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One Teacher's Path to Special Education

Teaching special education

Anyone who wants to know how to become a special education teacher can find most answers through courses, research, and practice. But what about the factors that draw teachers to special education in the first place, and how do you know if teaching special ed is a good fit for your teaching style? Some of these deeper questions were on my mind as I emerged from a special education annual meeting to determine the progress of a student.

I attended the meeting with the assistant principal, the student and her parents, the school psychologist, and the special education teacher. I was part of the meeting because the student was "mainstreamed" into my class, meaning that she was taking regular English class with support from her special education teacher. At the end of the meeting, I was struck with admiration for my special education colleague—her candor about the student's progress, her tact, her patience, her respect for the student and parents, her optimism about the student's future.

As we headed for lunch, I said to her, "You do such a great job at these meetings—especially talking to the parents—and I've often wondered what draws teachers to special education." I then explained that I had a good understanding of what it took to be qualified to actually teach, but I was more curious about what drew her, and other special education teachers, down this path. Here's what I learned through our conversation.

The Path to Certification

"Actually, I kind of came in the back door," she said. "My bachelor's degree is in sociology, but I've always been interested in working with people who have disabilities." She went on to explain that after college she worked for a business that sponsored a blind bowling team. "I volunteered to help with the program, and I really enjoyed it," she said. "Shortly afterward, I got a job at our local vocational school, not as a teacher, but as a special education aide." She helped the kids with their academic work but also went with them to their job sites. "I just really liked making a difference," she said.

We sat down at the lunch table. "So did you decide to just quit your job and go back to school for special ed?" I asked. "Not exactly," she answered. "My parents died unexpectedly and left me a small amount of money—enough to pay for graduate school at the state college." She explained that she thought to herself, "Why be an aide when I might be able to be the teacher?"

"It took me almost two years," she continued. "I didn't have any teaching credentials, so I had to take all the special education courses, as well as complete my field placements and student teaching—but it was worth it." As soon as she got her certification, she was able to land a job working with cognitively impaired high school students.

What It Takes to Be Successful

"So you knew right away it was a good fit?" I asked. She shook her head. "Not really. The class was self-contained and the room was as far away from the main office as possible. One day, I was late leaving the building and ran into another teacher a few doors down. He asked if I was a substitute but I'd been there for five months!" she laughed.

I told her that her situation sounded lonely for both her and her students. I asked what helped her to keep going. She explained that around that time, the school—actually, the entire country—began to change its attitude about special education. Rather than placing special education students in self-contained classrooms like hers, the focus shifted to the least restrictive environment. Kids were then mainstreamed into regular education classes if they could handle them with support.

"Some teachers were great and very accepting, but others felt that if a student couldn't handle the regular education class without help, they shouldn't be there," she said. "But over time, things really improved."

I told her that I admired how well she worked with her students and asked her what advice she would give to teachers who are interested in teaching special education. "To me, it's a good career for people who are not judgmental," she said. "I don't feel sorry for my kids. I respect what they can do and who they are, especially given some of their challenges."

She advises special education teachers to remember to have realistic expectations for their students. "Some people work really well with special ed kids because they understand the challenges that kids face," she explained. On the other hand, she noted that some teachers just aren't right for teaching special education. "If you see your role as a teacher as primarily being a purveyor of information, it won't work for you," she said. "You may need to explain things many times in numerous ways, and if the kids don't understand, it's a reflection on you, not on them. If you don't have that kind of patience and don't like expecting the unexpected, it's not for you."

"But it's definitely for you?" I asked. "Yes," she said. "It's definitely for me." I think her mom and dad would be proud of her decision to become a special education teacher.