Getting to know Jennifer Stokes and Somthavin Chounlamontry, Frost Lake co-teaching team

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When the Learning Centers were closed this fall, Jennifer Stokes and Somthavin Chounlamontry were in the midst of the updates in Special Education teaching and learning. Together with teaching assistant (TA) Teshonda Williams, they began co-teaching 17 general education students and eight students who receive specialized services for autism, emotional/behavioral disorders, or other disabilities. One of their students joined their classroom after last year spending all day, every day in a Learning Center.

Learning Centers in most SPPS schools were rooms where students with emotional or behavioral disabilities spent 100% of their days. This year, students are experiencing a combination of educational programming to meet their unique needs. They receive individualized attention in Resource Rooms some of the day, and spend some of the day in the mainstream classroom with extra help from teaching teams like Jennifer and Somthavin.

Last year, the two teachers never said a word to each other. In fact, when Jennifer heard she would be teaching with Somthavin, she couldn’t even place a face with the name. That’s because Learning Centers operated on separate schedules from the rest of the building, and the two never had the opportunity to collaborate. Now, that has all changed. “As a teacher, you learn so much by observing other teachers in their work,” Jennifer said. “When I heard that I would have all day to collaborate and learn from my colleagues, I was really excited.”

The students feel the difference, too. One student -- who was disrespectful toward adults, had trouble controlling his anger, and refused to do any sort of school work -- joined the teachers’ class from another SPPS school. At Frost Lake, he started out in the Resource Room for the whole day, but they gradually increased his time in the mainstream classroom while closely monitoring his progress to make sure he and his general education peers could be successful together. After one month, he spent his mornings and part of the afternoons in the mainstream classroom. Their goal is to have him in the mainstream classroom full-time by winter break. “Over time, he is learning the expectations of the classroom,” Somthavin said. “He hasn’t had the opportunity of a safe learning environment before, and we feel we have a nurturing classroom model that encourages learning.”

Jennifer says that students who were formerly in the Learning Center have better behavior this year. Because they were surrounded by other students with emotional or behavioral disabilities before, the behaviors were not only more extreme, but normalized and expected. In the General Education setting they are surrounded by positive peer influences. “They don’t want to be the one that stands out for shutting down or blowing up, so they are much more cooperative and respectful.” she said.

Although they have many stories of students whose progress has surprised them during this transition, the change hasn’t been easy. Jennifer misses having her own space and the sense of protection she felt for the students in the Learning Centers. Both teachers wish they had more time to plan their lessons together, but they say the extra work is worth it. “It isn’t about the adults,” Somthavin said. “When it comes down to it, it is really what is best for the kids.”

All students, whether or not they receive specialized services, receive more differentiated instruction in a co-teaching environment. For example, Jennifer or Teshonda can pull four or five students aside who are struggling to help them through a lesson, while Somthavin works with the rest of the students on enrichment activities.

The teaching team also reports fewer interruptions this year. If a student needs extra behavior support, one teacher or TA can take him on walking breaks or otherwise offer one-on-one attention as the lesson continues for the rest of the group. “There have been times where Jennifer has disappeared out of my sight very suddenly, but I trust that she is helping students and not going out for coffee,” Somthavin laughed.

At Frost Lake and district-wide, most teachers report that when they co-teach they are better able to address the needs of all students. Students who need support socially and academically can more easily connect with their teachers.

The Special Education Department wants to hear from you. If you have a concern about this transition or would like to discuss a challenge you’re having in your classroom, please contact your school’s special education coordinator or contact the special education department at 651-767-8321.