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Teachers shape the lives of our children every day, which is why it’s so important to express our gratitude for the work they do. What better time to take a moment to thank them personally—by writing a short note (from you or your child) or by offering your time as a volunteer during class—than in honor of National Teacher Appreciation Week, May 2–6.

Teaching takes dedication and patience. To be successful, particularly in special education classes, teachers must also understand a range of learning styles. “Special education teachers put forth a lot of effort to identify specific areas where students need to learn,” explains Dr. Barry Birnbaum, a faculty member in The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership. “You have to be able to understand each child’s strengths, respond to interruptions that stall the learning process, and teach individually.”

One of his PhD in Education students, Wanda Patrick, a special education teacher at Weaver Middle School in Merced, California, exemplifies this model, he says. “Wanda excels at writing individualized education programs (IEPs) because she understands the needs of the students. She’s also a strong advocate for her students and collaborates with general education teachers to help them succeed.”

“You have to do what works for your students,” Patrick says. “Students’ ways of learning are not always the same. There are different modalities of learning, including kinesthetic, visual, auditory, smell, and taste. I have to be able to use each modality to help each student learn.”

For example, when she teaches one- and two-step algebra equations, she teaches students how to complete the problems by using algebra tiles and a mat. “This helps students who are visual and kinesthetic learners,” Patrick explains. “We also orally state the moves that we make, which helps students who are auditory learners.” She also makes a point to thread the primary lesson throughout the week, ending with a quiz on Friday. “This style of reinforcement has been so successful that it has been picked up by several general education teachers in my school,” she continues.

Collaboration among teachers is essential, Dr. Birnbaum says. “By working together, all teachers will understand that all children will learn if we individualize instruction and partner to benefit the child. Teachers must always keep children’s needs at the forefront.”

He makes a point to encourage collaboration in the courses he teaches at Walden. “Students not only regularly learn new teaching methods they can immediately apply to their own classrooms, they also share their own experiences, which enables them to learn from each other and apply those best practices in their classrooms,” Dr. Birnbaum says.

Patrick says she was especially moved when a former student shared why she planned to go into special education herself. “She said because of the help that she was given in middle school, she was able to excel in high school and now college,” Patrick says. “She wanted to pay it forward and help others. That was the best praise anyone could give.”

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