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Ideas and Solutions

How Two Special Education Teachers Advocate for Their Students

After Becca Hahn and Patrick Kelly saw gaps in student support and resources, the two new teachers partnered with their colleagues to reimagine what special education looks like at their school.

November 5, 2019

The TFA Editorial Team

The TFA Editorial Team

“There’s something special about this school,” Patrick Kelly (Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ’18) says, sitting in his classroom at Doolittle Elementary. Both Patrick and his fellow corps member Becca Hahn (Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana, ’18) are special education teachers at Doolittle, an Opportunity School on Chicago’s South Side.

Opportunity Schools are high-need neighborhood schools where finding and training excellent teachers is a top priority—nearly one-fifth of the Greater Chicago-Northwest Indiana corps is placed in one. Though Becca and Patrick understand the unique challenges of their placement, they believe these challenges bring staff closer together. “We’re a family here,” Becca says. “Everyone’s connected by what we’re trying to accomplish: to truly help students grow.”

Becca and Patrick’s passion for education started early. Becca’s mom is a special education teacher, and Becca spent countless hours in her classroom, which eventually inspired Becca to volunteer for Best Buddies. During college, Patrick worked with people with disabilities, and afterwards spent a year substitute teaching in high-needs classrooms. “I always knew I wanted to teach special ed,” Patrick says. “And now I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

A female teacher reading with her student.

But as first year special education teachers, they faced their own unique set of challenges at Doolittle. Because of limited resources, Becca and Patrick were often asked to substitute teach, and their students didn’t always have access to the support they needed to thrive. “It was really tough to ask for resources when we were also trying to figure out how to teach in a new school,” Becca says. “We had to advocate for our students as we were learning their specific needs.”

To accomplish this, both Patrick and Becca focused on building strong relationships with their colleagues. They were the first teachers in the school building every morning, and spent time observing other classrooms. “We never positioned ourselves as experts,” Becca said. “We’d reach out and ask questions, always bringing these issues to people’s attention so we could decide together where we needed to go.” They’ve also taken on leadership roles—both are members of the Behavioral Health Team, the Instructional Leadership Team, and the Culture and Climate Team. This year, Becca is also the department chair for special education.

A male teacher reading at a table with his students.

As a result of their advocacy, Becca and Patrick have seen big changes in special education at Doolittle. One thing they’ve pushed for is greater inclusion for their students. “Over time we realized that our students were very excluded,” Patrick says. “We wanted to change what the role of the special education teacher looks like, and how our students are perceived.” Now, their students are joining general education classrooms for more hours of the day, so they can feel more connected to their peers. “Our kids are making greater gains because they see what everyone else is doing, and they want to be a part of it,” Patrick says. To ensure their needs are met, Becca and Patrick then provide supplemental support either during the class or afterwards in small groups.

Both Becca and Patrick know that this sort of change would not have been possible with the support of their principal, who began her tenure last February. “Our new principal really trusts us and encourages advocacy,” says Becca. As a result of the changes they implemented, they’ve already seen incredible results—Patrick mentioned one student in particular whose reading was now at an E level, compared to a B level at the end of last year. “It’s just the start of the year and I’m seeing so many academic and social emotional gains,” says Becca. “I can’t wait to see where we are in June.”

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