I recently heard someone I respect say that anyone can teach special education. I have been a special education teacher for 18 years in K-5th grade. This is not just my job, my career. I look at it as a calling. So, this naturally bothered me. My first thought was..."then why aren't all teachers special education teachers?"
I have known many teachers in my career, which, in my opinion, would make great sped teachers, but they still needed me. Needed my expertise.
Being in an introspective mood anyway, I’ve been contemplating why I chose to be a special education teacher. What does it take?
I remember being in Deanna Mendenhall’s 3rd grade class at Central Elementary, Sand Springs, Oklahoma, USofA. We would go down to the basement room that was the self-contained special education room. The teaches would have to take students from their wheelchairs and carry them downstairs to the classroom. Our class would read to the kids. How varied were the students. My special friend was a girl who was blind. She would sit and rock back and forth as I read to her. I think her name was Laura. I thought she was beautiful. And, I was hooked.
Special education teachers must be familiar with all aspects of the disabilities in the make up of each and every student we work with, from intellectual disabilities that are congenital to those that are a result of harm. There are physical disabilities, health conditions, sensory disorders, mental illness and more. Imagine a caseload of 35 + students!
We then have to take all aspects of the child and apply it to the education setting. Figure out what’s best. This model looks different for each and every child. Each class, each teacher, each subject, each building, at home, in the community. How does it effect? How can I help? How can I advocate? Not only for the child, but teachers and often siblings, and parents as well. Is this a child who needs me occasionally? Do I need to be in the classroom, pull them out to see me? Co-teach? Provide modifications and accommodations within the regular classroom setting?
Then, I must involve others. Specialists…occupational, speech/language, physical therapists…social workers, counselors, audiologists, behavior specialists, school psychologists…to name a few. Utilize school nurses, Educational Assistants. (and find time to train them) Be familiar with psychological and psycho-educational assessments, how to read them, how to implement them, how to explain them to parents in layman’s terms. I must be able to seek outside help for support as well. I have to know people who know people. We must know about assistive technology and how to adapt reading, math, science, social studies curriculum, music, PE, computer… life skills, social skills….
Keeping up with the ever-changing landscape education (endless requirements of an inept bureaucracy), disability research, best practices, assessments, progress monitoring. The countless hours of preparation, working with other teachers, developing lessons for the students you have in your room, modifying lessons so they can be successful when they aren’t with you. Tracking down teachers’ lesson plans, knowing every schedule. What do you do with a child who can’t eat in the lunchroom because of anxiety? Autism? Are they being bullied.
Did I mention isolation? Feeling like people don’t like that you are bucking the system because you have a child who doesn’t ‘fit’ in the grand scheme of things? Working with a small number of students’ means you don’t get out much. You’re on an island unto yourself much of the time. Not to mention you get left out of staff decisions, get very little in the way of money for your classroom, and are often placed in the most remote recesses of the building. The feelings at times are so overwhelming it is often difficult to grasp the immensity of this path I have chosen.
And, then the paperwork! You must know your district requirements, State and Federal law. Manifestation determinations, Functional Behavioral Assessments, Behavior Plans, Individual Educational Plans, lists of forms you on which must be proficient, because they ARE legal documents…. You must know how to make an IEP not just a document that stays in a locked, fire proof file cabinet, but, taking it, turning it into a living document that keeps everyone involved with that child on the same page, working toward a common goal.
Did I mention patience? EVERY child on your caseload is a challenge. You must balance their strengths and weaknesses. You balance their relationship with the teachers. You must be able to start with plan A and go to plan Z within the course of a lesson. Then, pick someone else’s brain after school for another if that doesn’t work. You are called on to put out every fire, either with administration, advocates, teachers, parents, or other children. I have been bitten, kicked, punched, called evil words. I have sprinted to catch a runaway child. Restrained out of control children. I have changed diapers, pushed wheelchairs, and wiped boogers. I have fixed lunches, tested blood sugar levels. Held them when they are hurting. Cried when they cried. Always remembering that there is a reason this child is acting this way. Always trying my damnedest not to take it personally, but failing miserably in the attempt.
My goal has always been to make my children (and I’ve always referred to them as My Kids) successful in this LIFE. To make them feel valued and accepted. To make them feel that they are special, and that they can do it!
I am so much more than an over-paid tutor! I’ve been known to obsess over a child, a problem I couldn’t solve, conflict with other teachers, who are my friends, regarding a child. I go to bed thinking of the situation, even dreaming of what to do.
I live for those light-bulb moments with my students. I live for the challenge of finding the thing that makes it all come together for this child that God placed in my hands to advocate for, to educate.
Has it been an easy calling? Nope. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. My kids have made me pull my hair out, laugh through my tears, and above all appreciate the little triumphs in life.
Now, dear administrator, tell me. Can just anyone be a special education teacher?