Meet TEP’s Julianna Lopez: On becoming a special education teacher during COVID-19

Monday, November 2, 2020
Julianna Lopez

What is it like to be a student teacher during a global pandemic? We caught up with one of this year’s TEP candidates, Julianna Lopez, who is pursuing an Education Specialist Credential with a focus on Mild/Moderate Support Needs, to learn more about how she is navigating this uncharted territory.

GGSE: What has your experience been like as a teacher credential candidate this fall?

Julianna Lopez: Initially I was not excited about online learning, but it’s been a lot better than I expected. I’m amazed by how much I’ve learned so far. My professors have been giving us a nice balance of synchronous and asynchronous work, which I’ve really enjoyed. Obviously, it can be awkward sometimes because you are just staring at each other, but overall I’m really enjoying the program. Also, moving up to Santa Barbara has helped make it easier to form relationships with others in my cohort.

GGSE: How has online student teaching been going?

Lopez: Teachers are still getting comfortable with distance learning. They’re not experts yet. So I think it’s important to have perspective on this experience. I’ve found it helpful to seek out additional resources online and attend webinars about distance learning. Additionally, it’s been eye-opening because I see how the job of a special education teacher is not just teaching. There are other duties such as scheduling, communicating with parents and teachers, IEPs, and much more.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed working with my Cooperating Teacher, who has given me a lot of opportunities to try out what I’ve been learning in class. For example, we’ve been learning about systematic instructional plans in my special education course. It’s a 20-step plan for a specific student which shows their current levels and where we want them to be by the end of a year. Even though we won’t be working with these same students for a whole year, it’s great to be able to have the experience of developing a long-term plan and setting long-term learning goals for a student. With that in mind, I try to develop all my other lesson plan assignments to compliment the instructional plans. It feels like what I’m doing with students isn’t just a school assignment--it’s purposeful and has meaning in the context of their long-term learning goals. I like being able to see how all of the pieces from my classes come together.

GGSE: What’s it been like to teach 4th graders online?

Lopez: Obviously, it would be better in person, especially since a lot of the students I work with have attention difficulties. Our school has made it a requirement that students have to have their camera on, so that makes it easier to make sure they’re on track. In the beginning, I mostly focused on forming a relationship with my students and having good rapport. I also try to make  our time together as fun as possible. I’ve been working hard on trying to make class activities  feel more like a game, which is easier to do in math. Instead of having the attitude of “let’s just get through this worksheet,” I’ve been working on making my lessons game-based. I’ve  also found that it’s very important to give students opportunities to socialize with their peers because that’s something they're really missing out on. Overall, I think students are actually happy to be there. And sometimes they even ask to stay longer!

GGSE: You had experience working with students prior to grad school. Did these experiences inform your decision to pursue a career in special education?

Lopez: I worked at a Learning Center for the Kumeyaay Nation in an afterschool program. The students I worked with were performing below grade level. I worked closely with one student who was in a reading intervention program. This was my first experience working with a student with reading difficulties, and it inspired me to look further into special education. I really loved working with a student one-on-one and being able to slow down. I think the general education environment can sometimes feel very fast-paced. In the special education environment, you’re able to slow down and focus on what the student actually needs.

GGSE: You graduated from UC San Diego with a Bachelor's degree in Sociology/Social Inequality.

Lopez: My studies at UCSD definitely shaped my perspective and is what really drove me to be an education. Of course, I love working with students, but in addition to that, my coursework helped me understand how education is integral to addressing social inequities. Personally, I have seen the power of education in my own life. My parents had me at a young age. I watched my mom get her bachelor's degree and observed the profound impact that her educational achievement had on my life and the resources that became available to us. If we can empower students to realize what they are capable of and determine their own paths in life, then that gives them an opportunity to break the cycle of generational poverty.

GGSE: What’s something you’re enjoying right now?

Lopez: I was excited to take advantage of the recent MasterClass deal for students--one dollar for a year of access for anyone with a .edu email address! It's been so fun. I love to cook so I’ve been watching Gabriella Cámara and of course, Chef Gordon Ramsey. Besides that, I try to bring mindfulness into my day with meditation and journaling which really helps me keep my mind clear and maintain focus.