Expertise among teachers of students with extensive support needs is not well understood, and beliefs about what constitutes quality education for this population vary widely. We discuss findings from prior research on teacher preparation in relation to high-leverage practices and expertise development for students with extensive support needs within the social contexts of schools. We identify four core practices of expert teachers for students with extensive support needs, and we theorize the progression from novice to expert for each core practice using Dreyfus's (2004) model of expertise.
Most special educators have had the experience of being told, “You must be so patient,” or “It takes a special person to do that kind of work.” A special educator on the receiving end of these comments undoubtedly thinks that the person who made the comment might not know much about what a special educator does. This is especially true for teachers of students with extensive support needs (ESN), whose students have diagnoses of intellectual disability, autism, or multiple disabilities and require supports during most activities. In fact, research suggests that many special education teachers of students with ESN feel that others misunderstand their work (Greenway, McCollow, Hudson, Peck, & Davis, 2013; Roberts, 2013). Furthermore, our own research has revealed a perception that teaching students with ESN is simple (Ruppar, Roberts, & Olson, 2018). Interviews with expert teachers of students with ESN, however, suggest that the work of special educators for students with ESN is complex, involving decisions that must be responsive to individual students' multifaceted needs, based in data and systematic instruction; requiring the ability to develop collegial relationships with parents and other professionals; and involving both advocacy and teaching (Ruppar, Roberts, & Olson, 2017). However, misperceptions about job duties, and assumptions of others that the work is easy (Roberts, Olson & Ruppar, 2017), undermine teachers' ability to grow as professionals from novices to experts. Charting a path from novice to expertise is difficult under these conditions.
How might a teacher attain the complex skills necessary to teach students with ESN, and enact them at a high level? Competencies for beginning teachers provide a starting point to answer this question. High-leverage practices (HLPs; McLeskey et al., 2017) are a collection of 22 practices that are organized around four components of teaching and were developed with support from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC) and the CEEDAR Center (Collaboration for Effective Educator, Development, Accountability, and Reform). The components of special education HLPs are: (1) collaboration, (2) assessment, (3) social/emotional/behavioral practices, and (4) instruction (McLeskey et al., 2017). HLPs were designed to support teacher education programs in preparing preservice special education teachers, to support special education teachers in their use of effective practices, and to highlight the complexity of special education teaching (McLeskey et al., 2017). However, the process of appropriating these practices is dynamic, as teachers learn to apply the skills in new situations and expand their knowledge of teaching and learning. In order to ensure teachers reach a level of expertise in supporting students to achieve positive outcomes, an understanding of how teaching expertise develops is needed.
In general, teaching has been characterized as a complex process of decision making in context. Writing about the narrowness of policies designed to hold teachers accountable for “good” teaching, Cochran-Smith (2003) argued that teaching is “unforgivingly complex” and cannot be understood in terms of “good and bad, right or wrong, working or failing” (p. 4). Instead, teaching quality is embedded in a particular time and place, with real students, and within the institutional and political contexts that surround teachers' work. As teachers progress through their careers, they accumulate experiences that shape future decisions. They develop identities as teachers that are influenced by social and political factors, including others' understanding and value of their work (van den Berg, 2002). As van den Berg (2002) described, the confluence of external factors, the fast-paced and public nature of teacher decision making, and teachers' existential understandings of their roles and identities can lead to high levels of stress to which teachers must repeatedly respond to over time. As teachers gain experience, they make decisions that, by necessity, protect themselves against the stressors of their work. Throughout their careers, they develop expertise within the contexts of their workplaces; therefore, an understanding of how teachers' expertise develops must consider how their learning influences, and is influenced by, their social context.
Teachers of students with ESN work in a wide range of settings and encounter an extraordinary range of practical challenges. In addition to the multiple learning needs their students present, they also are likely to work in settings where the educational philosophy or structure of special education services is not aligned with recommended practices (Olson & Roberts, 2018b). Preparing teachers to work with students with ESN, therefore, requires a long-term vision for what is possible despite the barriers to effective practice that teachers might face. Teachers' beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions can shape their decisions (Ruppar, Gaffney, & Dymond, 2015) and future development as teachers (Olson & Roberts, 2018a). Identifying the core practices necessary to teach students with ESN, as well as the dispositions and orientations needed to be successful and develop expertise in challenging contexts, will benefit teachers, teacher educators, and, ultimately, the outcomes students with ESN experience.
Purpose and Procedures
The purpose of this article is to synthesize the findings from our prior research in order to provide recommendations for developing teachers' expertise in teaching students with ESN from their first contact with the field (i.e., as novices) until they demonstrate the skills marked by expertise. We draw on data we have collected for studies we have published elsewhere on teacher expertise for students with ESN (see Roberts, Ruppar, & Olson, 2018; Ruppar, Roberts, & Olson, 2015; 2017; 2018) and teacher education for students with ESN (Olson & Roberts, 2018a; Olson & Roberts, 2018b). Using Dreyfus's (2004) theory of expertise development, we map a trajectory of teachers' skills throughout their careers, and provide recommendations for teacher educators about ways to provide preservice teachers with foundational skills aligned with the indicators of expertise that we have identified in our prior research.
We leverage two theoretical frameworks to make recommendations regarding indicators of teacher expertise, and provide suggestions for how to support teachers in advancing through the stages toward attaining expertise. We situated Dreyfus's (2004) theory of expertise development within a sociocultural perspective of teacher education and development (Johnson, 2009; Rogoff, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978) to frame and interpret findings and recommendations.
Sociocultural theory posits that learning is a social process that results from human interactions with the environment and context (Rogoff, 2003; Vygotsky, 1978). From a sociocultural perspective, learning results from engagement through interaction and is influenced by the cultural context (Johnson, 2009, p. 1). Sociocultural theory also articulates the role of individual agency in learning; specifically, that learning takes place when learners take in new knowledge and make decisions regarding how to re-appropriate that knowledge in their context based on the social, cultural, and historical norms in their setting (Johnson, 2009).
Situated within teacher education, sociocultural perspectives suggest that teacher learning is interactional. Teachers mediate knowledge and skills through social interactions and re-appropriate knowledge in their current contexts (Johnson, 2009). In other words, teachers are not simply taught skills that they then deliver with precision; teachers' skills are mediated by the unique cultural, historical, and social contexts of their classrooms, schools, and communities. The way a practice is taken up and delivered by one teacher may—and should—look different than the way it is taken up by another.
For teachers of students with ESN, this mediation, or decision-making process around which practices are taken up and implemented, is heavily influenced by their individual views about disability and inclusion as well as the resources and culture of inclusion in their school context (Ruppar et al., 2015; Timberlake, 2014; 2016). Both Timberlake (2014) and Ruppar et al. (2015) found that teachers' individual views of disability, and beliefs and assumptions about the value of inclusion, influenced the degree to which they provided their students access to the general curriculum. These individual beliefs, alongside contextual factors related to availability of resources in their context, professional relationships and opportunities for collaboration, and individual agency, directly impacted the scope of the curriculum and opportunities for inclusion for their students. Contextual factors and individual views can contribute positively to the development of inclusive practices or, alternatively, manifest as barriers that perpetuate deficit views of students with ESN and limit opportunities for inclusion. Findings from Timberlake (2014; 2016) and Ruppar et al. (2015) suggest that, when teachers' individual beliefs and values are rooted in strengths-based views of their students and a presumption of competence, they can more actively challenge and negotiate contextual barriers as they arise. How, then, do teacher educators ensure that novice teachers develop the skills, orientations, and perceptions of students with ESN needed to successfully navigate these barriers?
It is the role of teacher educators and school leaders to scaffold and support novice teachers as they develop their perceptions and models of high-quality instruction for students with ESN and learn how to navigate complex contextual barriers including segregated settings and approaches to the general curriculum that make accessibility for students with ESN difficult (Olson & Roberts, 2018a). Beginning teachers may make instructional decisions in response to their context very differently than experienced, expert teachers. As teachers' skills and abilities continue to grow over time, views of their students' competence, right to access high-quality instruction, and the value of inclusion should act as guiding principles throughout their career trajectory.
One helpful model for making sense of the trajectory of teacher learning and development over time is Dreyfus's theory of expertise development (2004). Dreyfus (2004) outlined five stages of expertise that capture this continuum of development. These five stages are: (a) novice, (b) advanced beginner, (c) competence, (d) proficiency, and (e) expertise (Benner, 1982; Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2005). Those at the beginning stages of expertise rely more on institutional rules and protocols to guide decisions than those at the expert level. As individuals develop expertise, they begin to develop a sense of agency within their context that allows them to actively re-construct the social, cultural, and historical norms of their setting. Understanding each of these stages can help teacher educators and school leaders (a) consider the level of expertise at which teachers are currently functioning, and (b) provide the support needed to advance to subsequent stages. Table 1 provides indicators for each of the five stages (e.g., Benner, 1982; Berliner, 1991; Borko & Livingston, 1989; Dreyfus 1984; Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 2005).
Procedures for Summarizing Prior Research
In our research on teacher expertise and teacher education, we have explored the perspectives of teacher educators, expert teachers, and school leaders about the practices, dispositions, and orientations of high-quality teachers of students with ESN, as well as recommendations for how to prepare teachers to support students with ESN to access general curriculum content. In total, we have completed 32 interviews about teacher expertise with nine teacher educators, 12 school leaders, and 11 special education teachers. These responses formed the basis for the current analysis. We interviewed an additional 25 teacher educators about recommendations for preparing teachers of students with ESN. In this article, we use these findings to propose a framework for expertise development in teaching students with ESN.
Our first step in summarizing the findings of our previous research was a cross-analysis of the three distinct data sets (i.e., teacher educators, teachers, and school leaders). First, we created data matrices for each study (i.e., Roberts, Ruppar, & Olson, 2018; Ruppar et al., 2015; 2017) that highlighted the key features of expertise described by each group. Next, we listed all of the features of expertise identified in the studies and created operational definitions for each feature based on the extant literature and findings from our research. During this step, some of the features were condensed as we refined our understanding of each key practice. For example, during this stage, we determined that “advocacy” and “lifelong learning” fell under the key feature of expertise described by participants as a set of “guiding principles.” We also began to categorize the features into two groups: (1) skills that could be developed and nurtured over time in teacher preparation and development, and (2) teacher orientations or dispositions that influenced teachers' actions. Finally, we merged the final list of key features into a single data display and identified areas of overlap. For this step, we reviewed interview transcripts to search for quotes across the data sets, which illustrated the practices in more than one set of participants. As a research team, we made the decision to center the perspectives of teachers and identified key features that were highlighted by the teacher group and at least one other group (i.e., school leaders or teacher educators). At the conclusion of this step, we had identified five core practices that were reiterated throughout the data and three distinct teacher dispositions and orientations.
Because our purpose was to articulate how to support novice teachers in the development of expertise, we chose to focus our efforts on the core practices and skills because they are more malleable than an individual's disposition or orientation. After we identified the five core practices, we used Dreyfus's (2004) framework to theorize the stages of development that should lead to expert demonstration of the skills. We created another data display and used the operational definitions we created for each core practice to theorize the way the core practice might develop beginning at novice, progressing through advanced beginner, competence, proficiency, and, finally, expertise. Using the participants' descriptions of the practices, we created vignettes of each practice at each stage. As we mapped the core practices onto the table, we once again sought illustrative quotes. We noted that, as participants described teachers with greater levels of expertise, they increasingly described the teacher's attitudes, beliefs, or dispositions. Adding these quotes in data displays helped confirm our conclusion that orientations and dispositions may help teachers develop expertise in each of the core practices.
In qualitative research, the researcher is an instrument whose background and experiences influence everything from the study framing to the interpretations of the findings (Brantlinger, Jimenez, Klingner, Pugach, & Richardson, 2005). Thus, in order to help establish trustworthiness and credibility of the findings, it is imperative to articulate our own positionality with regard to teacher expertise for students with ESN. All authors were previously teachers of students with ESN and are current teacher educators and researchers at institutes of higher education where special education teachers are prepared. Our experiences have shaped our vision of high-quality instruction for students with ESN. We believe that students with ESN should be educated alongside their peers without disabilities to the greatest extent possible, should be treated with dignity and presumed competent, and deserve access to well-trained, effective teachers who have high expectations for students. We also acknowledge the historical deficit narratives that perpetuate segregated settings for students with ESN (Biklen & Burke, 2006) and actively work to counter those narratives with strengths-based views of students with ESN, their families, and their teachers. We advocate for more expansive views of inclusion, where classrooms and instruction are welcoming, accessible, and engaging to a wide range of learners, including students with disabilities and also other students who have traditionally been marginalized in schools (Baglieri, Bejoian, Broderick, Connor, & Valle, 2011). Using this lens, our theoretical framing, and findings from our previous research on teacher expertise and development for teachers of students with ESN, we make recommendations for how teacher educators and school leaders can support teachers across the continuum of expertise development, from novice to experts.
Core Practices, Dispositions, and Orientations
Five core practices, exemplifying expertise in teaching students with ESN, emerged from our interviews with teachers, teacher educators, and school leaders: (a) advocacy; (b) systematic instruction; (c) strengths-based approach; (d) individualized instruction; and (e) collaboration. These practices are broad, and encompass any content a teacher might need to teach, such as academics, behavior, communication, or social skills. For each of these core practices, we define and describe the practice using examples from the data. Table 2 outlines the progression through the stages of expertise development for each core practice.
Benedict (2018) suggested that special educators entering the field should be prepared to be “advanced beginners” as they leave preservice teacher education. Therefore, we considered novice teachers to be entering a preservice teacher education program, advanced beginner teachers to be graduating from teacher education programs, and teachers in the competence phase to have 3-5 years of experience in the field. Proficient and expert teachers would have additional years of experience and have increasing leadership responsibilities (Brownell, Leko, Benedict, Pua, & Peyton, in press). For each core practice, we draw on our research on teacher preparation to provide recommendations for teacher educators to support the development of teacher expertise in ESN.
In addition to the core practices, participants described dispositions and orientations that facilitated teachers' work and supported their growth as educators. A disposition is the tendency to act in a particular way. Flexible thinking and a long-term vision were two dispositions that were consistently described by participants. By being flexible, teachers adapt to the constantly shifting conditions that shape students' learning and affect their work as professionals. With a clear long-term vision for students' outcomes, teachers imagine possibilities and identify a clear path to attaining positive school outcomes for their students. Orientations are attitudes, beliefs, or feelings related to a topic. Expert teachers were described as having the orientation of lifelong learning, which required critical thinking to analyze current situations and continually search for information to improve their practice. These dispositions and orientations help teachers navigate their contexts and contribute to how they take up practices in context.
Core Practice: Advocacy
Our findings suggest that advocacy in teaching is characterized as actively supporting and using one's position to positively influence outcomes for students with ESN and their families. As a teacher's expertise develops, advocacy takes on a prominent role in professional interactions as well as teaching activities. As an advocate, an expert teacher educates others in the school and community about respecting students with ESN and increasing expectations for their full participation in school and society. A teacher educator described the teacher's advocacy role as “educating their colleagues, educating their peers, educating the district and community” (Ruppar et al., 2015, p. 8). In everyday interactions, expert teachers consistently model ways that students with ESN can participate more fully in school activities. As Roman, a special education teacher, explained, an expert teacher's advocacy can “change the narrative” of students' experiences in school” (Ruppar et al., 2017, p. 5). Advocacy is so intertwined with the job of teaching students with ESN that one teacher educator described it as happening “all the time” (Ruppar et al., 2015, p. 8). As teachers develop as leaders in advocacy, they set an example for others in the school as they model age-respectful interactions with students and teachers, while holding high expectations confidently.
As novices, prospective teachers should demonstrate awareness about social justice as it pertains to students with ESN, particularly in relation to how ableist structures have historically restricted the full participation of individuals with ESN in school and society and how to identify ableist attitudes and policies. By the time teachers graduate from teacher education programs, they should be able to recognize the ways that students might be denied access to equitable education within their teaching environments, and be able to strategize ways to counter ableist decision making (Olson & Roberts, 2018b; Ruppar et al., 2018). For example, a teacher who is an advanced beginner should consistently advocate for students' participation in schoolwide activities and be able to design lessons that reflect inclusive values. In order to navigate workplace contexts that might not align with best practices for students with ESN, teacher educators should prepare teachers who are creative and persistent, and can problem solve to navigate barriers (Olson & Roberts, 2018a; Olson & Roberts, 2018b).
As teachers progress to the competence stage, equal access should be evident in all instructional activities, which should reflect inclusive education, meaningful partial participation, and universal design for learning. As proficient educators, teachers should be seen as leaders in their schools and others will look to the teacher as a model. For example, the proficient teacher will consistently advocate for equal access to education for all students in the school, and begin to engage in advocacy at the state or national level. Expert teachers will take an active leadership role within the district to structure educational systems in an equitable manner, and their advocacy will affect a broad population of students rather than only the students at their school or on their caseload.
Core Practice: Systematic Instruction
Teachers of students with ESN should have knowledge of systematic instructional strategies and should be skillful in using systematic instruction flexibly. Evidence-based practices such as time delay and system of least prompts (Browder, Wakeman, Spooner, Ahlgrim-Delzell, & Algozzine, 2006; Spooner, Knight, Browder, & Smith, 2012) provide a foundation for designing individualized instruction in a variety of academic, behavioral, communication, social, and life skills. Teachers also need to be capable of using and designing data collection systems that align to measurable goals and objectives. Our research suggested that expert teachers not only use and design systematic instructional programs, they think about behavior, teaching, and learning in a systematic way. A teacher educator described this as being “able to adjust or adapt right on the spot,” (Ruppar et al., 2015, p. 10) and teachers described this as “a very systematic way of going about it” in order to “figure out what's going on” (Ruppar et al., 2017, p. 6).
At the beginning stage, teacher candidates should become familiar with systematic instructional strategies and be able to implement a systematic instructional program with fidelity, following the procedures developed by others. As teachers progress through their program and prepare to graduate, teachers should be able to design, implement, and evaluate an instructional program based on a high-priority goal using systematic instruction, and make data-based decisions. For example, teacher educators might provide opportunities for preservice teachers to design a standards-aligned systematic instruction lesson plan, including prompting strategies and a data collection plan (Olson & Roberts, 2018a).
As teachers progress through the competence and proficiency stages, they become increasingly capable of implementing and monitoring many programs simultaneously, and can develop programs effortlessly and at the moment a student needs instruction. An expert views problems of instruction through a systematic lens, continually questioning and testing theories using a systematic instruction framework. As Dreyfus (2004) noted, experts are able to notice and prioritize the most important information during decision making. For example, one expert teacher described how she was able to notice a student's preferences by understanding the most important information to collect. She and her assistants thought they had tried everything to identify a particular student's preferences, including using free-operant procedures, systematic preference assessments, and information gathering from friends and family. One day, a paraprofessional opened a cough drop and the student dropped everything to request it. The teacher's advice: “Pay attention.” She understood that identifying preferences and interests were the key to engaging the student in learning. Her ability to notice patterns outside of a lesson-planning context and immediately apply her knowledge of reinforcement allowed a breakthrough for the student to occur.
Core Practice: Strengths-Based Approach
Teachers' strengths-based approach are evident in their discussions and interactions, and are illustrated in their positive framing of students, families, and communities; recognition of student strengths and assets; and presumption of student competence. When teachers positively frame students and their families as valuable, contributing members of the team, school, and community, it can disrupt traditional deficit narratives about individuals with disabilities, particularly individuals with ESN. As one expert teacher explained, a strengths-based approach is evident in a teacher's “attitude that [students] are capable, that they can do things, that they can learn” (Ruppar et al., 2017, p. 8). During instruction, a strengths-based approach is evident in high expectations for students, including academics. In teachers' own professional learning, this approach can be observed as teachers grow in their ability to recognize the value of disrupting deficit narratives, and in their ability to change systems which are based on assumptions about students' deficits.
Teachers at the early stages of development are aware of and understand the various perspectives regarding instruction for students with ESN. For example, a novice teacher should be able to articulate that there are different views about education for students with ESN, and can identify strengths in students with disabilities. At times, teacher educators may shape teachers' deficit-oriented views into strengths-based views (Olson & Roberts, 2018a). For example, teacher educators should ensure novice teachers understand the concepts of person-first and identity-first language, presuming competence, and the least dangerous assumption (Olson & Roberts, 2018a). Reflecting on history and teaching about current best practices can include discussions about misalignment between what teachers are learning about in courses and what they may be seeing in schools (Olson & Roberts, 2018a). Teacher educators can help teachers understand that their colleagues' views might or might not align with their own beliefs, and can provide concrete examples of how various philosophies can be seen in practice.
As teachers progress in their development of strengths-based thinking, they begin to understand why deficit narratives have harmful effects on outcomes for individuals with ESN. For example, a teacher at the competence level should be able to recognize when others use deficit framing, and have the skills to disrupt that perspective by providing resources and information. Finally, teachers at the expertise level have a vision of teaching and learning for students with ESN that includes positioning their students as competent, capable learners. Expert teachers demonstrate this vision through the delivery of high-quality and age-appropriate instruction. As leaders, expert teachers consistently challenge and reframe deficit language, and advocate for school- and district-level policy changes to support strengths-based practices.
Core Practice: Individualized Instruction
Individualized instruction is tailored to each student's unique academic, behavioral, social-emotional, and functional needs. Expert teachers of students with ESN use multiple forms of data to create meaningful learning and individualized education program (IEP) goals for their students and deliver instruction for those goals across a variety of settings. As a teacher educator described, creating individualized instruction begins with “gather[ing] information about your students in every way possible” (Ruppar et al., 2018). This information is used to create unique learning goals that promote academic development, life skills, positive behavior, and social skills. Individualized instruction and inclusion are not mutually exclusive, and experts advocate for individualized instruction for all learners, with classrooms and instruction that are proactively designed to be accessible to a wide range of student needs.
Teachers at the novice level of development understand and are able to write individualized IEP goals for each of their students based on multiple forms of assessment data. Advanced beginners begin to explore ways to embed learning across settings, including general education or community-based settings. For example, they might support a student in a general education literacy class, and are growing in their ability to provide intensive instruction during general education activities. In order to make highly individualized instructional decisions, teachers need to have a deep knowledge of their students and develop strong relationships. Teacher educators should have novice teachers create individualized adaptations for grade-appropriate and standards-based curriculum, concurrently integrating IEP goals, and ensuring that curriculum and instruction are meaningful (Olson & Roberts, 2018a).
As teachers progress in their development, they are able to provide instruction in more sophisticated ways and across a wide variety of settings. They use their knowledge about their students to make in-the-moment decisions about instruction. As Linda, a teacher educator described, teachers progressing toward expertise should be able to “crawl inside that student's head to figure out what's going on” (Ruppar et al., 2015, p. 10). Teachers also develop in their ability to lead multiple teams of educators and support staff across multiple environments, including general education classes. Expert teachers take this one step further and promote their vision of improving instruction for all learners in general education classes. These teachers model their vision, and are able to provide highly individualized instruction and supports across multiple settings. Rather than being limited by their setting, they recognize that all classrooms have a wide range of learners and are able to respond to diverse needs in a universal manner.
Core Practice: Collaboration
Collaboration and the ability to build and maintain collegial relationships is crucial to the success of teachers of students with ESN. Successful teachers are continually engaged in partnering with others and sharing the workload to promote equitable access to high-quality instruction for students with ESN. They understand how to leverage relationships to increase opportunities for their students in their schools and communities. As a school leader described, a special education teacher should develop relationships with colleagues throughout the school, “because that rapport building is what has that regular ed (sic) teacher say, yeah, I'll welcome that student in” (Ruppar et al., 2017, p. 8). Although much of collaboration involves interpersonal interactions, it can also be observed in the way a teacher defines their role. Expert teachers of students with ESN should consistently co-teach and co-plan with their general education colleagues, and they should be an intrinsic part of building a school community in which the line between general education and special education is, as one school leader explained, “seamless” (Roberts et al., 2018, p. 9). Most importantly, teachers should understand the power of collaboration and recognize that consistent collaboration and interaction with general education teachers, families, and students can improve opportunities for students with ESN.
Like the other core practices, teachers' collaboration skills develop over time. Teachers at the novice level are aware of the different teaching models for students with ESN (e.g., self-contained, co-teaching, inclusive) and understand the importance of collaboration. As advanced beginners, teachers make an effort to connect with relevant general education teachers and support staff. For example, they may attend grade-level team meetings or planning sessions. In addition, advanced beginning teachers understand the value of building positive relationships and rapport with paraeducators and begin to foster those relationships. Therefore, teacher educators must prepare teachers who have the skills and qualities to collaborate and form collegial relationships (Ruppar et al., 2017). Teacher educators, likewise, should collaborate with each other to create opportunities across courses for preservice teachers to interact (Olson & Roberts, 2018b). Finally, interpersonal problem-solving skills and professional relationships are the core of a teacher's collaborative work, and understanding collaborators' roles, skills, and preferences is central to working as an effective team member.
As teachers develop, their participation in collaborative teaching and learning progresses. For example, teachers at the competent level may participate in co-teaching arrangements that involve co-planning and implementation in general education settings. They understand that, in those arrangements, special educators should be an equal teacher capable of supporting all students. As a teacher educator explained, “It's not, well, ‘you're the content expert and I'm the classroom management expert,' or ‘you're the content expert, I'm the modification expert.'” (Ruppar et al., 2015 p. 9). Competent teachers are able to effectively motivate, train, and support paraeducators to assist with instruction. Teachers who are experts go one step further, mentoring others in co-teaching and collaboration. They may invite others to observe collaborative planning and instruction or offer to mentor teaching teams interested in similar teaching arrangements. Finally, as an administrator described, an expert teacher is “usually the one who's on the types of committees that are saying, how can we improve? How can we improve our school? How can we improve things in our district?” (Roberts et al., 2017, p. 9). In this way, expert teachers express a vision for what teaching and learning should look like, and they know how to support others in moving toward that vision.
Collectively, the findings from our research have highlighted five core practices for teachers of students with ESN: (1) advocacy, (2) systematic instruction, (3) strengths-based approach, (4) individualized instruction, and (5) collaboration. The core practices we identified may be taken up differently depending on the expertise level of the teacher and variations in workplace contexts. As teachers develop expertise, specific orientations and dispositions impact the ways in which they implement core practices. As teachers of students with ESN develop, they begin to show leadership in their schools and districts in order to advocate for equitable experiences for their students.
Intersection of Special Education HLPs and Core Practices for Teachers of Students With ESN
The core practices we identified for teachers of students with ESN overlap with HLPs (McLeskey et al., 2017). The goal of the HLPs is to identify a set of core practices that have been shown to improve student outcomes and can be embedded in practice-based opportunities for preservice special education teachers. Practice-based opportunities in teacher education have been identified as a way to improve teachers' implementation of evidence-based practices, both in general education and special education (Benedict, Holdheide, Brownell, & Foley, 2016; McDonald, Kazemi, & Kavanaugh, 2013). Given the historical deficit view of students with ESN and misconceptions about special education teachers' work, the HLPs help make the complex role of teachers explicit and provide a framework for preparing and supporting pre- and in-service teachers. The five core practices we identified align with these components and the specific HLPs, and provide a deeper, contextual description of what practices might look like as a teacher of students with ESN develops from a novice to an expert (see Table 3).
Dispositions and Context
Like all teachers, contextual factors affect how teachers of students with ESN can provide instruction (Bishop, Brownell, Klingner, Leko, & Galman, 2010; Leko & Brownell, 2011). The contextual challenges for teachers of students with ESN are particularly difficult given the scope and extent of the academic, behavioral, and functional support needs of their students (Kurth, Born, & Love, 2016). These support needs often result in more restrictive educational placements (e.g., self-contained classrooms or segregated schools; Kurth, Morningstar, & Kozleski, 2014) where teachers report feeling isolated and misunderstood by school leaders and peers (Greenway et al., 2013). The findings from our studies suggest that the dispositions displayed by expert teachers may help protect them, and in some cases might help them thrive, despite contextual challenges. Participants in our studies described key dispositions of expert teachers of students with ESN, which included creativity, flexibility, willingness to change, reflectiveness, and critical thinking. These dispositions facilitated teachers' ability to enter into challenging contexts, think creatively, and be open to change in order to enact a high-quality vision of instruction. These findings align with previous research that suggests individual teacher characteristics and dispositions can help teachers navigate challenging contexts (Billingsley, 2010; Brownell et al., 2014; Leko, Roberts, & Pek, 2015). Specifically, Billingsley (2010) noted that a teacher's willingness to learn new things was key to beginning teacher success, and Brownell et al. (2014) highlighted persistence and critical analysis as characteristics that differentiated successful special education teachers from less successful ones. Taken together, these findings imply that, although all teachers can be taught specific core practices, the way they take them up is largely dependent on their individual characteristics.
Leadership was a disposition that was particularly salient in the descriptions of expert teachers of students with ESN. As teachers progress in their development of expertise, they begin to exhibit more leadership within their contexts, and participants highlighted the leadership capacity as it developed for each core practice. Teacher leadership is necessary for school transformation and can improve outcomes for students and teachers (Billingsley, 2007; Murphy, 2005). Furthermore, teacher leadership helps increase teacher ownership and empowerment (Murphy, 2005). Our findings support York-Barr, Sommerness, Duke, and Ghere's (2005) finding that leadership of teachers can facilitate inclusion for students with ESN. York-Barr et al. noted the day-to-day practices of teachers who successfully facilitated inclusion included a continual negotiation and engagement between their students and families, their colleagues, and their organization. Moreover, this engagement required strong collaboration, advocacy, and leadership skills such as communicating a shared vision of inclusion; understanding contextual resources, policies, and norms; collaborating with a wide variety of stakeholders; and managing day-to-day instruction for a diverse group of students. Expert teachers exhibit this type of leadership in order to advance their visions for instruction and outcomes. Furthermore, they support others in moving towards a similar vision.
Teaching students with ESN is a complex endeavor, affected by teacher education, school leadership and culture, and individual teacher characteristics. We analyzed data from prior research (i.e., Roberts et al., 2018; Ruppar et al., 2015; 2017) in regard to teacher expertise for students with ESN. Our analysis revealed the complexity of teachers' roles, and highlighted the expertise required to teach students with ESN, to disrupt troubling stereotypes of teachers and students, and advance the profession. Teacher educators should prepare teachers to exhibit the core competencies required to teach students with ESN, and encourage the dispositions necessary to develop into experts. As leaders, expert teachers can change the narrative of the education of students with ESN, shift the culture within their own schools, and have a powerful impact as they influence change at the community, state, and national level.