Technology In Special Education: One Teacher's Journey
Neil Virani, Teacher Adviser, LAUSD Human Resources Division, and former special ed teacher, sat down to talk about the District Intern Program and his unique journey into the field of teaching. Virani touches on areas of credentialing, assistive technology and the advances in EdTech that have benefited the special needs community.
Rod Berger: Well, Neil, it's nice to catch up with you. I know it's been a couple of years since we last spoke. There have been changes on your side going from the classroom to the district, and there are a lot of moving parts helping to support teachers in building their understanding, knowledge, and application of special education. Let's jump in. You see it from 10,000 feet in working and building these programs, tell me about the experience that you've had or anticipating having with teachers becoming part of the program? Tell us the experiences of those that are coming in to learn how to work with special education classrooms and students?
Neil Virani: Well, the experiences that I'm having now are some of the most positive experiences that I've had in education. Working in this job, I get to work with teachers that are fresh and gung-ho and excited about entering the classroom and fortunately, I have the opportunity to have a positive influence. We get to spend time with the teachers, share our experiences, and I share the ones that I have had, and I get nothing but positive feedback from the teachers; they're very appreciative of anything that we're able to provide. They're a part of this program, which is tuition-free. The greatest benefit of the program (I was in the program myself,) is the network and support you're able to get and give.
You meet people who work in the faculty of the program that are the experts in behavior, in technology or assistive technology; all the different areas of teacher credentialing. You meet all the "go-to" people in our district, and you're not just out there on your own in the classroom with no one to help you and no one to know who to ask.
RB: Neil, let's give some context to people who are outside of California, to the elements that have now come together making this possible. Tell us the reason why there's this push to have everybody train, to have the background and the knowledge to work in a diverse classroom that includes special needs, plus the curriculum part of it. What are the needs for those skills from the educator perspective?
NV: Well, the state of California and the California Teacher Credentialing guide our program. There are opportunities to become a teacher and gain a teaching credential through traditional means, such as, go to a university, do all the course work, do some student teaching for free and then earn your preliminary credential and look for a job. But not a lot of people can do that. I, myself, couldn't do that because I had a wife, I had a baby on the way, and I couldn't afford to quit my job, work for free for four to six months and then hope to get my job back in a climate where teachers were being laid off.
There is a route available to look for alternate certification where you work as an intern teacher, you get a contract, and you start earning seniority on your first day as a district intern. You participate in the program tuition-free, you come to classes once a week at night, and you're able to work with faculty of the program who develop the curriculum like me. You get support, mentor support that's mandated by the state. You get help from your cohorts, instructors, and advisors of the program. It's a support-based model, and we are a 100% support system, we don't do evaluations. Currently, I've been visiting classrooms of all our new teachers that are in their first year and their first week of school. We go in and reassure them that we're there to give support, and we're here for anything they need. The mentor takes over after this, but we're always there to answer questions or to come out and visit if needed. It's a very support-based program. It's a very positive experience.
RB: I think it's great to get more people aware of the ways in which we can continue to bring new talent into the teaching profession. Neil, when we first talked, we got connected in discussing technology in schools and special education classrooms. Catch me up on your perspective on how we've done in the last couple of years since we last spoke. What do you see from a technology perspective? To give some context, when we last talked, I was seeing technologies that were being marketed and branded for special education classrooms that may or may not have been truly built for that purpose.
I've personally seen growth in that area. I see more things that are specifically built with the understanding of the special needs population. There is more of a built-in intelligence. Do you see the same thing?
NV: Definitely., there have been a lot of changes. I remember, when the Common Core came out, and they just put a stamp on their old books and said they were Common Core. The same thing with the tech, but it's come a long way. Just looking at the iOS platform, the latest updates in the last two years have brought guided access. As teachers, we're able to lock in students to applications. It cut out so much of the "Make sure you stay on task, and that you're not on Safari, you're not searching the web while you're supposed to be practicing your timetables."
It's been a big help. The accessibility features have come a long way. I'm a pro-iOS Apple guy, so I have a biased opinion. I became that way through education. I was a PC guy before, but then when I started working with students with disabilities, I saw that Apple offers so many accessibility features to the world, but specifically students with disabilities. It's awesome, and they give us aid in the classroom, even when I'm trying to do training for teachers in professional development. There is so much support and the teachers take your advice and say "Hey, you know, it would be great if we have this feature or that." There are art applications now; I wanted my students to be able to participate in art the same way their typical peers were, but they didn't have the fine motor ability.
There are art apps now where you can do everything on the iPad virtually. I'm sure Android has these devices too, but I'm not as familiar. There are iOS apps where you can do art, record yourself, every stroke you make if you're painting or drawing. The teacher doesn't have to look over your shoulder and give a kid, who already is nervous about doing something that they haven't been able to do, more anxiety by breathing down their neck to see what they're doing. You can record every move they make and then later, on your own, the teacher can reflect on their student's work. They can watch the video and see what went well, where they're making mistakes, develop lessons and, further instruction.
That's just one example but there are so many applications that are available, and everything is practically for free these days. The iOS platform makes a push for education-based applications. There's a whole Ed store, you know, in the iOS store app store. But not just on the iPad, as far as classroom technology, there are websites like Schoology or ClassDojo. I think we talked about Animoto supporting what we were doing in the classroom; they helped us put on PGs for teachers for free, which was awesome.
These course management tools that are free to teachers have just changed the whole way that teachers who are using technology. Everything is gamified. Everyone has a badge, an avatar and they're leveling up as teachers. (laugh) It is great because it increases participation. The more people participate in a community; the more new knowledge is brought to that community.
RB: It's nice to connect the dots to see how more and more people are gravitating towards technology, enjoying it, and integrating into the classroom. So, Neil, how about your story? You're pursuing your doctorate at Pepperdine University; you're continuing to advance, and I think it's a great illustration of the flexibility in the education profession for people who want to continue to grow and apply their skills to different areas of education.
It's such a great message for young people to be able to say, "You know what, education is an option for me when I'm thinking about a future career." Do you ever step back and look at that? I think that part of it is, for many years, there was a poor effort in marketing all the amazing things that could be achieved in education. I think young people have bypassed it because they didn't think it was cool or as flexible as other professions. But, your story, to me, is a symbol of what you can do if you have the passion.
NV: Definitely, I couldn't agree with you more. I was one of those people. I worked for LA Unified School District, LAUSD as soon as I graduated high school in the after school program for youth services Beyond the Bell. I was an after school coach in an elementary school, running sports activities for kids. They decided to add in an educational, academic component to the after school program which was a very good idea.
I wrote a grant and participated in a program with 150 microscopes. I was 18 years old that time, going around to schools, three days each, with another co-worker of mine. We dressed up as scientists, in cheap lab coats, and we talked to kids about DNA and RNA. We did cheek swabs, and it was super cool. Most kids in LA had never seen a microscope. I grew up with microscopes, telescopes, and wanting to know about science. It was an eye-opener to me at age 18.
I loved working for Beyond the Bell, but I did not have any ideas on my mind about being a teacher. During that time I worked for them, many years, educators in the district and principals would always tell me, "Hey, you should be a teacher, man." My generic answer back was, "How would I be able to support my family?" There are no opportunities in education. All you would hear about is teachers are underpaid. I kept at it and started my own private tutoring business and still people would say, "Hey, you should be a teacher. You should be a teacher." I would say "I'll never be a teacher" – but here I am.
I will always be a special education teacher whether I am in the classroom or not, this was my path. But I always wanted to be a pediatric oncologist. I had childhood leukemia when I was four years old, and there was nothing else I wanted to be other than a pediatric oncologist. So, if you asked me when I was in first grade, and I would have told you I was going to be one.
But I couldn't stomach it. When I got into school, I was doing well academically, but I could never stomach anything bloody. I thought, "Hey, you know, I want this so badly, I'm going to get over it." But I didn't. I was down about it and felt, "Hey, there's nothing I want to do."
I stayed in school; I got degrees, but I just didn't have a direction. I was doing the private tutoring business; I was working for LAUSD on the side. I was a substitute teacher in Mulholland School. I was a sub there for a long time, and I passed a lot of state tests so they would have me, and they placed me here or there. But I wasn't a credentialed teacher, and then I stumbled into special ed class when I got bumped out of a science class.
Over the winter break, the principal called me; my wife was pregnant, our first baby was on the way, and she kept getting laid off every year as an elementary teacher. So, I said, "Yeah, any job is a good job for me." And so I went into this class, and he's like, "I'll get you a gen ed job after this semester." I ended up loving it instantly. It was what I thought it would be like to be a teacher, where kids wanted to come to class, they're enthusiastic to learn. It was not like in middle school; they're not always excited about coming to school. (laugh)
I was like, you can make a difference here, and I saw it like being a pediatric oncologist, in a way. I was told, "Hey, you know what, you're never going to be a runner. You're never going to be a soccer player, or you're never going to do this and that," because I had chemotherapy and I had my artery tied off at my leg to get treatment, and they said, I was never going to be a long distance runner. So, I ran marathons; I played soccer, and I just was always like, "Hey, the odds are against you. You don't have to take no for an answer." I mean, that was my family thing. I didn't take no for an answer, and if you want to do something, you can do it. That's why I wanted to be an oncologist; I was like "Hey, I will work volunteer at children's hospital in LA, and I would say, "Hey, you know, I had chemotherapy; look at me, you're going to make."
I did the same thing in special ed. I knew everything that happened to my life took me here for a reason; I saw kids do things that I saw written down by other educators that they weren't going to be able to do. I took it upon myself to want to change the culture in special education, and I was doing a lot of social media when I saw the success that my students had using technology.
It wasn't me; it was the access that they were given in the learning model for the first time, access learning tools or communication tools. I wanted to spread the word on to parents because that's the biggest way to spread the word. If the parents try something, that you say works, they will be all over it with support. I've been fortunate to get a lot of support from parents, not for me but the idea of accessibility through technology and equity through similar tools.
If students have the right tools, they can learn. That's been my mission. I was the guy who said, "I'm not going to be a teacher," and now I've become a gen ed teacher, then a special ed teacher. I did the entire teacher training; I was offered a lot of consulting work to do teacher training at schools and education conferences. It was so powerful for me because I would feel better off being a teacher every time. Everyone who was there wanted to be there. They were enthusiastic, and it's different than doing professional development, where people are forced to be there, it's a lot different.
RB: I think it's amazing. It's a testament to the human spirit, especially in education. To be able to hear your story and share your journey, is very, very powerful. It's important not just for those in education, but also for young people when they're looking at different challenges. They can work hard towards overcoming their challenges and then apply it to education.
Well, Neil, it was so great to catch up with you. Hopefully, it won't be a couple of years, and we'll be able to catch up on a more regular basis so that people can hear all the great things you're doing. Thanks again, Neil.
NV: Great. Thank you.
Neil Virani is a Teacher Adviser, LAUSD Human Resources Division. He has also held the position of special education teacher at William Mulholland Middle School. He has developed a blended instructional learning model that infuses traditional teaching methods and tablet technology into every area of the curriculum. In 2012, Neil received the LAUSD Board District 3 Technology award. Currently, Neil is developing a Writing curriculum for the LAUSD Special Education Alternate Curriculum department and continues to share his successes at education conferences all over North America.