|This is the first in a series of conversations with several of ISA’s coaches, to check in with them about their current work.
Leslie Calabrese joined ISA as a special education coach in 2019. She had previously taught in New Jersey urban public schools for over 15 years, teaching every grade from K-12, with her final years as a 9th grade self-contained special education English teacher. Leslie is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), which guides her approach towards behavior management decisions in the classroom. As a faculty member at Rutgers University, Leslie teaches and supervises pre-service teachers during their clinical internship prior to becoming a certified teacher. As an ISA coach, she enjoys guiding teachers down the co-planning path to increase access to a more appropriate learning environment for all students.
First, Leslie, what led you into education and specifically working in the realm of special education?
It’s a long story. I was never really a fan of school and didn’t really understand the importance of connections with teachers when I was there. I just went to school, got my grades, and moved on. In college I got a job as an assistant teacher in a preschool, and the people there helped me become a certified preschool teacher. Part of the reason I did that was because of my mother; she showed me that there was an alternate route to becoming a teacher, and so I decided to undertake it. My first teaching job was in a kindergarten in an urban district, with 25 students in the morning and 25 in the afternoon, with no paraprofessional. During that first job, I discovered that I was really good with students that most teachers weren’t so good with—and so that is how I started working with special education students. I went back to school to get my master’s in that area, and it was the best decision I made. It allowed me to work with learners that needed differentiation, accommodations, love, and patience, all of which I was able to provide.
At Rutgers, you work with young people who are training to go into the classroom. What do these new teachers excel at? And what do they struggle with?
In short, my student teachers excel at enthusiasm; they are super excited about learning new strategies and practicing them and are very proud when those strategies work. When they learn new strategies or best practices for the classroom, their excitement for them spills over into their teaching, and their own students also get excited. It’s powerful to watch those connections happen. One area that they continue to work on relates to asking questions that elicit higher–order thinking. Making these questions an integral part of any lesson is an important part of being an effective teacher. I tell my student teachers that I want to see good thinkers when I observe a class, and it’s their job to provide the tools so that their students become those good thinkers.
When schools went to virtual instruction in the spring, because of the pandemic, what were your initial thoughts, as a teacher educator?
When learning went remote in the spring, I knew my student teachers struggled to maintain a relationship with their cooperating teachers and with their students—as was true for so many other teachers. But I remained positive, and the districts we work with were supportive and accommodating, as my student teachers built a new type of relationship with their cooperating teachers. At this current moment in schools and districts, it’s so important to be flexible, and I keep reminding my students that here is another instance to practice that skill and belief.
No doubt, in these last several months, you’ve seen some dynamite virtual teaching, particularly with special education students. What best practices have you seen that you want all teachers undertaking?
With remote learning, I have seen a lot of dynamite teaching, as you say, but I think the most important practices or qualities at this moment are consistency and persistence. For example, I have had student teachers decide to have a virtual morning meeting, and for some of them only two kids show up at that first meeting. I tell my student teachers to remain consistent, that you need to have that morning meeting every day, no matter how many students show up. This is where persistence comes into play, as my student teachers make repeated calls to students’ homes, reminding students and parents about the meeting. They do not give up, and their students begin to realize that they are missing this big part of the day. Eventually students show up for morning meeting, but it takes work. It takes perseverance. As I say to my student teachers: Don’t give up on your students before you give them a chance to catch up.
Most schools will have some kind of virtual teaching when they start up this fall. What are you saying to the teachers that you oversee? How are you helping them prepare?
Don’t forget that my students are pre-service teachers, and so they’re working with a cooperating teacher. That said, I’m telling them right now to communicate and to help, help, help. They work hand-in-hand with their cooperating teachers, and with school now virtual, the keys to success are daily check-ins, brief virtual meetings, and the sharing of documents to share ideas. Pre-service teachers, as I said before, are enthusiastic and energetic, and so they can also help their mentors by, for example, researching a new strategy or a new tech tool, helping to take some of the load off of their cooperating teacher. My students are there to learn, but they’re also there to help as much as they can—all to make this the best experience for the students in their class.
We wish Leslie’s student teachers the best as they prepare for their own classrooms. Also be sure to look for more conversations with ISA coaches in the next several months.