Exploring the Nature of a Successful Teaching and Learning Environment

Bettini awarded $400,000 grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to study the working conditions of special education teachers

Elizabeth Bettini, Assistant professor of special education at Boston University School of Education
Elizabeth Bettini is using the grant to explore the working conditions of special education teachers. Photo by Mike Spencer

According to Elizabeth Bettini, assistant professor of special education at the Boston University School of Education, students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) are some of the most challenging students to teach

“The teachers who teach them need to be able to provide very skilled academic support, as well as behavioral support,” she says. “It’s very taxing on a teacher to be with students all day who might be cursing at you or engaging in unsafe behaviors. It takes a very caring and qualified educator.”

And yet, Bettini says that special education teachers working with students with EBD are often not provided with working conditions that are conducive to a successful teaching and learning environment for both educator and student.

“These teachers often have to be with their students, for safety reasons, from the time they arrive at school to the time they leave,” Bettini explains. “So they often can’t benefit from prep time, time to plan with colleagues, things that prior research indicates help teachers be more successful.”

With a $400,000 grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, Bettini will explore the nature of the working conditions special education teachers experience in self-contained classes for students with EBD, and how those conditions contribute to teacher effectiveness.

She hypothesizes that working conditions, such as lack of planning time and/or isolation from colleagues, might be a contributing factor to those educators providing less-skilled instruction and feeling less satisfied—and ultimately in their leaving those positions.

“Not only is there a high attrition rate, teachers in those settings are significantly more likely to be stressed and feel burnt out,” Bettini says. “Interacting with colleagues is important, because teachers learn through those interactions and it benefits them not only for instructional purposes, but also for managing stress.”

In addition to having limited time for planning and working with colleagues, Bettini adds that teachers working with students with EBD often lack material resources as well.

For example, special education teachers serving students with EBD often need more curricular resources than general education teachers because they teach multiple subjects.

“Yet, these special education teachers are often an afterthought and they’re often given older or leftover resources,” she says.

Once Bettini determines which working conditions contribute most to instruction, she’ll consider ways in which they can be mitigated or improved.

“For example, if we focus on special educators’ lack of planning time, we would then work with school administrators to rearrange schedules to create common planning time and ensure that these teachers can have coverage during that time,” she explains.

Ultimately, an additional goal of the grant will be to determine how school districts, on a broader scale, can measure and assess for themselves their teachers’ working conditions.

“That might mean developing a package of materials to improve working conditions or a measurement tool that administrators can use to determine what additional supports they need to provide,” Bettini says. “The idea is to help administrators better support special educators.”

She recently published an article in Remedial and Special Education about a high-performing, inclusive district in Arizona that is doing just that.

“The administrators at this district in the Southwest really emphasized their own responsibility for providing special education teachers necessary supports,” she says. “We talk a lot about teacher quality as if it’s something intrinsic, but in this district they think about teacher quality as an interaction between teachers’ character and skills, and the supports they are provided with.”

Bettini adds that, often, supports are thought of solely in terms of professional development.

“But in this district, they were much more interested in things like common vision, telling people ‘good job,’ checking in with people to see what they need help with,” she says. “Those are essential elements of support.”

To read Bettini’s latest article, titled “Cultivating a Community of Effective Special Education Teachers: Local Special Education Administrators’ Roles,” click here. Her literature review on “Novice Teachers’ Experiences in High-Poverty Schools” was also recently published in Urban Education and can be accessed here.

A version of this article was originally published in the School of Education website.

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