Joshua Welch, 10, does well in his elementary school classroom when he has a teacher trained to deal with his autism, his mother said.
But Wake County needs to find more than three dozen additional special education teachers by the time Joshua’s school starts on Aug. 26 – or he may not have one. The lack of teachers at Kingswood Elementary and other schools means there’s a major push on to hire qualified teachers.
“It has been getting harder and harder over the past five years to get teachers to work with children with moderate to severe cognitive disabilities,” said Karen Hamilton, assistant superintendent of special education services with Wake County Public Schools.
“You need specific training, and you need to be attracted to working with children with educational disabilities.”
Communicating with Joshua, who sometimes seemed completely shut off from the world, sometimes requires an adult to get up and take part in “floor play.” That meant physical engagement that tickled Joshua’s sense of humor and got his attention, according to his mother, Leslie Welch.
“I would say to someone who was with him; all you have to do is make him laugh,” Welch said. “You have to engage the kids where they are.”
The Wake schools system has 1,219 special education teachers working with 18,979 students. To help find additional teachers, administrators are offering current ones a $100 bonus for a successful referral. Also, there’s a special education hiring blitz scheduled for Aug. 10, with opportunities to meet principals and explore jobs at elementary, middle and high schools.
The need is particularly critical for special education teachers certified in adapted curriculum, in teaching students with severe to profound autism, or in teaching those with moderate intellectual disability.
“Autism teachers have unique training and skill sets,” Welch said. “Most of them apply to other children with disabilities as well.”
Among other things, certified special education teachers learn a variety of ways to set up classrooms to allow for different learning styles.
“My son’s classroom has had eight kids, and some are verbal and some are not,” Welch said. “Even in one classroom, you have to have a variety of techniques and tricks, so to speak, that you can pull from.”
Unfortunately, Welch said, her son’s classroom for the new school year is one of those with empty positions. As a member of the special education advisory committee for Wake schools, she’s a long-time advocate for the system’s efforts for children like her son.
“You’ve got kids with autism in every classroom,” Welch said. “They’re in every single classroom in this county. It would behoove all teachers to have some knowledge and training in teaching kids with special needs, especially with autism.”
At Moore Square Museums Magnet, autism support teacher Marilyn Jaime works with students who are at different levels on the spectrum, or degrees of the condition.
“They for the most part are able to negotiate the school environment,” Jaime said. “But they use help with conversations with peers; they often misperceive actions and words that they hear.
“I may pull the kids out, especially if they are having emotional problems.”
Jaime has spent seven years at Moore Square, after obtaining a degree in special education from N.C. State University. Before that, she was a resource teacher for children with multiple disabilities. An additional teacher specially trained to deal with children with disabilities is a major asset in a classroom where typical children also require attention.
“It’s very demanding – it requires long hours,” said Jaime, who is also department chair for the special education program at Moore Square. “They need to have someone who understands where their behaviors are coming from, how they think, their perspective on things.”