the state and local levels, and overseas the distribution of financial assistance to local education agencies whose local revenues are affected by federal activities. She also serves as the principal adviser to the U.S. secretary of education on all matters related to special education for individuals in pre-K, elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools.

13 Responses to Excellent Teachers Make a Difference!

  1. Heidi K. says:

    I agree that we need teachers that are eager and prepared to mold children of today. However, as a parent of a child in the special education system, I can say that it appears that their arms are tired. They can only do so much to help their students out. Funding this and funding that. Despite what a child’s challenge is, they all can be taught, even the most impaired children can learn something. I think it needs to come back to WORTH. We all are worthy of making something out of ourselve to what ever ability we are given by the good Lord. Our teachers are an essential role to that molding process, they can spend more time in a day with them than with the parents. Why can we NOT see the importance that these teachers have on our childrens lives? Give them the tools, resources, and funding to make a difference in these children’s live that is sure to live beyond their high school years! Making an investment in our children is preparing the way to the future of the United States, yet it seems that the govenment is standing in the way of that investment. WE NEED CHANGE.

  2. Noer says:

    What is wrong with the education that children were getting in the early 1900’s? They KNEW how to write, do math and read OR they stop going to school and started working at the end of 8th grade. Some became wise and went back to school, while others learned a craft and became good at it. The American Education system is broken. Teachers should be able to discipline the children and there is nothing wrong with a spanking. I got the ruler over my fingers ONLY a few times because I understood from it that the TEACHER had the authority and deserved the respect. Thanks to our courts trying to protect the children, they have actually made it worse for them and our country because of the poor students we are turning out. Teachers need to be given back authority in the classroom. Johnny and Mary need to respect the teacher OR get kicked out and forced to work. Maybe after a semester of doing manual labor as a 7th grader, that just might light the fire that paying attention and doing homework is not such a bad thing after all.

  3. Rebecca B. says:

    I am 65 (chronologically), have physical challenges, and I am working on my PhD dissertation. DARS in TX has assisted me somewhat; however, I have had to crawl, beg, cajole, and climb the ladder to get what I am supposed to get, and jump through hoops. This certainly has not helped my challenges. My degree and foci are mental health counseling, particularly with children and adolescents at risk. Initially, I was told that DARS would assist me if I sought a dual degree, with the additional degree in education. They backed out of that one totally. I can’t even get a new office chair from them. My major problem, like many, is funding to become certified. I am a real researcher, so believe me when I say that for the last several years I have dug, pursued, and contacted sources and close-to-sources. If I had just graduated from high school, was a minority, was an illegal alien, or already had a degree in education, I could find the funding. If anyone has suggestions, directions, or contacts that I can pursue, I would really appreciate the help. Thank you and God bless you.

  4. Leslie F. says:

    Teachers should make at least $75,000 starting salary….the students deserve it…they deserve a professional with skills and salary to match. Students deserve teachers who can afford a home mortgage and a car that runs…


    • Marcos says:

      If it weren’t for my 3rd grade teacher, I don’t know where I would be. If it weren’t for her understanding my breakdowns into tears in the middle of class at the memory of the night before, and if it weren’t for her encouraging words to keep going, I may have given up on everything. Even to this day when I’m breaking completely, my grades are falling and nothing seems important anymore, she can open my eyes just in time for me to fix everything. If it weren’t for my chorus teacher, I wouldn’t have as strong of a want to get out of this city as I do. If it weren’t for my English teacher, I wouldn’t feel as confident about my work. If it weren’t for her always checking my tests first so she could again tell me I got all of the questions right or only one wrong before the class was over to try and lift me from my depressive state at the moment, I wouldn’t last throughout the day. Her compliment on the last essay of the year and her insistance that I not over look the fact that she thought I was writing a college level paper in 7th grade, I probably wouldn’t believe the essay to be any good, and I wouldn’t feel as encouraged to go through with my plans for the future. So I guess my point is that teachers have made a a great impact on my life, and I’ve always felt bad for the way they are treated. If you became a teacher, I’m sure you would be the best thing to happen to some of your students in their whole lifes. I hope if you decide to go down that path, that it works out for you.

    • Norma F. says:

      Yes, it’s true. Students deserve professional teachers to learn and live in better conditions….and definitely teachers need to to be able to afford a home mortgage and a car….

  5. Kassie L. says:

    Growing up with some visual impairments, I found teachers ready and willing to accommodate from elementary to high school. However, college and grad school was a different story. I think colleges and universitites feel more removed from the federal reach of the law. Thus, they feel they have more room and power to make disability accomadations according to their, rather than the sudents’, needs. I agree that teachers need more support from teh school system, especially the ones who go out of their way to nourish students. I think more education is needed throughout the education system–from school to colleges–to make teachers and professors aware of accomadations and special needs.

  6. Davey H. says:

    Education is one of the greatest services provided by teachers. It is vital for anything. The role played by teachers becomes a very important component and in fact it can be said that they are in way our nation builders. Teachers work in close co-ordination with students to help them in building up their future.

  7. Bill B. says:

    That was very educational, and extra great for any kind of “want to be teacher” to see. I am going to try and find your address to send you my journal book to add to your info – it was made by many different leaders for helping different schools – it is for the interests of teaching, of giving ideas to others for schools to teach how to connect with the other leaders. I feel I am a good teacher, the more I do “for real” to help others, the more other teachers do to help me – it is a great tradition that good teachers in America do.

    • Naomi says:

      Hi Heidi! This is great! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with your deepest feelings about the value of each child and the shared responsibility we have to give all children the ability to thrive. Yes, we need to be active and supportive of creating the best opportunities we can for children and their education. We need to listen to the needs of children and those who oversee their care. As a teacher, I am often frustrated that I cannot provide the best learning environment for the children I teach. I am limited to the resources that I am given. I am frustrated that I cannot teach to my fullest abilities in the ways I would like to teach the children of today. More people need to get involved. Parents can have a voice but the community at large needs to contribute too. They need to know how we are all working very hard to meet the growing needs of children and the changing world around us: to prepare them to be able to work and contribute to our changing world. We need a huge tidal wave to move us forward and this means more people need to take a stand to bring us up to speed so your children are up to the pace of the world around them. Keep sending out the message, in as many ways you can. Your words can become contagious and reach the ears of those who can move us ahead. Thanks for working with us!

  8. Federico M. P. says:

    I hope to understand how to find excellent teachers from the government, how to make good works. This is one reason I’m behind as a lower grade and poor person. To improve my work, I need your help, assistance from your programs, state personnel developments network. Please help me find an education program, to improve the disability assistance programs networks. Please consider the struggle of my financial situation and myself. I love you all, Merry Christmas to all, god bless you.

  9. Bobbie H. says:

    This article is very, very encouraging! My “HAT” is off to Assistant Secretary Alexa Posny. I worked in the Education Field for more than 35 years before retiring as a Certified HS Mathematics Instructor and Evening College Instructor. I have said to others in the Education Field and other Professionals… “I truly believe that teachers are not “made” but “born.” And I believe that there are many born who have this ability and can be trained in the Educational Process to be “Excellent Educators.” I am so pleased to have READ this article of HOPE for truly I miss the students! I am 60+ now, but I still smile every time a student tells me about their challenges and successes!!

    I also try to mentor and encourage everyone towards…Lifetime Learning! A GREAT RESOURCE JUST MAY BE TO “TAP” THE EXPERIENCED RETIRED EDUCATORS WHO MAY BE ABLE TO LEND A HAND AND ASSIST TEACHERS WITH CHALLENGES! THERE ARE MANY, MANY EDUCATED RETIREES OUT HERE. Again…Thank you for your compassion and understanding. For me, teaching was a wonderful career and it wasn’t about the money– it was about the “love” in my heart.

  10. Pamela A. says:

    I have a special needs student who’s now being supported by Michigan Rehabilitation Services. It was the incredibly caring teachers and administration at Clawson High School that prepared her for the world of work and as a contributing citizen to our society. I highly agree that nothing is more important in the life of a developing student than leaders, mentors, teachers who model and demonstrate a caring attitude toward learning and development, whether special needs or not. I too am a trained educator and was deterred from moving forward in the classroom due to the unsupportive culture in public schools – the lack of respect for the work and commitment that dedicated teachers make and the lack of visionaries at the executive level. I’m truly encouraged by the reading of this article and do hope that more will be done to attract and retain those professionals who truly desire to make a difference in the lives of all students.