by Mary C. Kerr
How to Excel as a Reading Specialist
More than digraphs and diphthongs ... more than skills and drill ... more than running records and portfolios ... Just what does it take for a reading specialist to excel?
Generally, reading specialists are hired to work with students who have achievement levels at or below grade level; they have been trained in all sorts of strategies, theories, methods and skills. Yet, the school of experience says, this is just the beginning of what they need in the real world of education.
Ideally a reading specialist would work in an environment that has:
- Common goals in reading and a good school improvement plan.
- A viable reading program that addresses the needs and learning styles of all learners.
In the Real world
- Educators know the ideal exists... somewhere, but the money and personnel to make this happen isn't in their realm.
- Education operates under a fragmented system of mandates, theories, trends, strategies, and whims. Every teacher seeks to find what works. And, in doing so, each teacher tries to reinvent the wheel of motivation and learning. Reading series and manuals attempt to bring continuity to buildings or districts. Sometimes they are used and sometimes they are left on the shelf. There is good and bad in both alternatives.
- Committees are continually formed to study and implement successful models of teaching and reading.
- Consultants are hired to energize teachers and breathe new life into either old or new ideas.
- Everyone continually seeks the right way for teaching and learning.
- This is the reality... a convergence of what should be and what is. In districts that are ideal there is usually not an overwhelming need for a large number of reading specialists. In districts that have little money, reading specialists are needed in far greater numbers than budgets can afford.
It is within this context that the following suggestions are offered to help reading specialists survive and excel.
- Care for students as if the future of the world depends on it. It does. The children who regularly see a reading specialist are considered academic orphans. The classroom teacher has recognized that there is a problem and feels inadequate or frustrated because outside help has to be solicited for a solution. Parents are aware that there is a problem and they don't know how to solve it. More importantly, the child knows that reading (the real job of a student) has eluded him or her. So, in our society, the child becomes an academic orphan. Caring takes many forms. Real caring is somewhat like tough love. The children are there because they have failed in the mainstream environment and they need to be taught through a method that matches their needs and strengths. Their weaknesses need shoring up and their self-esteem needs elevated. It may be that drill works, that phonics works, that language enrichment works. Or, it may be that an extended search must be made for the right way to meet the child's needs must be made sometimes again and again. Remember that every child can learn and that sometimes the future of the world depends on the reading specialist to make it happen.
- Substitute the traditional stickers and rewards with learning to read. The reward for hard work is learning to read and for a child hungry to learn there is no substitute. While a child may not always seem hungry to learn he/she does not want to fail. There are a variety of cover-ups used to mask this, but children want to learn to read. They know it is their job and if they can't, they have failed. Every new word and every new sentence learned and repeated is the reward for which there is no substitute. Society buys them all the time. A pitfall of reading specialists sometimes is to substitute stickers and rewards for learning and teaching.
- Let the students belong to the classroom teacher. The specialist has the opportunity to work with the classroom teacher so that she/he will take ownership of these orphan children sent down the hall to do whatever and return after the real lesson in the classroom is already over. Working with the classroom teacher to dovetail the student lessons to the skills that are needed in the classroom will bring many extra benefits to the child as well as making the classroom teacher part of the whole solution.
- Support the classroom teacher. Many times the reading specialist will not agree with the teachers' methods or techniques, but there are many options available to supplement student learning. The classroom remains the student's real world and that is where he/she must survive in order to have success. A student should never be dismissed without consulting with the classroom teacher and securing agreement- however reluctantly given. The child may be reading at a prescribed grade level, but not succeeding in the classroom. Again, working with the teacher to find out why the child isn't reading at level in the classroom and then working with the child to help him/her succeed will provide long term benefits for both the child and the teacher. It may mean helping a child learn to do dittoes. If that is the child's real world, then the specialist can provide the proper assistance so that the child understands directions, sequence or whatever it is needed to be successful. It is not a time to assign blame or guilt, but time for the reading specialist to work to maintain a viable relationship with the teacher. The child's future successes depend on this good working relationship. Authority figures in conflict are a green flag for a student to circumvent assignments and learning.
- Secure the help and support of parents. Just as I have never met a child who wanted to fail, I have never met a parent who wanted his/her children to fail. A professional must be truthful and, at the same time, tactful with parents. Mothers will usually say the child is just like his/her father. A professional smiles, gives parents ownership of the situation, and continues to find a way that each parent can make a difference and help the child succeed. The specialist should work with parents to help them succeed (some may not know how to read) and they in turn will be able to offer more to the children.
- Now, that the reading specialist has expanded the circle of influence from student centered to include parents and teachers another dimension is added... the administrator. Most administrators know very little about teaching reading, but many are becoming accountable for producing higher-test scores and will be supportive of changes made to bring about a positive learning environment in the school. No administrator wants discord between the reading specialist and the teachers or, for that matter, anywhere within the staff. A good rule for all educators to follow is to be careful of being caught in the middle of clashes and to always work for harmony. Schools should be about the education of students and internal stress can keep this from happening.
- Study, Study, and Study. Specialists should take and make opportunities to expand the graduate school knowledge obtained to receive their reading specialist certificates. Workshops, online sites, e publications such as Teachers Gazette and the chat rooms they sponsor are excellent ways to study and share. Within the school, membership in any study groups that are devoted to standards, school improvement, or student achievement will help the stature of the reading specialist as he/she shares and learns with others.
- School Leadership. A reading specialist has an opportunity to help change the world... one word at a time, one sentence at a time, one student at a time, one teacher at a time. A caring professional never underestimates this power nor misses this opportunity. Most specialists are willing to offer a mini-lesson for teachers who may want an update on a practice or strategy or they may work with the librarian to set up a professional library that includes lots of material on the teaching of reading. Too often specialists are quite vocal about wanting out of their position in order to have their own classroom. While this may be the ultimate professional goal of the specialist, the staff wants to be able to trust the development of a relationship and the test of time that what the specialist says really works. In time, a good reading specialist will become an excellent classroom teacher because of the lessons learned from everyone in the building and the school community.
- Being a reading specialist is one of the hardest jobs in any school. It calls for diplomacy, leadership, organization, zest, and commitment. Sometimes it is a lonely position, but the reward is teaching a child with reading difficulties to read and understand the printed word.