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Q & A with Dr. Kristen Lech

Graduate Program Director in Special Education and English as a Second Language

Why have you chosen special education as your career? As a special education teacher, what was your focus?

Until I had my first child, a special education teacher was never my intention as a profession. Emma was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy and many developmental delays. A few years later, she was also diagnosed with autism. As my first child, I felt out of my league when it came to supporting, advocating, and making sure that she had EVERYTHING that she needed to be successful in all aspects of life. When she turned 2 ½, I made the decision to leave my career and go back to school to become a special education teacher- this was my true passion! Jump forward 20 years and now my daughter is a sophomore in college! During this time, I have been a special education teacher, special education supervisor/administrator, college professor, educational advocate, and program director- all focused on working with exceptional individuals. I have and continue to publish and frequently present on many topics in the field of special education.

As a special education educator, my focus has always been on providing my students with a safe learning environment where they feel accepted and valued. I celebrate the small milestones and truly appreciate all that they have taught me over the years: To NEVER give up, always have a positive attitude, and unfailingly treat people with respect.

What do you think is the biggest reward in working with students with special needs?

The biggest reward in working with students with exceptionalities is seeing and being a part of the progress they make towards achieving their goals. Students with exceptionalities typically work harder, longer, and experience more setbacks so when a goal is met, no matter how big or small, it is extremely rewarding knowing that you were able to help that child accomplish something big!

Since you entered the field, what can you say about its evolution? What changes have you seen?

Since entering the field of special education, some of the biggest changes I have seen are:
The full implementation of Response to Intervention (RTI). RTI is a process to help students who have been referred for special education qualification. This process allows students, who have been identified as struggling, both academically and/or behaviorally, to receive research-based interventions prior to a referral for special education.
Increase in Inclusion of students with exceptionalities. More than any other state, Massachusetts has a significantly higher rate of inclusion for students with exceptionalities.

Currently, we have a gap between the number of teachers and the increasing number of students who require special education. In Massachusetts, as well as 47 other states, the need for special education teachers is great. What is behind this? In Massachusetts, we have a high number of students who require special education. What does this statistic indicate?

Massachusetts has the highest rate of children receiving special education services (37% higher than the national average). However, Massachusetts also has a significantly higher rate of servicing students with exceptionalities in inclusive settings compared to substantially separate settings. This may be the reason why Massachusetts students with exceptionalities outperform the nation in both math and reading assessments (NAEP Scores).

In Massachusetts, school districts with a higher rate of economically disadvantaged students also have a higher rate of students with exceptionalities. This can be attributed to limited access to prenatal care and health care, as well as limited access to high quality early childhood educational options. Children living in low economic areas may also come from families with limited schooling and/or parents and/or guardians that work multiple jobs and may not be available to continue the educational requirements at home after school hours. Critical brain development occurs between birth and age 9. During this time, it is so important that children are exposed to language rich environments, in which language and early reading and writing skills are developed and nurtured, as well as mathematical concepts, inquisitive minds, and critical thinking skills.

Within these same districts, there are fewer special education staff to the proportion of students with disabilities, resulting in higher caseloads and the employment of more paraprofessionals, which can result in less service time and high-quality instruction.

Finally, as an after-effect of COVID and remote learning, so many children lost consistent high-quality instruction, especially our younger children, during the critical foundational period (ages birth through age 9). Thus, we will see an increase in RTI services and referrals for special education eligibility as projected.

What can governing bodies (i.e., DOE of MA) do to help flip the equation and attract more people to enter the field?

One way that I think governing bodies, such as the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can help to attract and support individuals with entering the field of teaching is to offer financial assistance for the MTELs (Massachusetts Tests for Educator License). Many teacher candidates take the MTELs multiple times before passing them which can provide a financial burden to some. In addition, I think districts should consider offering higher salaries and/or highering bonuses would be another beneficial way to support recruiting efforts.

Probably the greatest affirmation for special education is our graduates practicing in the schools. What have you been hearing? What gives you excitement for the future?

Every year, I receive feedback from school administrators and supervising practitioners about how impressed they are with our Bay Path University Special Education Teacher candidates. Our partner schools are very happy with our year-long practicum experiences and the level of support offered to our teacher candidates. Finally, the quality of special education teachers that Bay Path produces is of the highest caliber.

Join Stephanie from Springbook's Converge Autism Radio and Dr. Kristen Lech as they discuss the IEP process and how we can strive to keep them individualized. Listen here