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Special Education: What they don’t tell you

I recently had a call from my niece, she is about to complete her degree in Primary Education and was considering adding a Masters in Special Education, she wanted to know “was it worth it?”

To be qualified to teach Special Education you’ll need to extend your course beyond the traditional teaching degree. You’ll need to study units like, Inclusive Education, Communication for Learning, and then specialised courses that teach you about teaching students with Autism or other complex needs. I have been a special education teacher for 20 years now, though the call made me wonder, given the chance to go back and do it all over again – “was it all actually worth it?” 

Teaching special education is a niche, and highly challenging speciality in an already rewarding industry; and for those students considering it – I implore you to consider the following characteristics of the job, because it is not for everyone.

The paperwork is intense:

All students need structure to succeed, but special education students need it more. Whether you are teaching mildly dyslexic, severely handicapped or intellectually disabled students, you need to provide the class with a physical and academic structure conducive to learning. This is at the heart of teaching special education.

Over my 20 years of experience, I can’t begin to tell you the number of Special Ed teachers I have spoken to who have uttered some variation of the following thought,  “I love working with these kids…but the paperwork is burning me out”.

The paperwork that goes along with each and every identified student is intensive.  Specialised forms exist for getting permission to evaluate a student, invitations to attend meetings, an evaluation report (and the paperwork that is completed to go into that evaluation), a notification for the recommended placement of the student, and more.  As a case manager for each student in your care – you are often responsible for all of it.

You are going to become very involved in your students’ lives:

A good special education teacher communicates.  They communicate with the students, their parents, their other teachers, their therapists, and on and on.  With all of this, often comes knowledge about their students’ lives that is deeper than you’d get if you simply taught them a subject for 50 minutes a day.  This can be a wonderful thing, and also a very emotionally draining thing.

I have helped students work through issues with their friends, parents, even their therapists!  I have helped ease parents’ concerns and helped families work together. I have had parents call me or email me late in the evening with concerns about their children’s reactions to something that happened through the day.  I’ve had students confide in me things that I wish I hadn’t heard.  As a special education teacher, you are often signing up to be a much larger influence in a student’s life than simply a specialised maths or english teacher.

When I was in university I was toying with the idea of working in the social work industry and did a class in it. I remember my lecturing telling us that once in the field you will need to learn to isolate your work from your emotions. It may be a simplistic comparison, but teaching as a special education teacher is the complete opposite. For those children you are such an important factor in their development as a learner, as an individual  – and for that reason, so often you become the cornerstone of their lives for the year you teach them. Many parents will respect your weekends, your weeknights and your holidays, but in those times they do reach out with questions for insights about their child, a good special education teacher will always be on call. This can be hard.

It can be isolating:

I have worked in both schools that are purely focused on special education, and mainstream schools that have specialised classes for children with  more complex needs. If you work in the latter, working with a small population of the school’s students often means that you might not be interacting with the majority of the students or teachers. Dealing with the day to day needs of your class means that you may not have the opportunity to build relationships with other teachers, and this can be challenging.

A sense of humour is vital:

Some auditory learning disabilities, injuries and other handicaps make special education students awkward communicators. Having your own well-tuned sense of humour will lighten your days and invigorate your teaching of special education students. Regardless of their disabilities, your students can sense when you are enjoying them and their personalities. So as a teacher, you can never afford to be having a bad day. They will be so acutely aware whether you are ‘present’ to them and their needs, and this can be challenging at times. Having a calming, positive sense of humour is one of the primary characteristics of a special education teacher.

And finally, the great moments are better than just ‘great’:

We become teachers because we love inspiring young people to love learning. We love our subject matter and can’t wait to show our students how interesting it is. All of us love that “a-ha” moment when a student’s world expands just a little bit because of something we have taught them.  As a special ed teacher, I have found that those moments are even more phenomenal because, sadly, often the students (and their parents) are not sure they are capable of learning.  When you help a student who thinks they can’t learn to achieve things far beyond what they ever dreamed possible – you feel like you can fly.  It’s amazing, for them as individuals, for their family and their friends.

When a parent tells you with tears in their eyes that they finally feel like they have someone understands and is fighting to help their child, or when that child is able to start having meaningful interactions with other children, or when they are able to address behavioural issues through new communication strategies, or are able to learn a new concept, it is more than just a good feeling – it is phenomenal.

Not everyone can be a good special ed teacher, but for those who can –  is it worth it? Without a doubt. 

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