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5 Things I Wish I Had Known Before I Became a Special Education Teacher

Meghan Mathis

Things I Wish I Knew Before I Became Special Ed Teacher

A good friend’s mother called me the other day.  Her youngest daughter was debating getting a teaching certificate in Special Education along with her elementary education certificate.  It would mean another six months of school – but she wanted to know whether I thought it was “worth it.”  I told her without hesitation that it was, absolutely, a worthwhile investment.  A Special Education certification makes you far more hirable than an elementary certificate alone.  With school districts all over the country facing growing budget deficits, anything you can do to be more attractive to the school districts you’re applying to is a smart idea.  This is what I had done and I know that many times I was only able to find a teaching position (my husband was in the Air Force, so I had to look for a new position every three years or so) because of my Special Education certification. But once I hung up I found myself thinking about my experience as a Special Education teacher.  If given the chance to go back, would I still sign on for the role?  What have I learned that I wish I knew then?  What would I tell someone just starting out as a teacher for those with special needs? 

It can be isolating…

Working with a small population of a school’s students often means that you might not be interacting with the majority of students and other teachers in your building.  Dealing with the day-to-day needs of this population, their parents, their paperwork, attending the meetings that go along with the job, can mean that there often isn’t a lot of time to get to know the people who work in your building.  It can be isolating and that can be hard.

The paperwork is intense…

I can’t begin to tell you the number of Special Education 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.  Specialized 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), an Individualized Education Program (IEP), a notification for the recommended placement of the student, and more.  As a casemanager for a student – you are often responsible for all of it.  That means keeping up with anywhere from one to sometimes thirty or more students’ files, making sure their meetings are held on time, ensuring that everyone who is required to attend those meetings does, and keeping track of it all in case the worst happens and a parent decides to take the school to due process or court. 

You’re 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.  I have helped students work through issues with their friends, parents, etc.  I have helped ease parents’ concerns and helped families work together.  But it can also be a challenging thing.  I have had parents call me or email me late in the evening.  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 teacher of English, math, science, or social studies. 

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Often you’ll have to be the mediator (whether you want to be or not)…

The role of Special Education teacher is a complicated one because there are so many different jobs you may be asked to do.  You may be asked to co-teach.  In that situation you’ll be thrown into the classroom of a professional who has been teaching successfully for years and often isn’t thrilled at the notion of now having an additional teacher “sharing” the role with them.  It will be your job to make that relationship work, show them how you can make the lessons even more successful, and how the two of you will be better together than he or she might have been on their own.  In other cases, you’ll have to explain to parents why the accommodations they want for their child aren’t appropriate or you might have to advocate for your student, challenging your administration to provide the appropriate services for the child.  You’ll have to help regular education teachers work with identified students in their classes and you’ll have to help your students learn to communicate their needs and frustrations to their teachers, parents, and others.  And when you’re doing all of this while teaching classes of your own…it can feel a bit daunting.

Wow, that's quite a list...
As I sat back and looked over my list I got a bit concerned.  Did I really have nothing but negative things to say to people considering joining me as Special Education teachers?  If so, why was I still doing this job?  While I believe that everything I wrote above is accurate, I also realized that I left out the final thing that I’d tell anyone considering becoming a Special Education teacher.

The great moments are absolutely phenomenal…

Most of us become teachers because we love inspiring young people to love learning as much as we do.  We love our subject matter and can’t wait to show them how interesting it is or we love elementary-aged students and look forward to harnessing their endless energy into learning.  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 Education teacher, I have found that those moments are even more phenomenal because, sadly, often the students 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.  And there are other phenomenal moments.  Like when a parent tells you with tears in their eyes that they finally feel like they have someone fighting for their child, or when a regular education teacher thanks you for helping them work with a student.  For me, it was when a student said to me, “I know that my science teacher wants me to love science and my math teacher wants me to love math, and that’s great, but you want me to love learning everything – and that’s why I know I can come to you for anything.” 

With moments like that…how could I even think about doing anything else?  

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