BRATTLEBORO -- After 33 years as a special educator at Brattleboro Union High School, Mary McLoughlin is retiring. For the last six years she was Coordinator of Special Education at BUHS#6, which includes the high school and Brattleboro Area Middle School.
"The position requires that I be responsible for day-to-day consultation and support for special ed teachers, along with consultation and connections with the general ed system," she said. "I'm a member of both the BAMS and BUHS administrative teams, and responsible for procedural and systemwide special ed decisions.
"One of the things I love about the job is the ongoing problem-solving that requires teams to work together to come up with solutions," McLoughlin said. "The other side of that is that it's also really challenging in terms of communication and understanding people's perspectives."
She said that special educators from all over the district work together.
"Students come to the middle school with their disability determined," she said. "The transition process from the elementary learning environment to the middle school learning environment is critical. The team really has to understand the child's learning style and the ways the setting's demands will impact that -- and the transition from eighth to ninth grade also requires a (similarly) effective process to provide supports for the student.
"The team from the sending school and the representative (the case
Students' disabilities are not necessarily only cognitive.
"All kids have unique learning styles, but there are some students who learn content very easily -- who are capable in terms of their cognitive ability to engage with high school content," she said. "However, due to the nature of their disability or the challenge that they have relative to executive function, they may not be able to navigate the daily expectations in a general-ed classroom. That requires that the entire team work together to identify ways the child will have access to the content knowledge and also be accommodated for those skills they have not learned yet."
McLoughlin, who was raised in New Jersey, became interested in special education as a result of a community service project organized by her school.
"When I was 16, I tutored in the South Ward of Newark for a Saturday program for elementary school kids," she said. "I was greatly impressed with working with the students who were the most needy. When I was in eleventh and twelfth grade I was actually told by a teacher I really respected that I could ‘do better than be a special education teacher.'
"So, armed with impudence and empathy, I went to Kean University as a special ed major," she said. "I had outstanding internships -- as an undergraduate, I student-taught with pre-school kids diagnosed with autism, and I did another semester-long internship where I worked at a medium security prison with adults. That pretty much sealed my fate."
She commented that she has enjoyed continuing to learn about the field.
"To be an administrator I took a number of courses that are specific to administration and administration in special ed," she said. "Understanding the special ed law and its relationship to school law is very interesting to me."
The local community has historically supported diverse learners, according to McLoughlin.
"I have been very lucky to work in a community that has supported civil rights on all levels, including special education," she said. "It's important as we move forward with the challenges of the economy and students' needs that we don't lose sight of how dedicated we have been to civil rights."
Her job has had challenges.
"There have been a number of attempts by the State of Vermont to reduce paperwork in special ed." she said. "But case managers have a full-time teaching load, and the compliance elements of the IEP process are so critical, and the state and federal regulations around compliance and documentation are so stringent, that special educators have to spend enormous amounts of time on all of that. As an administrator, I have not been able to mitigate that, make an inroad in it."
Coordination between special educators and general ed teachers is also a challenge.
"Special ed is compelled by law to work toward educating students in the least restrictive environment, and some of the difficulty with including students has to do with having time to communicate on a regular basis between special educators an general ed teachers," she said.
According to McLoughlin, new approaches are overdue.
"I've been surprised at how drastically the world has changed in the time I've worked in education -- and how painfully slowly change comes to the educational system, from teachers' colleges to the high school," she said.
Teams at the high school and middle school are initiating a co-teaching model.
"Co-teaching is a service delivery model that's intended to provide students with the opportunity to have the content expert and the process expert working together," McLoughlin explained. "In the WSESU, there is a state approved co-teaching plan, which will allow this to be one model for special ed service delivery. Next year will be the first formal training and implementation year. At BAMS there have been a few co-teaching teams for a couple of years. This fall there will be a co-teaching team at BUHS in English, and one in math, and there will ongoing instruction and coaching for teams throughout the district, which I will be providing."
McLoughlin welcomes the new approach, and said that she is torn, retiring just as the world of special education is beginning to change in important ways.
"It is hard for me to think of leaving education when I feel as if we're on the cusp of making some significant changes to provide students with more personalized services," she said. "I imagine a system where every student, not only special ed students, would have an individual learning pan that would take into consideration their aptitudes, their learning styles, and their goals."
She had encouraging words for young special educators and those considering entering the field.
"First of all, I would say that it is really critical to be a lifelong learner -- to continue to study, because the research about learning is exploding," she said. "Number two is if you are drawn to working with students who can be outliers, then really enjoy that. Enjoy their particular strengths."
Maggie Cassidy teaches French at Brattleboro Union High School.