Removing Barriers For Multilingual Learners and Students With Disabilities
While the teacher shortage is more dire now than ever before, schools have found it particularly challenging to fill positions which require teachers with specialized certifications. Let’s talk about the term specialized – is this term relevant any longer given the rise in multilingual learners in our country and the increase in the diagnosis of learning disabilities (National Center for Education Statistics; NCES, 2021; Office of Special Education Program; OSEP, 2021)? Doesn’t data show that it is statistically likely that every school will need to provide language & educational mandates and services for a percentage of their student body?
A Systemic Issue
Part of the systemic issue is that teacher preparation programs have yet to catch up with the reality of our country’s diverse population. Some states, like Texas, lack a track for dual certification in supporting students with disabilities AND a certification as a bilingual educator. This issue forces teachers to choose between the two certifications or extend their graduate programs (both with time and money). I was in that predicament myself in my graduate program. While I am now the oft-referenced “unicorn” of the certified teacher world with the ability to serve students with disabilities and multilingual students, I had to double up on classes, double my student teaching experience, continue to work nights and weekends at two other jobs, and increase my student loans to accomplish it all. Transparently, my graduate advisor also advised against this decision and recommended I extend by another year to finish both certifications, which my teacher’s salary simply would not allow.
Serving All Diverse Learners
My way of tackling this gap in teacher preparation is through my work at iTutor. Our services directly target the teacher shortage by removing the barriers of geographical limitations to serve all diverse learners. I have seen firsthand the frequency with which multilingual learners are put in classes with students with disabilities regardless of their classification. Schools experience fiscal and staffing constraints that often require choices for which there are two less than desirable options. Due to a systemic shortage of qualified teachers, this can also lead to the language needs of multilingual students being conflated with a learning disability (Peña et al., 2011; Sullivan, 2011). Schools are often in a position where there simply is no person to meet the needs of every student, so classes are constructed in a manner that may not be in students’ best academic interests.
As a former Director of Services for Students with Disabilities in a brick-and-mortar school, I myself have experienced requesting a Spanish-speaking paraprofessional for a student for which there was no candidate to fill the role. iTutor supports schools by making geographical limitations moot – we actively support schools to meet mandates and instructional requirements on an IEP while also affording schools a choice of language. Our services are supported by state-certified bilingual educators, translators, and any combination of certifications a student needs. It is easier to find that “unicorn” slate of certifications if we have the entire country at our fingertips.
I find myself questioning the status quo in every aspect of my life, which has been a particular draw to iTutor for me because we do the same as a company. If every school has students who require specialized support, we have to rethink support for individuals. While teacher preparation programs may take longer to shift, we will continue to respond to the teacher shortage by getting certified teachers to schools in need right now.