Finding different ways to learn

The University of Northern Iowa is known nationwide, and especially in the Midwest, as being one of the top schools for teachers. A lesser-known fact is that UNI also has an equally impressive special education program.

This is something that graduate student Dawn Kobolt learned when she was first looking at UNI. "I heard from various teachers, 'That's the best school to go to for education, that's the best school to go to especially if you want to get a special education endorsement,'" she said.

Special Education
Graduate student Dawn Kobolt received a special education endorsement and is pursuing a Strategist II minor, which focuses on teaching students with severe intellectual disabilities.

Her teachers were right -- Kobolt recently received a special education endorsement and is now pursuing a Strategist II minor, which focuses on teaching students with severe intellectual disabilities.

The special education department at UNI offers an array of endorsements, including early childhood special education, the Visual Impairment endorsement, and three different instructional strategist endorsements.

The instructional strategist endorsements are Strategist I K-8, which focuses on students at the elementary level with mild to moderate special education needs; Strategist I 5-12, which focuses on students with mild to moderate needs at the secondary education level; and Strategist II, which focuses on students with severe intellectual disabilities.

"All the programs really are just about advocating and helping students find different ways to learn through assistive technology, and just kind of making sure that they understand," said Sophie Haarhues, a senior minoring in Strategist I.

While these different plans of study do have these things in common, they are also very different if only because, even within the same classroom, needs of individual students can be different. Haarhues realized this during one of her field experiences, where she was responsible for teaching nine students.

"Each student is different in how they learn. It can be difficult when you do have a variety of students and they all learn differently," said Haarhues. "I know that having note cards is really beneficial for some people, or having them act out, having them draw, having them write in a journal."

As a Strategist II minor, Kobolt had a similar experience, on a different level. "For some of my students, a paper-pencil test with bubbles, it's just not feasible," she said. "It might be that's too much of a fine motor skill, and maybe that don't have a motor skill like that, so I may ask them the question verbally, and they respond verbally and I mark what they say; for some students, having four choices is too much, so if we take off that fourth choice and just narrow it down to three, they have a greater chance of being able to find the correct one. You just have to think about access for all students."

Another thing that often gets in the way of students' learning is behavioral issues, something Kobolt also has to deal with.

"I had a student who, I just couldn't figure out why his behaviors were impeding his learning," said Kobolt. "I reflected on the day, and I realized I had switched things in the lesson without telling him. So I started writing a little sheet out for him everyday of what we're going to go through and do, and I had a little sticky note for myself, so I would know to go through it in that order. I had no behavior problems from him after that."

Despite these issues, both Kobolt and Haarhues agree, the challenges are worth the reward of being a teacher.

"I know I can't help everyone, but even making a difference in one student's life is going to mean so much more to me than not doing anything for any student," said Haarhues. "Just knowing that I've helped them and that I've bettered them, and made a difference in their life somehow."

Kobolt was able to narrow down what inspires her to one day. "I will take 100 bad days for that one day where it clicks," she said. "That one day is what keeps me going. Because I see the success, I see those 100 days of hard work pay off in that one small moment."