GCU special ed program ranked 5th in nation
By Jeannette Cruz
GCU News Bureau
As teacher shortages keep growing across the nation, the profession faces more and more challenges. And the difficulty of teaching special education makes it even more important to provide high quality training in that field.
“The different hats that you have to wear as a special ed teacher – it’s amazing, really,” said Julie Blair, Grand Canyon University‘s program lead for Educational Administration and Leadership/Special Education. “You not only have to be a teacher, you have to be a researcher, a resource provider for parents, you have to be prepared to teach in an inclusive setting and you have to be prepared to manage a self-contained classroom. Sometimes you’ll have a district that will support you and other times you’ll have to be the person who is going to have all of the answers.”
A ranking published by Best Education Degrees, the leading guide to the best colleges for getting an education degree, showed how well GCU is providing those answers. It recently ranked GCU fifth in the nation in its top 20 for online bachelor’s degrees in special education.
Best Education Degrees based its rankings on a variety of statistics. Three general criteria were used – the school’s reputation score; an affordability rating and an average early career salary; and program ratings from the National Council for Teacher Quality in 2016.
For College of Education faculty at GCU, the news was affirming.
“The administration really loves to see dual preparation, and that makes our students more marketable right off the bat,” Blair said. “I think we have a good brand here, not only at the University but at the College of Education. I know how hard our faculty work.”
COE instructor Kimber Underdown was not at all surprised.
“Initially, we were known for producing high-quality teachers, so it is no shock that we have continued to do just that,” she said.
The recognition is an example of how GCU has addressed a critical demand for highly effective educators, said Dr. Kim LaPrade, the COE Dean.
“We feel it is part of our responsibility as Christians to help prepare the very best educators for our children and youth, especially those in most vulnerable populations,” said LaPrade.
Shortages of special education teachers are a nationwide issue, as are training and retention. COE focuses on the development, support and retention of those called to venture into the field.
“Low student-teacher ratios and specialized training in early childhood is always a sensitive topic, especially for us educators because we are very passionate about our field. We want to see our field flourish,” Blair said.
GCU offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Early Childhood and Early Childhood Special Education, which prepares students for K-3 regular classrooms and K-3 special education. Graduates who complete the 120 credit hours are poised to earn a licensure for both.
In response to the teacher shortage, Blair said, “That’s why we teach students collaboration skills through assignments, field experience, real case scenarios and courses that emphasize collaboration and communication. We look at this as a need for retention.”
The challenge of special ed makes retention an even more significant issue.
“You’re not going into the classroom and dealing just with your students and then going home,” Underdown said. “You are often dealing with parents who have not been treated well. You’re also dealing with administration and other teachers. You have your hands on everything.”
COE instructor Crystal McCabe pointed to an experience as a teacher where she had to stand up to a school administrator.
“That’s a big shoe to have to fill, to stand up to the person who is evaluating you so that you can do what’s right for the kids,” McCabe said. “Not everyone is prepared for that type of conversation, and I share this experience with my students so that they can learn as I was able to.”
And while special education is one of the most challenging jobs in the world, it is also deeply rewarding.
“I’ve had the honor of teaching in general and special education before I came to GCU, and I think that was very eye-opening because I can come in and teach our students with both lens,” Blair said.
Instructor Lisa Bernier said special education is unique in the way it takes every aspect of teaching to a higher degree.
“I don’t think it’s a field for everyone. (It’s) for those teachers that really want to be able to meet unique needs and won’t stop until they do that,” she said.
Another COE instructor, Rebekah Dyer, said it has encouraged her to think outside the box: “Sometimes you will have a strategy that works, and then three weeks later it doesn’t work at all. So you’re constantly brainstorming.”
Instructor Virginia Murray has taught elementary through high school special education and has served as a district office coach for special education teachers and professionals. She expressed how the experience has shaped her understanding of her role:
“You have to be able to play a large leadership role because a lot of it is advocating for these students so that one day they can advocate for themselves.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at [email protected] or (602) 639-6631.