The beginning of a new year is a natural time to reflect on the past year's experiences of teaching students with special education needs. When seeking ways to make educational changes based on past experiences, professional development opportunities may be considered.

Professional development for a special educator is an ongoing obligation and expectation. The educational progress of students with disabilities has a direct correlation to their teachers' level of expertise. Special educators are expected to know how to educate each student they are responsible for, evaluating what the student needs to do to meet his or her Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) goals and be a successful learner.

Many special educators find themselves with students that challenge their expertise. This should be viewed as an opportunity to develop new skills as an educator.

Professional development for special educators is an expectation that begins in their training as an undergraduate. But the toolbox of the special educator should continually be refreshed and replenished with new tools.

Special educators need to apply the KWL strategy and evaluate what training, learning, studying and observing they need to do to grow as professionals. The KWL strategy is an acronym for "know," "want to know" and "learned."

This strategy is used with students to reflect on a lesson before, during and after instruction. This same reflection should be used by special educators as they consider what individualized professional development they need to engage in to improve their craft.


How can a special educator consider in what way she knows about educating students with special learning needs? The teacher's foundational knowing is based on the level and rigor of the educational training she has had.

What training has occurred after undergraduate training? Does he or she have a masters or doctoral level of training? Does this training provide what the educator needs for each student in her responsibility?

The knowledge of the special educator should be steady, strong and well-founded, ready to be used effectively whenever it is needed. The teacher is the expert, providing research-based methodology that has been tried and found to be appropriate for supporting the student, with the correct balance of teacher-student interaction.

The teacher needs to be confident in her ability to make the necessary changes in instruction at the appropriate time to cause the student to learn and meet IEP goals.

Want to know

Beyond the foundation of organized learning is what still needs to be learned as a professional.

One means is through being a member of one or more professional organizations. While a member of the professional organizations, the special educator has the opportunity to choose individualized professional development to improve, replenish or initiate learning that is specific to that educator's needs based on the caseload she has had.

Has the educator engaged in learning via individual book reading, website and webinars, podcasts or teacher discussion groups? Most teachers have required professional development hours to keep their teaching certificates current.

The type of learning is open-ended, but learning must occur. It is in this open-ended method that teachers must want to know and be responsible to develop their craft toward the end of student growth and development.


Teachers must always ask themselves two questions: "What have I learned about my student?" and "What have I learned about myself as an educator?"

This is never-ending. For an educator, "learned" is the reflective activity that occurs after teaching each student. This may actually cause a teacher to begin the KWL cycle again, as the teacher may conclude she needs to learn something different or supplementary to effectively teach the student or add a new instruction tool to her toolbox.

In the learned phase, the teacher will conclude that being an educator includes being a "student" of the child. The teacher has to study the child and the ways he or she interacts with new material and new experiences in order to learn.

The child will "teach" the teacher how he or she thinks about, acquires and recalls new information. The teacher must be flexible while learning the way the child learns, as this is usually a trial-and-error methodology.

When the teacher has learned how each of her students learn, she will not only be successful in teaching the student, but will also find that she has been shaped into a more effective educator.

KWL is an acronym for an instructional strategy for students to evaluate learning. It also can be a method for a special educator's self-assessment.

Special educators who self-evaluate their own craft and the results of their instruction become instructors who are effective as teacher-leaders and with students who require specialized teaching to learn. Special educators must be willing to make changes in their instruction for their students to learn, grow and become independent learners.