So You Want to be a Special Education Teacher…

19 Apr

This post is prompted by Rob, who left a comment where he said he was going to get his Master’s in order to teach special education. Two of my paras are currently working towards the business, albeit at a lower level and slower pace. Princess is actually just trying to get a B.S. knocked out, so she can get her foot in the door. I think she’s taking something along the lines of nursing management or something. She’s still in the core part of it, with math, history, English, psychology and such. Coach is working on the community college level, getting an associates in early childhood before moving on to a more focused program. Patience has an associate’s in something, and I’ve encouraged her to make a move to go back and finish a B.S. before she has to pay for her own daughter’s college. These three have seen enough to see the reality of the job; the good, the bad and the ugly. The fact that Coach and Princess are still keen to go on is a testament to their dedication to the cause. Not that they haven’t had cause for doubt at various times. Sometimes the ugliness gets me scratching my own head. “What was I thinking?”

Special education is actually a fairly broad field. The good news is that if you get burned out of one area, you can move over, or down or between areas. For instance, I got my feet initially wet with learning disabilities and then moved on to EBD, before landing in with the severe and profound. Settings can also vary a LOT. Within EBD alone, I served in a self-contained setting in a regular school, and then served in a psychoed and then for a few years in a psychiatric hospital. Most of these were on the high school level, although I did teacher younger kids in the hospital as young as 5. Don’t ask me how a 5 year-old gets into a psych hospital. You don’t want to know. But one thing is certain: opportunities abound. Job security for a fully certified special education teacher is pretty much a done deal. But it’s important to be mindful of this: there’s a good reason for that job security.

According to the article linked in my last post, the attrition rate for special education teachers is hideous, and more than twice the rate of anyone else in education. While math and science teachers can be lured out by better opportunities elsewhere, special educators are more often driven out by the workload, the high liability and just the general stress of dealing with a population that is there precisely because they stress regular education beyond its tolerance. Fully 50% of special educators that begin teaching this fall will leave within 5 years. 50% of those remaining after the first 5 years will leave before they have done 10 years. So you basically have what looks like a 75% turnover every 10 years. But even this does not reflect future need as more kids are being diagnosed with developmental disabilities, including the pervasive ones like autism.

One reason I’ve survived the stresses and pressures is because I am always planning for a change. That doesn’t mean I necessarily carry it through, but I’m always looking. I expect change, and am up for dealing with it. Being able to cope with change is such a key part of this business. One reason Mr. Pyle is constantly depressed and frustrated is because he deals with change very poorly. He wants things to stay the same all the time. But it never does. Ever. Things change and change is hard.
Georgia’s services are not what I would call outstanding, but they hold their own against most other states. Remember the U.S. congress has never ever met their obligation of covering 40% of the funding for special education. They have never even funded it at 20%. NCLB is going the same way. Get used to it.

I might not have gotten this far into special education if I hadn’t become a parent of a person with special needs. That extra fire in my gut seems to be a key to my resilience and determination. Is pure dedication good enough? I don’t know. To put this in perspective, it’s important to note that Princess has three younger adoptive brothers with special needs. Coach has dyslexia and went through school with an IEP. You see a bit of a thread running through here? I’d like to think I could still do what I do as well as I do it without having to be so intimately involved with exceptionalities. But that’s nonsense. It’s just part of who I am. I think all teachers who make it past 10 years are there because they are called to it. This seems especially true for special education, where many start out trying to answer the call, but few are actually fully ordained into it.

Many of my colleagues in both regular and special education have come up to me and told me they couldn’t do what I do. I used to think that absurd since so much of what I do isn’t especially rigorous. At least not intellectually compared to the folks doing regular ed stuff on the high school level. But I have come ‘round to seeing that there is something more to it and not everyone can do it and not everyone should do it. And I’m not sure I’ll always be doing it.

I admire those folks looking to get into this business of special education. It is not getting any easier and I don’t see the trend reversing any time soon. One has to be a bit of an oddball to get into education nowadays, and this is doubly so for those coming into special education. If you’re a skilled oddball, we really need you in special education! If you’re not very skilled, go learn and acquire the skills you need. Learn to be observant, take and keep data, train and supervise your paras, communicate with parents, use research-based methods and do your own research. Oh, and try to keep ahead of the paperwork. Love the paperwork. Embrace the paperwork. Become one with the paperwork. How hard can it be?

dick

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8 Responses to “So You Want to be a Special Education Teacher…”

  1. Rob April 30, 2006 at 2:00 pm #

    Thanks for the post. I am not sure as of yet if I am called to do it or not, but I am committed to becoming educated in the best manner possible before I begin teaching. Teaching is hard enough as it is, I am not sure how people can go into it being unprepared.

  2. Melissa June 25, 2007 at 12:21 am #

    I want to say thanks for an honest overview. I have had the “call” after my own personal experiences and am still baffled by the lack of real information about teaching it there really is. Again, thank you.

  3. Mela April 22, 2008 at 6:49 am #

    Hello Daniel,

    Thank you for the candid perspective on what it takes to be a special educator; currently, I am enrolled in a special education teacher preparation program. Also, thank you for sharing your insights, not only as a professional, but as a parent of a child with special needs. Both are invaluable roles.

  4. Mela April 22, 2008 at 6:52 am #

    (correction: parent of children with special needs!)

  5. calliemae September 3, 2008 at 8:25 pm #

    It is nice to see some positivity when it comes to special education. Being in the major I constanly here “oh wow, why would you do that?” or “don’t you know the statistics for special ed teacher quitting?” yes i know what they are and I actually have a passion for it. I am most certaintly not taking the easy way out of college, and I hope I don’t become a statistic. I even see it at college, the professors are telling us to think it over, well here I am about to do my internship and I have thought it over and regardless if i wanted to change majors i couldn’t (but i still wouldn’t). I want to learn as much as i can and have the expeirence i need when i go into the school system. And yes i know i won’t totally be prepared for the real world but at least I will for sure know how to write an IEP, thank god

  6. Tandy October 5, 2008 at 8:48 pm #

    Teaching in a SPED class is tough. Nothing they teach you in college ever really prepares you for teaching, in either setting. I would gently encourage anyone who was interested in doing SPED to see what more it would take to gain both reg ed and sped certification. It usually isn’t much more, and you may appreciate having the option later. I started out in New Mexico as a sped teacher. Then I moved to Arizona and taught reg ed for 5 years. I have gone back to sped because I saw a need for a good teacher and felt that I was needed more there. I love teaching, there are some days I shake my head and wonder what was I thinking, but then I have a great day where a student comes in and says “I like it in here, you teach me lots of things.” out of the blue and I keep my warm fuzzy close for the next day I am wondering what I am doing here. It’s not a perfect system. The children are imperfect, the parents are demanding and also imperfect. The expectations placed upon us are huge. The documentation and proof of effort on our parts is unreasonable at times. Yet, I can’t think of anything else I would rather do. Call me crazy I guess.

  7. Nicole October 6, 2008 at 7:15 am #

    Thank you for this. I am currently completing my general education courses before declaring whether or not I will choose Elementary Education or Special Education as my major. I know it will be very difficult and already wonder if I will be up to all the stresses that the SPED classroom brings. I also wonder if it will be even more rewarding to know that I am making a difference in those children’s lives… Thank you again for your honest and heartfelt post.

  8. Daniel Dage October 7, 2008 at 3:51 pm #

    I just want to thank everyone for your comments on this post. It does help on those days when I slap myself in the head and wonder what I ever got myself into! My advice for you who are preparing to go into special education is to *also* prepare for some facet of regular education, whether it be a subject area or elementary education. I see more and more merging between the two areas and the days of there being two entirely different systems are numbered, except in the areas of those with the most severe disabilities (which is where I presently live). Having both credentials will do nothing but help you in the future.
    D.D.

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