By Dr. Jean Kang
If you have been following KU Hawk Blog postings like me, you may have noticed that there are several core values shared by the authors of the postings. One of those values is ‘partnership’ or ‘collaboration’. In particular, I have read many postings on building strong relationships with families and always have been inspired by them. The most recent one I enjoyed reading was “A case for partnership – A promising practice’ by Dr. Kathleen Kyzar. She discussed the problem of the traditional parent involvement model and identified the barriers that prevent families and professionals from building equal partnerships.
As Dr. Kyzar pointed out, I also believe one of the major reasons for professionals struggling with building trusting relationships with families is because of the way they were prepared. As Brownell and colleagues (2005) reported in their literature review on special education teacher preparation programs, over 70% of them emphasized the importance of collaborating with families and other professionals but only a very few of them had specific pedagogy used to develop key skills for collaboration. Examples of ways to teach collaboration skills included faculty modeling and using projects.
For the past 5 years, I have been teaching a course on ‘family-professional partnership’. When I was first asked to teach the course, what I had in my mind was probably what many people may think – combinations of lectures, some class discussions and perhaps a family panel or a project that requires students to interact with families for a few hours. It sounded like a good plan and the expectations seemed reasonable. However, I soon discovered a major tweak to that picture. It was a co-taught course! What was even more interesting was that I will have to teach the course with a ‘parent co-instructor’. Co-teaching often refers to two or more professionals (e.g.,special and general educators) teaching together to address diverse needs of students (Cook & Friend, 1995). Where does a parent fit into this picture of co-teaching? Is it possible for parents to teach professionals without the training I received? What will it look like? At that moment, I was pushed out of my comfort zone.
Ever since my journey of co-teaching with a parent began, I found that my experience wasn’t much different from Cook and Friend’s definition. The parent and I shared most of the responsibilities such as revising the syllabus, developing assignments, designing in-class activities, leading sessions, and providing feedback on students’ work. Like other teams, it took more time to plan and it required clear communication. There were few times when we didn’t agree on certain things and we had to learn how to find a happy medium. We have learned about each other and ultimately became colleagues. For the past 5 years, teaching with parents has been my favorite part of my teaching responsibilities and this experience has forced me to reflect on my ways of working with families. I have always said that families are the experts of their child and we must treat them as equal partners. To be honest, I found that I didn’t understand what ‘families are experts’ and ‘equal partners’ truly meant until this experience. They may not have the content knowledge or research basis (which is critical in teaching) like I did but I found that they hold different expertise than I do and can be great teachers. The perspectives they share during class sessions were very unique which only someone who has lived the life of having a child with disability can have.
To understand the specific impact of this unique co-teaching model, my colleague and I have been collecting data via survey and focus groups. The study revealed that students benefit from listening to multiple perspectives presented in the classroom. Students have shared that the content discussed during lectures become more meaningful when it is connected with real life stories shared by the parents. The students appreciated the opportunities to listen to different voices and motivated to reassess their views on ways to form strong relationships with families. The study is still ongoing and aims to find out more on the long-term impact of the course. However, it is clear that students appreciate having a parent co-instructor who is deeply involved in their learning experience.
I am not trying to say every pre-service professional preparation program needs to adopt this model. It is a model that still needs more fine tuning. Studies on different aspects of the model and long-term impact must be carried out. This model requires time investment, open communication, flexibility, and a willingness to question the ways we have been teaching the topic. However, I would like to encourage everyone to step back and reflect on our current approach of preparing future educators. Simply saying partnering with families is imperative to our work and children’s development is not enough. Are we really walking the walk or just simply talking the talk? If we want professionals to be able to form trusting relationship with families, the programs preparing professionals must first demonstrate the relationship we want our professionals to build. We must think of more creative ways to invite families into our world of teacher preparation and let their voice be heard more frequently.
Brownell, M. T., Ross, D. D., Colón, E. P., & McCallum, C. L. (2005). Critical features of special education teacher preparation: A comparison with general teacher education. The Journal of Special Education, 38 (4), 242-252.
Cook, L., & Friend, M. (1995). Co-teaching: Guidelines for creating effective practices. Focus on Exceptional Children, 26(3), 1-16.
Dr. Jean Kang is originally from South Korea and has worked as a special educator in Korea before she joined KU Department of Special Education where she earned PhD. in unified early childhood education in 2010. After graduating from the program, she has served as a visiting scholar at the same department till 2011. She is currently an assistant professor at the Department of Specialized Education Services at UNC-Greensboro. Her area of interest includes family-professional partnership, school readiness of young children with and without disabilities, and Universal Design for Learning. Lately, Dr.Kang is also interested in facilitating relationship between South Korea and the U.S. and has coordinated short-term student study abroad projects and conducted research projects in collaboration with her colleagues in Korea. She lives with her husband Michael who is a Geographic Information System (GIS) specialist and with an energetic 2.5 years old daughter Hannah.