Liz Galvin at PS 46 on Staten Island identifies and addresses learning issues before students are referred for evaluation for special education.
Tell me about your background as an educator.
I knew I would be a teacher from the time I can remember. My family is full of educators, so they were a tremendous influence. I’m the first special education teacher in my family. I always felt inclined to teach to individuals, to see how they’re functioning and where they need to go and how I can support them, and I learned that that’s what you call a special education teacher! I started out in a special education preschool, and then I spent six years teaching 4th and 5th grades in a 12:1:1 environment. This is my third year as an IEP teacher.
The UFT and the DOE recently agreed to redefine the role of centrally funded IEP teachers. What is the role of an IEP teacher and how has it changed in the last year?
The IEP teacher position used to be about overseeing the compliance of the IEP process, evaluating the appropriateness of services and supports, and improving the quality of the writing in IEPs. The priority of the role was providing Special Education Teacher Support Services (SETSS). When you wanted to meet with teachers, you had to fit it in where you could. In our new role, more time is allotted for at-risk intervention services. We’re trying to give those kids who need extra support access to the curriculum before jumping to an evaluation for special education.
Why is your role important?
When teachers inquire about how to help a struggling student, sometimes they feel it’s out of their expertise — maybe they need a special education teacher’s insight to help them. This role offers that bridge to learn more about a student’s needs. Maybe a child doesn’t need an evaluation and we just need to fill in some gaps with interventions. If we find that an evaluation is necessary, then we’re a little more informed as a team and the process will go smoothly.
How do students come to be on your caseload?
In our school, we use what’s called a Request for Assistance, or a teacher referral. We have a Student Intervention Team made up of administrators, guidance counselors, school psychologists, special ed teachers, gen ed teachers and speech therapists. We meet weekly. Once we’re informed about the performance and needs of the students who are referred to us, we determine if my program is appropriate.
What kind of work are you doing with at-risk students?
The DOE trained the centrally funded IEP teachers in a research-based program called SPIRE (Specialized Program Individualizing Reading Excellence), which addresses foundational language and literacy skills. It’s very structured. It assesses children to determine where they’re functioning, and then we can start our intervention work. I work with one group of three students and another student individually.
Are you seeing results?
I have some 5th-graders who were reading on a 1st-grade level. And not only are their academics reflecting growth, but so is their confidence. These are students who see reading and writing and know they don’t like it, they’re not interested, they’re not willing to try. The program gives them a lot of practice so they have an increased amount of experience with success. Now they’re more willing to take risks; they have pride in what they’re doing. It’s been eye-opening and rewarding. Not everyone needs an IEP. It’s nice to have something to fill in the gap between a struggling student in a general education classroom and an evaluation for special education.
Do you work with staff as well?
I spend a lot of time with staff, whether it’s professional development after school or working with small groups of special education teachers, mentoring and pushing into classrooms. This year, I was able to work with our staff on unpacking our curriculum standards and scaffolding and differentiation in the curriculum, which is what I really love to talk about.
What’s challenging about your job?
I have to be very intentional with everything I say and do. Whether it’s planning for lessons or attending to a crisis with an emotionally disturbed student — you might be dealing with one student, but 100 other people are watching. I like to model my own decision-making for students. I’m teaching them to think rather than react. It’s about cultivating a safe environment where you’re consistent and your actions match your words. Every student is capable of having a positive school experience and can be inspired to take pride in their learning. We’re the ones tasked with identifying their individual needs and providing access to successful learning experiences.
— As told to reporter Rachel Nobel