Whether you have already decided which placement you want, or are still in the process of choosing, I applaud your decision to join the co-op program. Since I am quite certain that you will already be aware of the general concept and benefits of co-op, I hope this letter will inform you of the unique experience of working in the special education classroom at an elementary school.
You will essentially be a teacher’s assistant, minus actually having to teach. That will be your supervisor’s job; you, on the other hand, will be tasked with redirecting the attention of any distracted students, prompting them to answer questions, or clarifying any misconceptions about what they are learning. When the students are working, you will check their work for mistakes, deal with any technical trouble, or answer questions about the task at hand. Once, a supply teacher described her role for the day as “very involved babysitting, with an educational aspect,” which is an appropriate way to think of it. Besides working with the students, you will be expected to provide input on your supervisor’s plans for what to teach and what activities to try, as well as run miscellaneous errands such as photocopying papers or rewriting posters.
Though you’ll mainly be working with your supervisor, it will obviously be impossible to avoid interacting with other teachers. Sometimes they will come into the room at the end of the day to chat, or to look for certain books or worksheets. If you can think of anything relevant to add to a situation, do it. If you can help our another teacher, do it. It pays off later when your supervisor is absent and the supply teacher is confused, because with good reputation with other teachers, you can comfortably ask them for assistance if necessary. For example, I once asked another teacher for suggestions on which reading exercise to do with my class, because my supervisor hadn’t provided any guidelines beyond the name of the textbook.
When interacting with students, calmness and flexibility are key. Children are stubborn and smart, and blowing up at them often is ineffective or results in complaints over your behaviour. No single approach works every time; sometimes they would behave if I spoke in a kinder tone, and sometimes I had to use more authority. Above all, you have to remember two things: firstly, that these are kids in their formative years, and if possible you should act patiently towards them. Secondly, there is a limit on what behaviour is acceptable, and you will, at some point, have to decide that something is too inappropriate for you to brush aside after the fact. So long as you remain level-headed, you should be able to make choices that your supervisor will hopefully agree with.
One of the most frustrating parts of my placement was any time when a student simply walked out of class. Since my supervisor was the one who had to actually teach, it sometimes fell to me to go after the student and convince him to return. When someone is blatantly refusing to obey you, often the only tactic that works is to be the more stubborn one. I continuously asked why the student was not returning to class, and refuted all of their points in a reasonable manner. For example, one boy wanted to return to his “regular” classroom — that is to say, not the special education one — because the work he was doing in my class was allegedly too babyish for him. I replied that if it was so easy, it would be a breeze to complete, and that if he wanted to discuss the difficulty of his work he would have to return to the special education room to speak to his teacher. Though the argument continued and circled back on itself, he eventually lost his determination and made his way back to class. This challenge repeated itself frequently during my time at my placement, and I found that patience was the most useful factor in dealing with it.
Overall, I felt that my placement was interesting and pleasantly challenging; since the students learned different things every day, it never felt too monotonous. It was certainly preferable to being in class. My supervisor and the other teachers were welcoming, expressive of their gratitude for my work, and treated me as an equal. However, they never asked too much of me, and would be careful to ensure that I understood what I had to do and how to do it. As for the students, they were by turns terrible and wonderful, and never predictable. The surprising moments, such as when one of them learned how to create excellent PowerPoint presentations in about ten minutes, or when one of them took a reading test that placed them at two grade levels higher than anticipated, were the best parts of my co-op placement.
Though I went in with the intention of focusing on psychology, it cannot be separated from other aspects involved, and that becomes obvious when working in an elementary school’s special education program. To any student who is at all interested in psychology, like me, or education, or working with children: consider working at this placement. I believe entirely that you will find this experience informative, helpful, and engaging, and wish you the best of luck.