(For this blog post we had the chance to chat with ISA coach Mayra Rodriguez. Mayra joined the ISA team in 2019 after working for 26 years in the New York City public school system. She taught bilingual self-contained high school, co-taught and coached in inclusive classrooms, and was an assistant principal at P.S. K077 in Brooklyn. As a district coach she was part of the founding team of the Queens High School of Teaching. Mayra’s expertise is in collaborative co-teaching models, differentiated instruction, school change, positive behavior supports, and analysis of school data to support academic and emotional achievement for students with disabilities (SWD) and English learners.)

First, what led you into education and specifically working with students with disabilities?

I grew up during a time when schools were mostly segregated; I watched as children with disabilities were housed in institutions and educated in separate buildings. At an early age, I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher. My first summer employment at the Hartford Association for Retarded Children (HARC) led me to work with students with severe disabilities. I met and became enamored with a student by the name of Bonnie; she taught me compassion, hope, and the power of never giving up. That experience 47 years ago helped me to decide what I would pursue as an adult; I would become a teacher and advocate for these children, and I wanted to right the unjust practices of that time.

In what specific ways do schools struggle in working with their special education population? What processes have schools put in place to make improvements in that area?

I’ve observed up close the struggles that school communities have in supporting students with disabilities. School cultures are not inclusive in nature, as we’ve managed to create and support school environments that label and separate students based on abilities. Teachers with little or no experience are assigned to work with students with disabilities without proper training.

Collaborative models are ineffective if teachers are not provided quality time to plan together. Some classrooms are dumping grounds for low-performing students, and often the resources mandated by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) are not provided. All of these factors lead to inequality and a disportunate number of Brown and Black students being recommended to special education.

Schools are providing school-based or external coaches to support their special education initiatives. Teacher and school leadership training in effective teaching strategies such as  collaborative teaching models, sensitivity training, positive behavior intervention support (PBIS), and differentiated instruction have led to some improvements. However, leadership must ensure their full support for all of these initiatives in order for them to be effective and cohesive.

The pandemic and virtual teaching have been hugely difficult for special education students and their families. In your work, what’ve you seen that has helped improve the virtual experience for these young people?

Special education students have been disportionately impacted during the pandemic; their mental health, educational needs, and social well-being have suffered enormously. Knowing your student and their family needs have provided some teachers an opportunity to reach their students and their families. Building relationships has been key in connecting with the students. Technology has also allowed some students to better access the curriculum; however, not all students have had equal access.

Think back to your own teaching days, Mayra, and a special bond you had with a student or a class. What made it special? For you and your students, what made the learning work? 

One of my most memorable teaching experiences was the time I taught 12 bilingual special education students (all girls, ages 14-21). I developed a strong working relationship with my assistant, my students, and their families. We provided the students with lots of community-based experiences and created a classroom environment where all students were valued. Students were provided a holistic approach to learning, and they were encouraged to take risks and ask questions. Parents were an integral part of this learning experience; they were well-informed, and we made sure that both our parents and students knew how to advocate for their needs. It was a joyous classroom, filled with love and hope. In June 2005, I was awarded the Felix A. Fishman Award by the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest for my social justice work in educating and advocating for students with special needs and their families.