When Bennett County School District teacher Sunny Pierson noticed about two years ago that her district had a need for more special education teachers, she wanted to know how she might be able to help.
Pierson likes to gain new perspectives in her teaching, having taught kindergarten, first grade and social studies at the middle school level over the course of her 10-year career.
Her superintendent told her about the special education alternative certification option that had recently become available through South Dakota’s 2017 overhaul of educator certification rules.
Pierson jumped at the opportunity and is wrapping up a year-long practicum facilitated by Deb Zebill with the University of Sioux Falls. The practicum has allowed Pierson to get hands-on special education experience while maintaining her regular full-time responsibilities in the district.
“It [practicum] brings teachers together who are all going through the same process,” Pierson says. “Deb will do observations to give us insight. We look at research to help with curriculum and strategies, work on writing IEPs, make sure we’re meeting all the standards, understanding the legal issues, those day-to-day kinds of things.”
Last summer, Pierson took a course in special education law, and after completing two more courses this summer, she will be ready to take the appropriate exam to earn her certification.
"Special education teachers are hard to find for any district in the state, and being rural, it is even harder,” said Bennett County Junior High Principal Belinda Ready. “Given this opportunity for our own teachers to go through the alternative process enables us to keep good quality teachers in our district to work with students with whom they already have background knowledge, relationships and history. It is positive for everyone."
“I wish I could go back in time because this knowledge is so valuable,” Pierson says. “As a [general education] teacher, you always see some kids who struggle, but I just didn’t really have a great understanding of the different disabilities kids have and how they impact their learning. Even if you are not in a special education position, the perspective is amazing.”
“USF has established criteria allowing for teachers to gain first-hand experiences with the many demands placed upon special education teachers, including paperwork, evaluations, research-aligned practices, identifying students’ individual strengths and needs, and so forth,” says Deb Zebill. “They have the opportunity to feel supported as they learn on the job from the resources through USF, mentors in their schools, and their colleagues taking the class with them.”
Pierson is enjoying adding yet another kind of teaching to her repertoire.
“I love the relationships I get to build with students, because in special education we spend a lot of one-on-one time together,” she says. “At the middle school level, building confidence is a big part, letting them know it’s okay that maybe something is a little harder for you, but you have these other areas that are your strengths—owning that, taking responsibility, and advocating for yourself.”